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Jean-Luc Ponty: Open Strings

John Kelman By

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Artists are often defined—and pigeon-holed—by the music that's had the best distribution, not necessarily their best music. Not that any of the fusion discs that Jean-Luc Ponty recorded in the mid-'70s are bad; far from it. But the music the Frenchman released, before he moved to the United States, reveals a different formative period for the violinist, in stark opposition to electrified music of Imaginary Voyage (Atlantic, 1976), the Afro-centric explorations of Tchokola (Columbia, 1991), or the consolidation of The Acatema Experience (KOCH, 2007). Still, even amidst The Jean-Luc Ponty Experience with The George Duke Trio (Pacific Jazz, 1969) and King Kong: Jean-Luc Ponty Plays the Music of Frank Zappa (Blue Note, 1970), 1972's Open Strings (MPS)—now receiving Promising Music's meticulous and loving reissue treatment—stands alone.

Contrasting the more mainstream Experience and King Kong—where a sometimes funky veneer easily foreshadowed what was to come—Open Strings is Ponty at his absolute freest, predating Polish violinist Zbigniew Seifert's stellar 1977 MPS date, Man of the Light (Promising Music, 2010) by more than half a decade. But there's more to link these two discs beyond Ponty's relatively unbridled energy which, at times, approaches Seifert's sheer modal fire on the opening "Flipping, part I"; the appearance of pianist Joachim Kuhn—capably combining the block-chord energy of John Coltrane-era McCoy Tyner with a more unfettered spontaneity rooted in the iconic saxophonist's freer recordings of his final years on earth—is the other significant connecting thread.

Despite Open Strings's clear reference to Coltrane's groundbreaking work of the mid-'60s, Ponty's quintet also brings a distinctive European sensibility to bear, with the fervent pulse of "Flipping part II" ultimately breaking down into a piano solo that finds Kühn at his most lyrical, as bassist Peter Warren's arco blends seamlessly with Ponty's long, thick notes into a first pastoral, then soaring ascension to "Part III," with one of the violinist's earliest recorded experiments with an Echoplex, lending his pizzicato intro a semi-psychedelic veneer, even as it leads to a solo from guitarist Philip Catherine that, in its silky distortion, sounds like a nexus point of Robert Fripp and John McLaughlin.

The title track swings fiercely, but with an undercurrent of impending chaos driven by Warren and drummer Oliver Johnson, as Kühn leads to a gradually intensifying solo from Ponty that pulls the 14-minute piece to an early climax. Catherine's cleaner-toned but pitch-shifted guitar turns the heat up even further, so that when Ponty reappears, pushing into his instrument's upper register, it leads to some of Open Strings' most tumultuous moments. Even Kühn's aptly named closer, "Sad Song," breaks down into pure freedom—twice—before a sudden dissolution and hauntingly beautiful coda takes the album out on a softer note.

Ponty never recorded an album like this again, moving to the U.S. shortly thereafter for greater fame and fortune, but Open Strings remains an important record, that fills in a blank in Ponty's career, demonstrating that even the most well-known artists aren't always what they appear to be.

Track Listing: Flipping part I; Flipping part II; Flipping part III; Open Strings; Sad Ballad.

Personnel: Jean-Luc Ponty: violin; Joachm Kühn: piano; Philip Catherine: guitar; Peter Warren: bass; Oliver Johnson: drums.

Title: Open Strings | Year Released: 2011 | Record Label: Promising Music/MPS

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