Despite sterling work over the last three decades with such luminaries as Johnny Hodges, Lou Donaldson, Jimmy McGriff and Stanley Turrentine and a baker's dozen albums on his own since 1973, talented Pittsburgh-based guitarist Jimmy Ponder has yet to receive his due. The guitarist clearly recalls Wes Montgomery because he too plays the guitar with his thumb, a difficult technique that yields a warm, pretty sound. But the problem is that Ponder (or his producer) never seems to know which bag to stuff his style in: straight jazz (last year's James Street on HighNote), funk (his ABC LPs from the late 70s) or soul-jazz. Even the six discs he recorded for Muse between 1987 and 1994 suffer from the same problem.
Steel City Soul is a worthwhile collection that gathers ten tracks Ponder recorded during the Muse years. It's a reflection on the talents of a guitarist who deserves the recognition two of his contemporaries, Melvin Sparks and fellow Pittsburghian George Benson, already receive. But this collection seems weighted too heavily by tunes that vie for considering Ponder as Montgomery's heir (from mid-tempo pieces like "Johnny's Place," "My Romance" and "All Blues" to ballads "You Are Too Beautiful" and "This Bitter Earth"). Each tune sounds great, benefiting from Ponder's terrific performances. But the focus on Wes detracts from the joy of Ponder's own interesting, story-like constructions. And Ponder's essential take on Montgomery's "Bumpin' on Sunset" (1988) is inexplicably missing here! A stronger Ponder collection would have featured more of his funk (only the excellent "Mean Streets-No Bridges" is represented here) and more originals, like the nice Kenny Burrell-like solo piece, "A Tribute To A Rose." Even so, Steel City Soul is a good place to start becoming familiar with the interesting work of Jimmy Ponder.
Tracks:Johnny's Place; All Blues; You Are Too Beautiful; Solitude; Mean Streets-No Bridges; A Tribute To A Rose; Uncle Steve; My Romance; This Bitter Earth; I Only Have Eyes For You; Softly As A Morning Sunrise.Collective
Collective Jimmy Ponder: guitar; Geary Moore: rhythm guitar; Houston Person, James Anderson; tenor sax; Bill Saxton: flute, tenor sax; Mark Soskin, Benny Green: piano; Big John Patton, Lonnie Smith: organ; Peter Washington: bass; Roger Humphrey, Victor Jones, Greg Bandy, Winard Harper, Eddie Gladden: drums; Sammy Figueroa, Lawrence Killian: percussion.