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Jimmy Ponder: Steel City Soul

AAJ Staff By

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Producer Lance Goler calls Jimmy Ponder one of "a handful of players who can hold a torch to Wes." Some would laugh, but there are a number of parallels. Jimmy plays with his thumb, and, like Wes, spent a lot of time playing guitar- organ "bar music". While Blue Note and Prestige recorded this music extensively in the 'Sixties, in the 'Eighties it was Muse; few others were doing it. This "best of" covers six Ponder albums for Muse, made between 1987 and 1994. We get plaintive solos and big names, but mostly we get the sound of smoky back-rooms.

We know what we're getting from the first track, "Johnny's Place". Title and tune sound like a bar; it's a gritty blues, heavy on attitude. Ponder's first solo is single-string blues playing, his second full of Montgomery chords. We then get a version of "All Blues" where the theme is never fully stated. While not heard, the theme is sure felt, first by Ponder with Wes chords, then in a brief piano bit by Benny Green, lastly by Houston Person and his authoritative horn. It's five minutes long and seems gone in a moment.

Next up is "You Are Too Beautiful" and here Ponder's tone gets liquid, sounding like Kenny Burrell in spots. It's nice to hear a change in mood mirrored by a change in tone. With "Solitude" comes our first track with organ (the redoubtable Big John Patton) and a flute, hardly a staple of bar music. It trills delightfully among Patton's chords, delicacy mixing with strength really well. Ponder's solo jangles nicely, single strings melting into chords. Flutist Bill Saxton picks up his his tenor, and we're back in the bar. The guitar gets tough, and the organ grinds mighty chords. This track, "Mean Streets - No Bridges" sounds for all the world like late "Sixties funk-jazz. For fans of the organ sound, this is high praise indeed.

Ponder's compositions are simple and effective. He gets tender and intricate on "Tribute to a Rose", an unaccompanied solo. "Uncle Steve" is a powerful blues with a memorable intro; Patton goes crazy on his solo. This and "Mean Streets - No Bridges" are the best tunes here. For the type of music Ponder plays, these tunes work very well, and you can play them all night. I'm sure he does.

The disc ends with several standards played very fast. "My Romance" sounds VERY much like Wes, not just in the tone but in the way Ponder's solo is constructed (akin to "Full House".) "Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise" is far from soft, and sounds like night time. Saxton's tenor returns for "I Only Have Eyes For You", which is swing on the theme, pure barroom on the solos. Saxton scores big, and Patton goes through the roof. It's a spirited ending to an attractive album.

The notes mention that Jimmy Ponder is eager to come to New York, to promote his new album and to return to the club scene. This would be welcome; guitarists this fiery are hard to come by.


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