Jean Luc Ponty, one of modern music’s most innovative and influential artists, has contributed countless things to both jazz and, more specifically, to jazz violin. Ponty, a French-born, classically trained violinist, has appeared on upwards of 70 recordings throughout his lifetime and has played alongside musicians including Stephane Grappelli, Elton John, Stanley Clarke and Frank Zappa. His previous discs, many in number and well-versed in styles, have touched on varying genres, including bebop, modal jazz and fusion.
Here on The Acatama Experience, it is refreshing to hear that Ponty’s writing and playing—and that of his fellow musicians—is as strong as ever. The album was produced over a time period of over a year, and also in the midst of Ponty traveling all over the globe. This wide span of time and experience contributes to a fresh, vivid and exciting album that doesn’t fit into any specific category of jazz, but rather personifies all the elements of the art form that make it so great: The Acatama Experience shows us interaction between musicians, a wide range of influences and impressive ingenuity.
The album is inspired by Ponty’s travels during its recording, and especially his visit to the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile. The album title and title track are indeed misspelled—but it is no matter. The music speaks for itself in conveying the images that it seems Ponty intended to express. This disc is one of many contrasts, and it effectively brings together acoustic and electric sounds, and both traditional and modern influences. Where much of the album has a South American feel, largely due to the percussion, opening track “Parisian Thoroughfare” was written and first recorded by American jazz piano legend Bud Powell, and later recorded by Clifford Brown and Max Roach. To hear a challenging melody typically played by piano, saxophone or trumpet executed on violin is intriguing, and to hear changes traditionally conquered by an upright bass played by Guy Nsangue Akwa on electric bass is equally satisfying. Guest guitarist Philip Catherine’s solo is smooth and effortless, and this track is a perfect indicator of what’s to come on the rest of the album: tightness and intensity from the rhythm section, endless creativity from Ponty and an overall cohesiveness from the band.
Ponty always has been and still is a technical master of the violin. To take a traditionally classical instrument and create inventive, beautiful and complex phrases proves Ponty to be a virtuoso; this technical mastery is displayed in every melody and solo he plays. The album brings us the first solo acoustic violin piece Ponty has ever recorded, “Desert Crossing”, played on an acoustic 5-string violin (a standard violin with an additional low “C” string). Ponty himself described the piece as, “A concept that required almost as much courage from me as crossing a desert!” The result is a gorgeous work that is both technically and creatively mesmerizing. Its dynamic harmonic motion, relentless sense of rhythm and flawless execution blend into a dizzying, arpeggiated climax…and all in under three minutes. This piece alone is a true testament to Ponty’s ability to go from electric to acoustic, and master both.
It is not only Ponty’s playing that is remarkable; his songwriting capabilites are also accomplished. The ballad “Without Regrets” is straightforward but beautiful, with gorgeous work by pianist William Lecomte. A step in a different direction style-wise is the following track, “Celtic Steps”, reflecting, we can assume, travels to Ireland. Certainly one of the album’s most engrossing tracks, it features a mesmerizing fiddle-esque intro over racing cymbals. The solo sections showcase not only each soloist as individual talents, but the ensemble as a tight unit; they hit every beat and change seemingly without effort. Akwa is incredible on bass, and brings elements of both funk and jazz to his solo. On drums, Thierry Arpino lays down a cymbal-led groove that complements every solo. Here, and on every track, Arpino and Taffa Cisse on percussion are wonderfully responsive to the actions going on around them.
Where much of the album fits into more standard jazz forms and traditional chord progressions, the title track is two minutes of synthesized expressions and sounds that, according to Ponty, “evoke perfectly what I felt in the vast canyons of the Acatama Desert.” While not entirely fulfilling for the listener, a track like this is welcome as it is clearly meaningful for Ponty. The lively “Euphoria”, written by pianist Lecomte, features a lovely violin melody accompanied by momentous piano and great percussive work by Cisse. From start to finish, the underlying rhythmic current never ceases, resulting in a work of breathtaking energy.It is the closing piece, “To and Fro” that is the most compelling and entrancing track of all. Beginning with a simple piano accompanied by various synthesized sounds, it builds, layer by layer, and eventually works its way into a rich, exciting experience of intense violin melody over driving interaction from the band.
Jean-Luc Ponty, into his 60s, is still as able today as he was in the ‘70’s playing fusion with Frank Zappa. A legend in both jazz and on violin, it is exhilarating to find that his music is as original and fresh as ever. The Acatama Experience is just that: an experience, and what a wonderful one it is. It is uplifting to hear modern jazz that is at once both easily accessible and startling creative; while it is undoubtedly satisfying for its players, this experience is just as pleasing and powerful for us.