You've probably heard the phrase "vacation for your ears" used on your friendly neighborhood smooth jazz station right before they play the song you heard while you were waiting to see the doctor for some dreaded test, or visiting the IRS office to settle on back taxes you owed. Soundtracks to life in the real world and the annoyances that come with it don't constitute a vacation. For that you need something that is different enough to not carry the baggage of the everyday. Pat Metheny has always been the best at this, luring into his musical world the listeners who usually settle for much safer fare. For those lucky enough to hear him, Jean-Luc Ponty does the same thing. His new release, The Acatama Experience, is a journey that stretches from the streets of Paris through Celtic turf, from Bombay to South America. It parallels his travels during the year he spent creating and recording this music. As you listen, your own visualizations may supersede the places named in the titles. That's what inspired music should do. This is complex music with roots in contemporary jazz, progressive, and fusion. It flows so elegantly it puts your imagination in motion, loosens your shoulders, and sets you up to shed your emotional business suit.
Ponty is a contemporary jazz heritage artist, and one of the most inventive. Classically trained and originally headed toward a career as a straight-ahead jazz violinist, he started experimenting with amplification and the electric violin as a way to make the instrument louder so the audience could hear it. From there he found himself moving into jazz-rock territory at a time when electric violin solos were showing up on progressive rock albums. He played on Frank Zappa's defining jazz rock mutation "Hot Rats" and toured with him in the early 70s. He also toured with Mahavishnu Orchestra and played on two of their albums while beginning to settle into a solo career that would span decades and genres. He is best known for the furious playing and electronic effects that dominated his work in the 70s and 80s, but in the 90s he began to explore world music influences and more organic sounds. On this CD, he updates and resets elements from all those phases and steps into new territory. "Desert Crossing," which was inspired by his visit to the Acatama Desert in Chile, is the first song he has recorded as an unaccompanied instrumental on acoustic violin. It's a stark, haunting showcase that veers from gypsy violin to dissonant jazziness and classical interludes. The desert inspired title track starts out with heated layers of synthesized notes and birdlike sound effects. "On My Way To Bombay," "Premonition," and "Point of No Return" recall Mahavishnu's melodic themes with a 21st century sensibility. The changes and momentum are there without the jangly distortion. The way guitar hero Allan Holdsworth combines speed with precision and clarity during his solo on "Point of No Return" is stunning. This track's vibrant energy segues into the bluesy and loose "Back In The 60s.” "Still In Love" and "Euphoria" are built around melodies that feel instantly familiar while Ponty and the band bend and stretch them to their most fascinating boundaries.
The Acatama Experience is a band-oriented project. This is a group of musicians that have been playing together for several years and their chemistry and improvisational skills are evident throughout. All of them get extended solos, often trading off with each other while Ponty's violin shifts to the background. "Celtic Steps," as speedy as an Irish jig, gives bassist Guy Nsangue Akwa a workout. Percussionist Taffa Cisse's presence lends a world beat flavor to even the most fusion leaning songs while drummer Thierry Arpino is often mixed upfront, sustaining the momentum while the other musicians improvise. William LeComte's keyboard and piano work are one of the albums biggest highlights. He plays with strength, lyricism, and economy. This is most obvious in the ballads - the pensive intro to the piano violin duet "Last Memories of Her" and the major to minor shifts in "Without Regrets.” Ponty is reunited with one of his early band-mates, jazz guitar virtuoso Phillip Catherine, on three songs. In "Still In Love" he melds Metheny-ish cool with Montgomery style octaves. He drops a guitar line in the middle of the band's swing meets funk adaptation of Bud Powell's "Parisian Thoroughfare" that manages to be traditionally jazzy and funk-infused at the same time.
In the world of pop, rock, and contemporary jazz, the violin is mostly seen as a quirky presence - from the 60s progressive bands like “It's a Beautiful Day” to Scarlett Rivera's dervishy presence on a Bob Dylan tour, Michael Urbaniak and Jerry Goodman push the instrument to its semi-screeching limits and Turtle Island String Quartet's eccentric arrangements. Valerie Vigoda has brought an almost Ponty-ish flavor to “GrooveLily” and Regina Carter has built a solid reputation in the jazz world, but Ponty has always been the trailblazer and the innovator – the one who most effectively takes it out of the novelty zone and expands the language of possibilities for it. It's been almost six years since he released a studio project, and the timing was just right for this one. Fans are getting restless with too much homogeneity and starting to seek something more. The 14 songs on The Acatama Experience are exactly what they are looking for. It's different enough to catch you off guard but so fascinating and captivating you'll find yourself returning to it over and over again. It really is a vacation for your ears.
- Shannon West