Jean-Luc Ponty – Cosmic Messenger
Jean-Luc Ponty’s Cosmic Messenger was one of my first bargain bin vinyl pickups. I was persuaded almost entirely by the cover art: classic 70s psychedelia with a hint of Art Nouveau. I figured it was probably some schlocky folk-rock or early New Age noodling, but the cover alone was worth a couple bucks. Luckily for me, the music turned out to be even better than the cover.
Ponty is one of the world’s greatest living jazz violinists, and it’s almost embarrassing that I had no idea who he was before randomly buying one of his albums for its cover art. In addition to a long solo career, he’s played on many other artists’ albums: Elton John’s Honky Château, Chick Corea’s My Spanish Heart, a bunch of Zappa records. He’s still active today, most recently working with former Yes singer Jon Anderson in the Anderson Ponty Band. Ponty’s collaborators provide a pretty good indication of his sound. “Jazz” is a signifier of Ponty’s considerable improvisational chops, the dizzying runs in his be-bop-influenced soloing, and a marked stylistic departure from violin playing in classical settings. In reality, though, his music is more deeply rooted in rock, particularly 70s prog and art rock, with jazz only coming out in the soloing and a bit of chord comping here and there from his backing band.
The opening title track starts with a swell of foreboding guitar arpeggios before a Zeppelin-lite backbeat kicks in. By this point in his career, Ponty was mostly playing the electric violin, and his effects-laden solo makes a strong case for it being as powerful an instrument for rock soloing as the guitar. “Don’t Let The World Pass You By”, the other highlight of side 1, is a synthesizer-heavy jam with another blistering Ponty solo. Side 2 is weaker: Opening track “Puppet’s Dance” sounds like a Mahavishnu Orchestra reject and is easily the worst track on the album. Thankfully, it’s followed up by “Fake Paradise”, which hits hard and fast with its weird time signature groove (I’ve yet to be able to count it correctly), and “Ethereal Mood”, an acoustic piece with vaguely Middle Eastern percussion.
Cosmic Messenger is not a classic album by any means, but it’s a thoroughly enjoyable slice of 70s prog-fusion led by a virtuoso in an instrument that’s rarely found in jazz or rock settings. While I have yet to check out the rest of Ponty’s work, it’s supposedly not even Ponty’s best album. Per Internet consensus, that’s the album immediately preceding Cosmic Messenger: Enigmatic Ocean. Luckily for me (and you), Cosmic Messenger, Enigmatic Ocean, and a bevy of Ponty’s other work is on Spotify for all to stream.