It's time for a Jean-Luc Ponty one-fer!
Back in January we covered two of JLP's albums from the early eighties at once, to examine a turning point in this French violinist's approach to jazz-rock. This time around, there's a brand new release to examine and twenty-five years later, Ponty is still effectively leveraging much of the same ideas he came up with then, and at other points of his career.
For the artist himself, The Acatama Experience is the culmination of composing and recording on and off over a 13-month period while touring with his band around the globe. Ponty wanted to make an album that was themed on his travels, playing on the vibes he picked up along the way. The idea here was to come into the studio each time with a fresh mind and with tracks that are distinguishable from each other.
For the long time listener of Jean-Luc Ponty, Acatama is the product of a band that has been playing together for at least six years and a culmination of Ponty's entire fusion career. 2001's Life Enigma marked a welcome return to the studio after an eight year drought, but his crack band was utilized sparingly. Ponty chose to play or program most of the instruments and bring in band members to help in varying degrees as he saw fit; Individual Choice seemed to be the template that he was working from.
In contrast, JLP includes his band much more for The Acatama Experience, and that's a good thing, because some of his best records have resulted from using a road-tested rhythm section. It's the the same touring band he employed sporadically for Life Enigma: William Lecomte on keyboards, Guy Nsangué Akwa on electric bass, Thierry Arpino on Drums and Taffa Cissé on percussion.
Another old trick that Jean Luc pulls out of his bag is bringing in guest guitarists for spot duty, and true to his ol' form, only the finest will do. In the past, Ponty has hired luminaries like George Benson and Genesis tour member Daryl Stuermer. This time, he brings in guys who played with him back in the heyday seventies: Belgian/English fusion heavy Philip Catherine and that electric guitar virtuoso's virtuoso known as Allan Holdsworth. The overall approach of tour band + star sessionists and just the overall sound of this record makes it more akin to 1989's consistently good Storytelling.
As if to be starting a globe trotting journey in his home country, the first song of the collection is a modernized version of Bud Powell's sunny bop classic, "Parisian Thoroughfare," complete with a mildly hip-hop beat. Here, Catherine adds a very jazzy solo, befitting the song's jazzy roots. It's a rare cover by Ponty but fits well into the overall album. Philip also helps out the buoyant, melodic "Still In Love", where he turns in a pretty, understated solo.
"Point Of No Return"—no relation to the Kansas song—is the lone appearance of Holdsworth on Acatama. With Ponty's staccatoed minor chord progressions and Holdsy's weeping lines, which, to my ears, always sounded more like a violin than a sax, anyway, "Point Of No Return" is the whole album's high point. As with his appearances on Enigmatic Ocean and Individual Choice, I could have stood for the entire album to make use of Holdsworth's axe, but then it would be hard to keep him from taking the spotlight from the leader (hey guys, how about a co-led collaborative CD sometime?).
Other tracks give the listener the full palette of Ponty's varied but always interesting compositional styles. The frenetic fiddling of "Celtic Steps" sound so much like "Jig" from Mystical Adventures, it's a virtual certainty that this was no accident. It's just as delightful sounding, nevertheless. "On My Way To Bombay" rides a sometimes-echoplexed electric violin over a 7/8 beat. The funkiest song is saved for end; "To And Fro", with a nice, syncopated groove provided by Akwa (Ponty's best ever bassist) and Arpino.
There are still a couple of exceptions to the full band format, but those serve as nice diversions this time. "Desert Crossing" is, surprisingly, the first time Ponty has ever recorded a track that features just him on acoustic violin; no MIDI electric five-stringer with synclavier effects this time. The unplugged, unaccompanied Ponty shows he's still one of the world's top violinists, no matter the setting. On the brief title track (named after the Acatama Desert in Northern Chile) Ponty does pull out that synthesized violin with effects, but it actually does sound like a soundtrack to a desert scene.
Awaiting a new Jean-Luc Ponty release is not the annual event anymore like was a quarter of a century ago, but with The Acatama Experience, Ponty has made good use of the six year layover. And, today, on the this release date, the master fusion violinist from Avranches, France gives his fans from downtown Paris to Bombay to Santiago another strong set of tracks that proves that this 64 year old musician hasn't lost his touch in the least.