Jean-Luc Ponty
King Kong

(World Pacific/Liberty)

It's always quite strange - especially so, though by no means exclusively, for those who were there at the time - to notice that an album that once upon a time was regarded as being "legendary", or "a masterpiece" (a compliment that in this case I have no trouble admitting to be a tad exaggerated), is nowadays totally unknown to the majority of those who still actively engage with music. The main point here obviously being "once upon a time", given the fact that since that time "popular music" - or, if one so wishes, "the zeitgeist" - has changed its course, so it's quite unlikely that in the current cultural climate something that's popular could include an album such as King Kong among its antecedents. Let's add that at the time of its release - though only inside a framework we could call "semi-popular music", and by no means "mainstream" - King Kong was seen as "a historical collaboration".

A "rising star" of the jazz violin, an instrument that at the time had precious few practitioners in jazz (funny to notice that it's roughly at this time that the instrumentation of "rock bands" becomes more varied, with the addition of saxophones and violins galore to the usual guitar mixture), at the end of the 60s Jean-Luc Ponty was considered to be one of the first to perform in the idiom called "Fusion", or "jazz-rock", as witnessed by his album, released in '69, titled The Jean-Luc Ponty Experience With The George Duke Trio.

Meanwhile, at this time Frank Zappa was already a central figure in "rock" music, a bizarre, iconoclastic composer and performer known all over the world. There was a lot of substance behind the image, though, as those albums released at the end of the 60s, Uncle Meat above all, made clear even to those who had not been able to see beyond the look and lyrics of Zappa's group, The Mothers Of Invention. His highly celebrated, mostly instrumental, solo album Hot Rats - a work which for the first time featured the originality and versatility of "Frank Zappa, guitar player" - confirmed his importance and reputation as an instrumentalist and conceptualist.

According to the album's original liner notes - written by one of the most famous jazz critics ever, Leonard Feather - the first impulse for this collaboration came from record producer Richard Bock, of World Pacific. Intrigued by Zappa's music, Bock visited the studio where Zappa was recording Hot Rats, and later gave him an acetate of Ponty's music. And so it was that Ponty played on It Must Be A Camel, that album's excellent closing track.

And so it was that the idea of a full collaboration was born. Hot Rats was recorded in July-August, '69, with King Kong soon to follow, though the original copies I own - also the early CD edition in my possession, on Blue Note - show no recording dates. Having a look on the Web, though, tells me that the album was recorded on October, 6-7, at Whitney Studios, Glendale, a place that was quite familiar to Zappa.

It's very fast, low-budget, sessions we're talking about (just check the title of the long, ambitious, complex work appearing on Side 2: Music For Electric Violin And Low Budget Orchestra), hence a very meticulous preparation - and long, detailed charts.

Three tracks - those whose writing is more detailed, whose development is more "controlled" - feature Arthur D. Tripp, III (a musician who as Art Tripp was a member of The Mothers Of Invention) on drums and percussion; and excellent double bass player Buell Neidlinger, among other things a tasty ingredient of pianist Cecil Taylor's propulsion on some of his historical recordings dating from the early 60s.

Those three tracks more in a "jazz" vein - as in, "theme, solos" - feature the rhythm section of John Guerin on drums, and Wilton Felder on electric bass (a fretless? according to the album's liner notes it's a "Fender bass"). (Joni Mitchell's fans are aware of his "Latin-flavoured", "ahead of the beat", figures on two highly-celebrated albums by the Canadian singer-songwriter: Court And Spark. and The Hissing Of Summer Lawns.)

Ernie Watts - a musician who's quite well-known to this day - is featured on alto and tenor saxophone on the "jazz" tracks; while on the remaining pieces, Zappa's right-handed man, and former Mothers Of Invention, Ian Underwood, is (quite logically) on alto and tenor.

In my opinion the album's real surprise is acoustic and electric pianist George Duke, who's excellent both as soloist and accompanist: "jazzy" on acoustic piano, "funky" on Fender Rhodes, Duke will become a member of the new Mothers line-up, though for a short time. He'll be back later, to become one of the most appreciated musicians of the various Zappa line-ups from the mid-70s.

The album's opening track, King Kong, comes straight off Uncle Meat. There's a fine electric piano solo by George Duke (who at the end of the solo appears to quote Don Preston's solo on Little House I Used To Live In, off Burnt Weeny Sandwich), with excellent backing by Buell Neidlinger on double bass. Then it's time for a violin solo, then it's back to the theme, with fine instrumental colours from Gene Estes's vibes.

The Idiot Bastard Son, off We're Only In It For The Money, features violin and saxophones. An orchestral-sounding start, then it's Ponty on solo violin, backed by a fine ¾ by John Guerin, with excellent bass drum hit, and a vivacious and complex bass work by Wilton Felder. This track is really a feature for Ponty, then it's time for an orchestral ending, starring Ernie Watts on saxophone.

Next track is Twenty Small Cigars, which at the time was an unreleased composition (having already been recorded, but not included, for Hot Rats, it later appeared on Chunga's Revenge). This version's overture doesn't sound too far from Thelonious Monk's Round Midnight. John Guerin on brushes, there's a violin solo by Ponty, Duke giving him the chords. There's a fine, written, transition for violin and saxophone that brings the track back to the theme.

How Would You Like To Have A Head Like That is Ponty's contribution to the session. It's a simple, "funky"-flavoured composition with a fine backing by Wilton Felder on bass. Long solos by violin and tenor, the rhythm section sounding more at ease - John Guerin especially - during George Duke's solo on electric piano, which makes intelligent, repeated use of a rhythmic cell. There's an excellent guitar solo by Zappa - his only instrumental contribution to the album appearing on the only non-Zappa track - on semi-acoustic, with those typical groups of notes alternating with bends, and the impossible-to-mistake use of the wha-wha pedal.

Side 2 features almost exclusively the long, above-mentioned, multi-episode work titled Music For Electric Violin And Low Budget Orchestra. Though it's made up of various parts (as we'll see in a moment, two themes already featured on albums by The Mothers Of Invention also appear in this composition), the whole sports a high degree of compositional coherence, with never a dull moment in its 20' duration. Ian Underwood acting as the conductor, eleven players are featured.

The piece starts with an arpeggio by Donald Christlieb on bassoon, then a melody for oboe - played by Gene Cipriano - the other winds gradually appear, then the cello. The whole sounds quite Varèse-like - and obviously so, given Zappa's known predilection for "Edgar Varèse, idol of my youth" - halfway between the orchestral episodes in Lumpy Gravy, and arias featured on 200 Motels. Percussion, drums, flute (by Jonathan Meyer, a featured instrument), violin, and pizzicato, with oboe in the foreground;

starting at 5' there's a fine "bluesy" moment starring Ponty's violin, with fine backing from George Duke on piano, who has a fine solo with excellent backing by Neidlinger's double bass; there's a reprise of the theme from The Duke Of Prunes, a track from the album Absolutely Free;

then there's a very "avant-garde" aria featuring - at 11' 19" and 12' 37" - an uncredited saxophone, which to me sounds like Underwood's;

funny thing, starting at about 13' 15" there's a moment that reminded me of Anthony Davis's more "Third Stream"-sounding pieces from the end of the 70s;

starting from 15' 07" there's a reprise of A Pound For A Brown On The Bus, which originally appeared on Uncle Meat, with violin, flute, double bass, percussion, and piano; there's a fine violin solo with a "jazz" backing from the rhythm section;

the end of the piece is a "tutti" that in a way reminds me of Gershwin, then it's time for a cadenza for solo violin, end.

A vivacious and fun-flavoured performance of America Drinks And Goes Home, off Absolutely Free, brings the album to its close, with an intelligent contrast to the long, complex work that came before; a lively piano solo by George Duke, fine work by Ian Underwood on alto and tenor; at the end the tempo accelerates, the theme almost turning into a circus fanfare.

I have to admit I had a lot of fun listening to this album again - sometimes I was quite moved. I'll remind readers that this is not a Frank Zappa album, so it's not a part of the current re-release program. The album has been released many times, in various guises, and I think it's available to this day (it's not my intention to start a hunt for it on eBay). For this review I listened to my original Made in U.K. vinyl album on Liberty Records (which to my ears better translated the studio size, and a dynamic range that nowadays is definitely not common when it comes to recorded music), and the CD edition on Blue Note from the early 90s.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2012 | Dec. 3, 2012