| discography : solo |
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reviews | (pittsburgh)
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MY GUITAR GENTLY WEEPS
Guitarist Jimmy Ponder made his solo debut in 1974, after nearly a decade on the New York scene, with WHILE MY GUITAR GENTLY WEEPS, a genuinely pleasant but unremarkable showcase for his wonderful talents. Complying steadily to the fusion formula prevalent in jazz at the time – with electric accompaniment, percussive enhancements and well-tempered strings arranged by CTI stalwart Bob James – the album suffers from what sounds like an attempt to dress Ponder's talents and facility up like Creed Taylor might with Grover Washington, Jr., Esther Phillips or any number of other CTI/Kudu acts of the period.
Side one over flows with the usual and requisite pop-rock cover tunes; in this case, those by Ben E. King, Chicago and the Beatles. The title tune gets an unusually fuzzed-out performance by Ponder that probably led to it becoming something of a latter day break-beat hit. Ponder then explores two jazz standards, including a surprisingly slowed-down take on "Poinciana" (ironic, considering his reputation elsewhere for revving up old jazz warhorses).
The album's long closer – and probably its best moment – is Ponder’s "Peace Movement". Here, Ponder overdubs himself on multiple guitars, digging deep - and well - into the George Benson bag (think "Ode To A Kudu" or even "Breezin"), inspired by some of Bob James's most impressive string arrangements on record.
Mostly, Ponder sticks to what he does best here – front and center, spurred on by Bob James's luxurious strings and occasionally too-easy listening horns – although it's clear that Ponder doesn't really need (or probably does not want) the pricey overdubs. A pleasure to report, though, that Cadet actually put the money in to this session – unlike so many records during that time that tried, and failed, to capture, the CTI sound. It’s still a nice showcase for the guitarist, who (more than three decades on) has never recorded the album he was meant to record.
This 1976 record finds Jimmy Ponder moving closer to what he does well as a player. But, overall, it’s yet another example of the guitarist’s lack of command as a leader. The guitarist’s second album under his own name abounds in strong, melodic playing and funky rhythms. Ponder also commendably explores more originals than usual here. But there is an unfortunate attempt to spice up the proceedings by wah-wah washing Ponder’s sound on the bluesy “Funky Butt” and the fun “Do It Baby” (with a bridge that recalls “Affirmation” from George Benson’s hit album of that year, BREEZIN’) and sending “Energy III” on a furious speed-fusion spin similar to Pat Martino’s explorations of the time. It detracts from the somewhat enjoyable tunes he could have otherwise stamped as his own and lessens the real accomplishments to be heard here: Ponder’s own “Jennifer” (named for the guitarist’s daughter), bassist Ron Carter’s own “Sabado Sombrero” and the occasionally interesting title track. These few performances are enhanced remarkably, of course, by Ron Carter’s signature collaboration, another example of the little-celebrated simpatico the bassist shares with many other guitarists. It’s also the first of those too-few performances the guitarist and the bassist made together. These collaborations make ILLUSIONS absolutely worth hearing and would make a much more essential companion to the other collaborations Ponder and Carter made several years later, heard on PONDER’N.
The last of Jimmy Ponder’s three records produced by Esmond Edwards – and one of the last albums issued by the original Impulse record label – 1977’s WHITE ROOM is a slick, well-played and well-performed collection of the guitarist’s conceptions, still, unfortunately, in search of a context. In a bit of poor programming, the guitarist famed for his funk chops, opens the record with – pardon the unintentional pun – a ponderous vocal ballad (“If You Need Someone To Love (Let Me Know)”); although his vocals share many traits with those of fellow-Pittsburgh native George Benson, whose popularity at the time is undoubtedly the reason behind the hopeful hit heard here. It can only go up hill from here and, fortunately, it does. Ponder contributes four mildly interesting originals that keep the fires burning, including the chock-a-block funk of “Easy” (which fades just as Ponder gets going), the fusion funk of “Bro’ James” (featuring the guitarist’s most interesting playing here) and the breezy “Quintessence” (to these ears, an aural postcard of Pittsburgh, and probably one of Ponder’s stronger compositions). Ponder again chooses an outdated rock anthem to give the album its title, plugging in the wah-wah pedal (like Eric Clapton on the original, inspired by Jimi Hendrix) but, not unlike his treatment of 1974’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” ups the funk ante quite nicely and gets a worthy breaks-beat hit. Similar to many soloist-plus-accompaniment recordings of the period, the supporting small group – buoyed by Blaxploitation master Johnny Pate’s strings on three tracks - leaves little in the way of any impression. But they do a reasonable job making the leader sound good. Despite these several worthy performances, it just doesn’t add up to the memorable occasion it should be.
After recording three albums with Jimmy McGriff, guitarist Jimmy Ponder was signed by McGriff’s “landlord”, Sonny Lester, to record for the LRC label (formerly Groove Merchant). At the time, the label was in the thick of heavily-orchestrated CTI knock-offs that courted the disco market (LRC was then owned and distributed by Florida disco-meisters, TK, which was reaping millions from dance classics by the likes of KC & The Sunshine Band, et. al.). This one – featuring a beautiful cover photo by CTI’s in-house photographer, Pete Turner – is another one of Lester’s recordings of the period overseen by guitarist Lance Quinn and arranger Brad Baker. On the whole, it’s a surprisingly good effort. Ponder (featured with vocalists on the first two tracks, both weak, then-recent covers of pop tunes by Boz Scaggs and Chaka Khan/Rufus, respectively) is really heard to good advantage, backed by an army of New York session players. There is a mild disco flavor to the proceedings, but Ponder adjusts his funk focus to the new groove and succeeds winningly overall. None of the tunes is particularly memorable. But Ponder’s playing is singularly individual and well-considered throughout. It’s not the best clothing for the emperor, but he wears it quite well nonetheless and Quinn and Baker give the guitarist plenty of room to play without drowning him in effects. No originals here, but it doesn’t seem to bother Ponder much as he whips off one good line after another on such middling, yet compatible Quinn/Baker concoctions as “Love Will Find A Way,” “Chasing That Face,” “Love Me Right” and “A Trip To The Stars” (featuring a distinctive trombone solo from Urbie Green, himself a CTI artist around that time). The entire album was issued on the now out-of-print 1991 LRC CD titled JIMMY PONDER, with three added titles originally featured on Ponder’s next – and last – Lester production, PONDER’N. Overall, though, ALL THINGS BEAUTIFUL is one of the most memorable of all of Jimmy Ponder’s recordings.
Jimmy Ponder’s association with organist Jimmy McGriff brought the guitarist to LRC Records in the late 1970s and then to Milestone Records in the early 1980s to record two albums (both, unfortunately, without the organist) with McGriff’s producer at the time, Bob Porter. This is the first of those two records. By this point, veteran producer and “acid jazz” legend Porter had his post-funk production technique down pat and churned out ho-hum, no-funk albums like DOWN HERE ON THE GROUND on a regular basis. Although Porter productions got even more banal in the post-Ponder 1990s, a note on this album’s back cover indicates that Jimmy Ponder considered this record “his first real one”. Overlooking such purple product puffery, there are certainly aural signs that Jimmy Ponder was kind of in his element, as much as Porter forced it upon him. Several otherwise funky tunes (Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”) are jazzed down here and thoroughly drained of their funk, but still somehow launch quasi-interesting solos by pianist Mickey Tucker (who has recorded with Ponder in the past), Houston Person-sound-alike Arnold Sterling (on “Billie Jean” only) and, of course, the guitarist himself (who is unfortunately attached to some wah-wah device on the Michael Jackson song). Ponder gives another of his George Benson-like vocal performances on the bare-essentials title track (which Benson himself covered on his 1976 album, BREEZIN’). But it floats by rather unnoticed. The real stand outs here include the earthy original “Another Kind Of Love” and an especially wise selection of jazz standards (a wonderful and playful “Epistrophy”, the solo “Lush Life” and the liveliest cut of all, “My Funny Valentine”). While the rather esteemed accompanists don’t make much of an impression here (another nod by another producer to those Creed Taylor-produced Wes Montgomery recordings?), it is, however, interesting to note the presence of Paul West, another of Jimmy Ponder’s bassists like Chris White, who is a former Dizzy Gillespie sideman (nearly unheard percussionist Mino Cinelu, who was famed for his stint with Miles Davis at the time, would play with Dizzy less than a year later). No other connections are really in evidence here. But these connections tie the guitarist to the jazz lineage more forcefully than such mostly lackluster productions as this record ever will; as evidenced by the fact that this album, and the one which follows, has never become necessary to find its way onto CD.
The title alludes to aspiration as much as resignation, maybe even a little of both. The music here does too. Not terribly out of character, for the bounty of boredom-bounding-for-better-things music that producer Bob Porter has churned out over the years (this is the last of his two Ponder productions, though the two continued working together on future Porter-produced sessions for Jimmy McGriff). SO MANY STARS goes both ways. The three songs Ponder performs in a quintet with Lonnie Smith surprisingly fail to register, despite a funk-by-the-numbers, another ill-considered Benson-styled vocal ballad and a lethargic reggae take on the then-popular “Caribbean Queen” (that benefits by a nice Smith solo on piano). Things pick up a bit when the quintet changes out, replacing Smith with Kenny Werner on keyboards. In this setting, Ponder delivers a solid Latin-lite piece titled “When I Think Of You,” a souled-out “Higher Ground” and a smooth urban chill for Sergio Mendes’s oft-covered title tune. At the very end, Ponder delivers the album’s single best performance; his own “Brenda”. This is the way Ponder was meant to be heard: in a simple setting, where his graceful and beautifully considered ideas are allowed to gather their drama in a story-like manner (not unlike the way fellow Pittsburgher Stanley Turrentine would pull off in his best solos). Ponder would head this direction as he went over to Muse Records several years later, a move that would (knowingly?) take him from the stratosphere that previous producers attempted to assimilate or launch him into. A good move, all in all.
Guitarist Jimmy Ponder’s second Muse recording dates from 1988 and features a particularly strong and cohesive organ-based sextet (with nearly undetectable rhythm guitarist Geary Moore), helmed by the leader, organist “Big” John Patton and tenor player James Anderson, another in a long line of Houston Person-sound alikes. The playing is consistently strong and swinging, particularly from the leader. But it all comes across as another one of those many well-recorded but generic straight-ahead jazz dates Muse put out during the late 1970s to the early 1990s. That means it all sounds good while you’re tapping your foot, but there’s not much to drive you running back to this music. Ponder hits a few jazz standards (“You Stepped Out Of A Dream”, “My Romance” and “In A Mellow Tone”), a blues (“Stormy Monday” – which features his George Benson-like vocals) and four originals: “I’ll Always Be There”, “Blues For Betty”, “When Love Comes My Way” and the title track. It’s all good – but hardly memorable, though the lovely take on Ellington’s “In A Mellow Tone” comes close.
By the early 1990s, guitarist Jimmy Ponder was trying to escape his organ-funk notoriety and sought to express himself on his own recordings in “straight jazz” settings. While this move probably went a long way to prove Ponder’s jazz credibility, it did just as much to push away those few who long supported his music. SOUL EYES is one of those little known and long forgotten recordings in Ponder’s discography which might surprise his detractors. It is pretty much a straight jazz recording, yet it’s one of his funkiest and certainly one of his strongest solo recordings. This 1991 session, which was not issued until 1995, benefits by a particularly good group including the (occasional and not necessary) tenor sax of Houston Person, the bass of Peter Washington, the drums of Victor Jones, the always wonderful percussion of Sammy Figueroa (who was always better recorded by Muse than the overbearing Larry Killian, who figured on so many of the Muse sessions from the 1970s) and, most especially, wunderkind pianist Benny Green (also working with Person around this time). Pianist Green is an especially adept – and surprisingly simpatico – partner for Ponder. As a result, this is probably one of Ponder’s very best recordings, and it’s mostly due to the soulfulness Green consistently brings to the program. Ponder covers a bevy of jazz warhorses (“All Blues”, “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” “You Are Too Beautiful” and the Mal Waldron title track), some surprising tunes taken at a soulful strut (“Kansas City” and Leon Thomas’s “Sun Song”) and a strong Ponder original (“Love Can Be A Lonely Place”). A good menu, good playing and, all in all, one of Ponder’s strongest recordings.
The last of Jimmy Ponder’s five Muse recordings made between 1987 and 1994, SOMETHING TO PONDER feels something like a chore. This quartet session, featuring veteran Mark Soskin on piano, Peter Washington on bass and Ponder’s fellow Pittsburgher, Roger Humphrey on drums, is certainly un-taxing in any way on these jazz veterans. They all do a competent job – but certainly don’t rise to any occasion. The tunes are all arranged to be just this side of snoozy. But the program and the performances barely even rise to professional – indeed, the leader barely sounds like himself. I’m not sure what anyone was trying to prove putting the Ellington’s boring wedding band standard “Satin Doll” next to a watered-down cover of the pointless – and regrettably well-liked - “The Creator Has A Master Plan”. There’s not much here that bears repeated listening, other than the all-too-brief solo at the end of it all (“Sunshine”), where the leader sounds more like himself than anywhere else in this mess.
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