Mads Tolling Quartet – Celebrating Jean-Luc Ponty—Live at Yoshi’s – Madsman MT-02, 76:19 [5/15/12] ****:
(Mads Tolling – violin, octave violin, co-producer; Mike Abraham – guitar; George Ban-Weiss – acoustic and electric bass; Eric Garland – drums)
This year has seen some splendid jazz violin tributes. Ben Powell recently issued his Stéphane Grappelli tribute, New Street, and the Mads Tolling Quartet now provides another fine jazz violin tribute, Celebrating Jean-Luc Ponty – Live at Yoshi’s, a 76-minute outing taped at the prominent Oakland, CA jazz venue on May 30th, 2011, which includes material written by Ponty, tunes associated with Ponty, and Tolling originals which pay homage to Ponty. Ponty is an artist who has worked in bop, swing, free and modal jazz, jazz-rock, world music and country. Several of those facets of Ponty’s career are exhibited on this fine 13-track release.
Tolling is no stranger to the violin’s comprehensive possibilities. He is a long-time participant of the Turtle Island String Quartet, a group which has displayed inspirations as broad as Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane and others. On his own, Tolling has also investigated neo-fusion’s spacious scope on his previous record, The Playmaker (which includes Radiohead and Led Zeppelin renditions). During Celebrating Jean-Luc Ponty, Tolling expands his musical palette with material by Ponty, John McLaughlin (Ponty was in the Mahavishnu Orchestra), Stanley Clarke (Ponty and Clarke were in the Rite of Strings trio and Tolling has been a part of Clarke’s band), Nat Adderley, Frank Zappa (Ponty was briefly associated with Zappa) and more.
During his lifetime, Ponty has performed with a diverse number of musicians, from Elton John to Zappa, George Duke to the Mahavishnu Orchestra, the Rite of Strings trio collaboration (with Al di Meola and Clarke) to Chick Corea, and released scores of various solo projects which have progressed from fusion to European lyricism to West African influences. Tolling explains in the CD liner notes that “I think it was my goal…to have a wide range of material that was closely related to Ponty…but give a new take on them.” Tolling and his San Francisco-based quartet (guitarist Mike Abraham; pianist Eric Garland; and bassist George Ban-Weiss) do not deconstruct Ponty’s music into unrecognizable passages: instead they maintain Ponty’s ideas by merging the past and the contemporary within the music. Fortunately, the quartet never copies Ponty’s tightened control over every aspect of presentation: there are no special effects which overload the music and none of the circling electronic arpeggios which have constricted much of Ponty’s work.
The concert starts with McLaughlin’s fusion treatment “Lila’s Dance,” which Ponty was involved in on the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Visions of the Emerald Beyond (1974). The cut begins quietly with graceful violin, a lightly plucked guitar, ticking drums and a touch of electric bass, gradually builds with ascending violin and around the 2:30 mark switches to a rock-braced groove fronted by Abraham’s stout electric six-string riffs which showcase his rock music background. There’s an elegiac course which runs through much of Tolling’s arrangement of Stanley Clarke’s “Song for John,” which Clarke penned in memory of John Coltrane. The tune was covered by the Rite of Strings threesome as well as the Turtle Island String Quartet. Tolling previously issued a trio adaptation on his debut, Speed of Light (2008). The new quartet translation retains Tolling’s initial vision but Abraham’s guitar adds counterpoint to Tolling’s higher register violin and when Abraham takes the spotlight he radiates a lucid, McLaughlin-like tone.
The show’s highlight is a 27-minute Ponty medley bookended by “Struggle of the Turtle to the Sea,” from Ponty’s well-regarded 1977 LP Enigmatic Ocean: that album’s title track forms the middle section of this medley, wherein Abraham echoes but does not mimic Allan Holdsworth, who contributed to Ponty’s version. The medley also includes Zappa’s King Kong, a complex piece which draws from modern classical, jazz and rock (the remarkable original can be found on King Kong: Jean-Luc Ponty Plays the Music of Frank Zappa, a recommended 1970 effort). Another memorable moment is “Bowing-Bowing,” which Ponty and Grappelli did together in the 1960s and Ponty did again on 1975’s Upon the Wings of Music. Tolling recreates Ponty’s spirited temperament and timbre, but provides ample room for Ban-Weiss (who offers a notable bass solo) and Abraham. Abraham and Tolling commingle their instruments in a fiery duet at the conclusion.
Ponty is probably best renowned for his firmly structured compositions and ostinatos, but he also knows his way through melodic ballads. For example, his recent waltz, “Last Memories of Her,” features a back-to-basics style which throws out commercialized and processed effects in favor of a natural violin quality. Tolling’s quartet preserves the tenor of Ponty’s tale about the culmination of a satisfying friendship. Tolling’s use of an octave violin helps denote the tune’s inherent melancholia. Another beautiful rendering is the sweet treatment given to Sam River’s “Beatrice,” a terrific violin solo setting. The quartet finishes with Tolling’s two-part piece “Pontyfication,” which utilizes some of Ponty’s celebrated expressiveness, his mix of rock with jazz, and an assured degree of virtuoso playing. It’s melodic, funky (especially Ban-Weiss’ deep electric bass), swinging and full of brio.
TrackList: Lila’s Dance; Song to John; Old Country; Ponty Medley: Struggle of the Turtle to the Sea (Intro), King Kong, Enigmatic Ocean, Bowing Bowing, Struggle of the Turtle to the Sea (Outro); Last Memories of Her; New Country; Beatrice; Intro to Pontyfication; Pontyfication.
This is a delightful holiday collection.