As mentioned awhile back, the year 1978 remains a pivotal annum no matter how you slice it. Politically, nationally, or personally, the ’70s would only continue throwing various haymakers at the body electric from the start and through to the close of this very year. No different musically, come to think of it. My future bride’s favorite guitarist, Peter Frampton, was nearly killed in a car accident in The Bahamas at its midpoint. So, a work like Cosmic Messenger and a Jazz Fusion talent like Jean-Luc Ponty shouldn’t surprise.
As pointed out by Richard S. Ginell in biography for the violinist in Allmusic:
“It has been a long, fascinating odyssey for Jean-Luc Ponty, who started out as a straight jazz violinist only to become a pioneer of the electric violin in jazz-rock in the ’70s and an inspired manipulator of sequencers and synthesizers in the ’80s. At first merely amplifying his violin in order to be heard, he switched over to electric violin and augmented it with devices that were associated with electric guitarists and keyboardists, like Echoplex machines, distortion boxes, phase shifters, and wah-wah pedals. Classically trained, with an unquenchable ability to swing when he wants to, and consumed by a passion for tight structures and repeating ostinatos, Ponty has been able to handle styles as diverse as swing, bop, free and modal jazz, jazz-rock, world music, and even country, mixing them up at will. Starting in 1977, he also pioneered the use of a five-string electric violin with a low C string. Undoubtedly, he rivals Stéphane Grappelli for the title of the most prominent and influential European jazz violinist.”
The midpoint point of this turbulent decade was where I entered my jazz fusion period as a music listener. Along with the various saxophone and keyboard artists that gathered much of my time (and creating mixtapes around), the most intriguing instrumental pairing of all with this jazz, funk, and R&B euphonic, in my mind, was the violin. Credit my eight grade Music Appreciation teacher for that proclivity since her music lessons still rung in my ears, then and now.
As it happened, I’d discover Monsieur Ponty during the same period as the late Noel Pointer and his fusion stylings with the same electrified string instrument. Jean-Luc’s tended toward a more concerto-like approach, as with his Imaginary Voyage and Enigmatic Ocean albums that preceded this, than Noel’s more funky and fun mixes. Whether you’re into such “suites” of classical music, the experience was now amplified and enlivened with the blending of music elements, now at full tilt.
Only had to be aware of Steely Dan and others permeating FM airwaves back then to know what was steeping in their veins.
Still, scanning the album stacks of the local record shop that summer for “jazz violinists”, I’d have grabbed Cosmic Messenger1 even if it wasn’t in that category simply for its album art alone. Claudia Ponty, Jean-Luc’s spouse and muse provided many of the cover art concepts for more than a few of his LPs. This among them, with Daved Levitan credited with painting that elegant front that caught my eye with its suggestion of extraterrestrial Japanese artwork.
Little wonder that my initial exposure to a jazz violinist like Ponty came with this album, which has remained my favorite of the artist ever since. The “Cosmic Messenger” title track opens this with a violin, guitar, and synth-heavy arrangement that lets you know immediately what you’re in for. Introduced its audibly swirling European-jazz-rock sensibilities to all curious enough to drop a needle upon this wax. Electric guitar aficionados would find enough string vibration to welcome them to most here.
Yet, I think Jean-Luc’s less frenetic instrumentals were where its heart was really at. “I Only Feel Good With You” and especially the tune I call out here, “Ethereal Mood“, are the album’s most haunting. Where his amplified violin has its most voice-like quality, one that has stirred listeners even before there was electricity. That yearning, mournful tone that tugs at the heart, especially for those who’ve lost something or someone over the years. Blending the fragile and the exotic into a wonderful confluence of sound.
If Noel Pointer’s surprisingly upbeat and unusually hopeful violin cover to Stevie Wonders’ Superwoman buoyed me that same year Cosmic Messenger was released, after my mother passed away, the sheer rueful beauty of “Ethereal Mood” can bring me right back to that time. Need only hear Allan Zavod start to tickle the keyboard, Casey Schelierell tap the hand drum, and Ralphe Armstrong’s distinct baseline to head back there. Right before Ponty’s slow bow pull places mom’s casket again in my hands.
The mood and I slowly walking her up that hillside one last time.
Music can do that to you, no matter how many decades pass by. The album would be the second most popular on Billboard’s Jazz chart that year, even reaching as high as #36 on the Pop Album’s. Jazz Fusion as an art form had a way with its fans. A mix of spellbinding rhythms with enough thundering finger-boarding to entertain the funk or rock enthusiast alike. And yet, display a way with the unearthly, like Jean-Luc Ponty’s “Ethereal Mood”, to transport its listeners to another place that’s not soon forgotten.
- Recorded in the Spring of ’78 for its August 10th release at Cherokee Studios, Hollywood, California, and Chateau Recorders, North Hollywood, California. Mixed at Chateau Recorders and mastered at Sterling Sound, Inc., New York, New York. ↩