The Acatama Experience
The career of French violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, 64, is a tale of two lengthy phases. By his early 30s, he’d played with his hero Stephane Grappelli; recorded and toured with the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Frank Zappa, and put an exclamation point on a 15-year solo career by recording his 1977 masterpiece Enigmatic Ocean. On his latest CD, The Acatama Experience, Ponty looks back to this youthful growth period, if only for a few minutes.
Guitarist Allan Holdsworth’s signature legato soloing on “Point of No Return” recalls the Enigmatic Ocean supergroup (Holdsworth, guitarist Daryl Stuermer, keyboardist Allan Zavod, bassist Ralph Armstrong and drummer Steve Smith). The rest of The Acatama Experience largely recalls the latest 30-year phase, during which Ponty transformed himself from an important cog to the wheel itself.
Other than a funky, modernized cover of Bud Powell’s “Parisian Thoroughfare” and keyboardist William Lecomte’s “Euphoria,” all compositions are by Ponty. Guitarist Philip Catherine guests on a few tracks, like “Back in the 60’s,” where he aids Ponty in making a different homage to the past. The violinist has a long-standing core band (Lecomte, bassist Guy Nsangué Akwa, drummer Thierry Arpino and percussionist Taffa Cissé) that’s arguably his best during the second stanza of his career. But they primarily serve as setup men for solos by Ponty, who even performs “Desert Crossing” and the title track unaccompanied.
When other players get involved, as Akwa does by soloing on the jig “Celtic Steps,” the mood brightens. Ponty started using programming, effects and sequencing to backdrop himself during the synthesized 1980s, a trend he’s continued ever since, despite his ace French and West African bandmates. The cover of The Acatama Experience reads “Jean-Luc Ponty & His Band,” something that applies more in theory than in practice.