Ponga,
Ponga
(Loosegroove, 1999)

Peddling superb fusion from two old hands and two relative newcomers, Ponga is everything that's right about jazz-rock and none of what's wrong about it. A quick resume: what's wrong about it is fiddly, smart-aleck compositions, pointless virtuosity and an overall sound which smooths out the rhythmic complexities of jazz and replaces them with superficial complications like playing in 13/8. None of that here.

And for the sceptics, yes, there is something right with it. The sheer, driving excitement is the main thing, and the dialectical engagement with rock, sworn enemy of free jazz, is another. Good jazz-rock didn't embrace the enemy which, at the time, was sucking money out of jazz and forcing the musicians to switch careers. No, it transformed rock into something it always had the potential to be: sophisticated and multi-layered like jazz with the density and driving duple rhythms of its opposite pole.

So here, press release comparisons with drum 'n' bass are not to be taken at face value. As everyone knows, "jazzy drum 'n' bass" is a hideous melange of loungy Grover Washingtonisms and heavily diluted breaks. Bobby Previte certainly has some jungly riffs under his sticks, but they're not the main attraction here, just as Wayne Horvitz and Dave Palmer, while they do trigger samples from their keyboards now and again, are hardly focussing mainly on that activity. No, the jazz angle isn't to be forgotten or underestimated.

Horvitz comes on like a cross between Jan Hammer and Joe Zawinul, with those sophisticated note-choices still rising above the raucous mayhem which this quartet creates. Real jazz credentials, with a smattering of contemporary dance music, not vice versa.

It's essential, having said this, to play this CD loud. Ponga has that quality which very little jazz does of using the sheer ecstatic energy of volume as a part of their sound. Live, they must surely be deafening (if not, get your money back) but this is no loud-is-good nonsense; it's just that music works in different ways at different volumes. Ponga's music, like much other decent fusion, works best when it fills your head with sound. Turn it up, and the drones and 4/4 rhythms turn out to be just the skeleton on which are hung innumerable subtleties.

This is everything which Benny Maupin's Driving While Black promised but failed to deliver, a lively and intelligent debate between free-improvised jazz (Ponga uses no compositions at all) and certain developments in dance music. To describe it as a sell-out, an attempt to garner a new audience or to make their music more appealing to the jungle crowd, is to admit to not having heard the thing. This is not going to get played at Metalheadz. While there are riffs and beats here aplenty, the overall sound is too harsh for the dance music market. Just as Miles Davis hardly cornered the disco market with Agharta, this isn't going to worry L.T.J. Bukem any. It's rude, urban, blaringly impolite. Highly recommended.

[ by Richard Cochrane ]



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