Every now and then elements come together to create something special. This is a prime example. Some of Ponty's best compositions feature, played by a killer band. Ralphe Armstong, arguably Ponty's funkiest ever bass player, locks down the bottom end with the young Steve Smith on drums and provides a rock solid basis for the front line to blow over. Bringing in Allan Holdsworth (who never toured with Ponty) was an inspired move which only serves to drive regular guitarist Daryl Sturmer to greater heights. It isn't all flash though - as I say, the tunes work well in context even if mid 70s pitch wheel antics from keyboardist Allan Zavod have dated a bit. Did I mention the violin playing? Never better! All in all, great stuff and it sounds as if all concerned had a ball.
This was my album of the year way back in 1978, during my second year at Uni, when I must have played it I don't know how many dozens of times. Got it down off the shelf a couple of weeks back as car music for a drive down to Cornwall, and had one of those driving bliss experiences that come around from time to time. I have once more been playing it daily since. As I've got older, becoming more of a classical head, I've become very fussy about what jazz fusion I listen to these days, but this stands up there with the best of the best. Everything Ponty did before it seemed to be leading up to it, and nothing that came after it, at least what I've heard, came close. It is the perfect combination of superb, flawless and sophisticated compositions with one killer solo following on the heals of another, from a band, each member of which is at the top of his game, and is operating as a geometric sum of its parts. As I say, it is the compositions that lift this to a level above the typical improvisatory fireworks fusion album. With essentially three songs and two long form epics, there is a unity of mood and colour that creates a strong impression of a single flowing opus, with everything in just the right place. At the bottom is the highly imaginative drumming of Stevie Smith, always keeping the music on its toes with sudden, critical shifts of accent, yet without ever becoming overly obtrusive. Alongside is ex-Mahavishnu bassist, Ralphe Armstrong, who sustains an impeccably smooth yet propulsive funk beat. Alan Zavod's stunning keyboards do dual service with gloriously colourful orchestral washes, and sizzling solos. It's hard to believe that he was making these noises barely ten years after the arrival of the commercial synthesizer, yet he's finding ways of using it that are never cranky or lame, and producing sounds that were quite literally beyond imagination. The triple front line is Ponty, Alan Holdsworth and Darryl Steurmer. This was back at a time when Stephane Grapelli's description of Ponty as the finest jazz violinist in the world carried some authority. I can't help but be sad that, to my ears at least, Ponty was to subsequently lose the will to sustain that edge. Steurmer's solos provide a wild and blistering American frontier staccato contrast to Holdsworth's strangley eldritch and spidery croonings, as well as adding to the high energy funk groove with some highly flexible rhythm work. As a die-hard Holdsworth fan I would have to treasure this album whatever else was going on with it, but this is one of those cases where Holdsworth is only first among equals. After the sustained high-speed pyrotechnics of the Soft Machine Bundles album, he now demonstrated his wonderful gift for combining rippling legato speed with other-worldy melodic grace.
I will give this a few more plays before it goes back on my shelf. Then I do not know how long it will be before it comes down again. But I am sure that when it does it will sound just as fresh, and ripe, and bursting with brilliant sounds as it does today. This is an album that will last a lifetime.