Monday, April 15, 2024

Review: Anderson Ponty Band – Better Late Than Never

For most fans Jon Anderson will always be the voice of Yes, no matter how many years have now passed since he sung with them. News that wounds had been mended between his fellow co-founder and foil Chris Squire, before the bass player’s unfortunate death due to cancer, perhaps gives them some solace. For those fearing Anderson’s own health ailments meant the world had lost the voice of an angel this recording with violinist Jean Luc Ponty’s band can testify otherwise.

Recorded live in America and subsequently enhanced in the studio (it still sounds live for the most part) Better Late Than Never is available with an added DVD version for those who wish to watch the Anderson Ponty Band perform, but this listener is quite happy with just his aural senses finding absolute pleasure.

Jean Luc Ponty and Jon Anderson photo by Cathy Miller
Jean Luc Ponty and Jon Anderson photo by Cathy Miller

Don’t get me wrong, not everything gels. Anderson’s penchant for cod-reggae surfaces here and there on tracks like ‘One In The Rhythm Of Hope’ and ‘Infinite Mirage’ and can be a little hard to take, but bass player Baron Brown keeps it on the beat with an overlap of funk and blue note ska. The former does feature some quite fantastic violin melodies from Ponty as Anderson weaves political and spiritual healing lyrically while the latter has him joking about smoking ganja in Jamaica prior to the song commencing with him in a deeper key than usual, and adlibbing The Beatles‘She Loves You’ near the end.

Wally Minko’s keyboard textures are to the fore on the brief overture of snippets that will be heard in full later during the ‘Band Intro’ and later in Vangelis mode during the slow waltz of ‘A For Aria’ where Anderson’s melody line is expanded upon in intricately exquisite directions by Ponty’s violin, but this too is a minor work.

The big guns are out for ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart’ and its rearrangement is immense. Removing the striking bombastic 80s production that brought it such attention, this here is music that a modern day Gene Kelly could dance to; the bass just placing each note precisely while a virtuous gypsy violin is in full swing and Anderson hits some incredibly high notes. But it never betrays its hook moments, ones that gave prog a more acceptable face at the time and made it a mainstream worldwide hit single.

‘Listening With Me’ shakes gently as slow classy bossa nova the likes of which Strictly Come Dancing would turn crass before merging into a splendid stirring version of the early Yes number ‘Time And A Word’ with a crying guitar amid precise hi-hat and cymbal snaps (courtesy of Jamie Glaser and Rayford Griffin respectively), all growing ever richer as Anderson invites us to go soul searching before a winding violin adapts the melody line in an imploring search of discovery, the band sympathetic to the end. ‘Soul Eternal’ blurs jazz rock and soul funk with Anderson’s voice unusually sensuous as if he were courting the very cosmos; quite lengthy it allows Ponty’s violin and Glaser’s guitar to each solo then duet with Anderson and what sounds like backing vocalists adding tonal harmonies.

The centrepiece for me begins with an acoustic guitar and piano introducing ‘Wondrous Stories’. It actually surpasses its original Going For The One rendition, with the music here at turns supporting and embellishing Anderson’s thoughtful, touching narration giving it a whole new purposeful storytelling quality; his sighs, pacing and weight of voice something not to be missed if you thought all those rumours about him losing his voice were true. Here he is a potent force. A great bubbling piano solo takes it off in new directions and Anderson’s cribbing his own scat section from the end of ‘Your Move (All Good People)’ works perfectly. As the acoustic guitar then strikes the ascending chords of ‘And You & I’ this listener begins to have one of those musical nirvana moments, the piano entering stridently and again Anderson repurposing his now decades old lyrics of hippy psychobabble to somehow move you deeper as he emotes reflectively rather. My only complaint being that the song’s over too soon.

Ponty’s violin returns to the forefront  shimmering and twirling over the vaguely eastern jazz rock of ‘Renaissance Of The Sun’, another sensuous dance across time and space before delivering a subtle virtuoso  performance during the classic ‘Roundabout’, a song played so intricately here by all the performers and then its onto a new interpretation of one of his own classics with what becomes  ‘I See You Messenger’ with Anderson’s voice so joyously sweet you’d be mistaken for thinking this some 50s doo-wop number rather than a jazz rock classic, while making a mockery that a 60+ Yorkshire bloke can pull this off when the combined forces of Take That, Boyzone, One Direction and whoever could never afford a producer to make them sound half as passable. The Anderson Ponty Band then end with the celebratory ‘New New World’ fusing classical themes with new age lyrical promise.

On Better Late Than Never jazz fusion and prog classics alike are given a new vitality through some excellent new arrangements. This is a record that should you like it then it’ll be on constant reply, and you’ll still marvel each time at Jean Luc Ponty’s playing. That stated, the musicianship is never less than exemplary and Jon Anderson hasn’t sounded this good in years.

Paul H Birch
Paul H Birch
RAMzine Senior Writer - Writer of fiction, faction and fact, has edited several newsstand magazines. He declares himself a hack for hire but refuses to compromise on the subject of music.

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