Wheeler residency births Anderson Ponty Band
September 19, 2014
If you've heard some familiar notes coming out of the Wheeler Opera House in the middle of the day over the past month, that's just prog-rock pioneer Jon Anderson and jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty jamming.
The Yes frontman and the jazz-fusion trailblazer have been in residency at the Wheeler for the month of September, rehearsing for their debut public concert Saturday as the Anderson Ponty Band. The upstart supergroup, funded by Kickstarter, will record a live album and make a concert film Saturday.
At a recent rehearsal, Anderson, Ponty and their four-man band were on stage at the historic theater, with their freshly minted logo on a screen behind them, working through the nuances of their new songs — a mix of rearranged Yes classics, Ponty instrumental compositions with Anderson vocals over them and a handful of original tracks they've written together.
While Anderson sipped tea and Ponty thumbed through sheet music, the six men discussed how to handle some key moments in their amped-up, anthemic reimagining of Yes' "I See You."
"Let's break it down during the 'oh-oh-oh.'"
"Do we want to break it down after the solo or groove through it?"
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"You've got to imagine the sing-along during the a capella part."
Such is the proverbial sausage-making process of a new rock entity. The friendly back-and-forth eventually cohered on a full-length run-through of the reinterpreted song — which barely resembles the track on Yes' self-titled 1969 album and includes a soaring bit of electronic jazz violin on a solo from Ponty.
Anderson sang facing his band — by turns pumping his arms, swaying like a gospel singer, sort of conducting and pointing to band members at key moments.
"That is cool," guitarist Jamie Dunlap said after the booming conclusion.
"That's a hit song right there!" bassist Baron Browne declared.
During another take, Gordon Wilder, the band's local recording engineer, proudly brandished his forearm, showing goosebumps and raised hair.
"It's been this all week," he said with a wide smile.
Over lunch during a rehearsal break at the Wheeler, Anderson and Ponty discussed the origins of their ambitious pairing.
They began collaborating in the spring, trading demos and recordings via email while Anderson and Ponty were on tour separately. Anderson initiated the back-and-forth, with a track of him singing over Ponty's "Mirage" from the 1977 hit album "Enigmatic Ocean."
"Then he sent me some of his new music, and I sang on that and sent it back," Anderson said. "We started thinking, 'Obviously people want to come see Jean-Luc's work, and they want to see some Yes work. We (can) fuse it all together into a musical evening of ideas.'"
When Anderson played a solo show at the Wheeler in March, he told Wheeler director Gram Slaton about his budding collaboration with Ponty. Slaton asked where they were going to rehearse and then invited them to spend a month in the city-owned music hall.
"I said, 'Yeah! Are you kidding me?'" Anderson recalled. "Come here and work in this beautiful building? It didn't take much to convince us."
The Rocky Mountain environs have been inspiring, the pair said, with walks along the Roaring Fork River interspersed between the daylong rehearsals. Playing on stage right away rather than in a studio in Los Angeles or New York, they said, has helped them shape their sound with an audience in mind.
The set will include new arrangements of Yes classics and of songs from Ponty's catalog, which has included stints with Frank Zappa, Elton John and the Maravishnu Orchestra. His groundbreaking free jazz made use of a plugged-in, often distorted violin in the '70s, harnessing the virtuosic skills he honed as a youngster at the Paris Concervatoire for rock purposes.
Over the same period, Anderson was leading Yes on the vanguard of progressive rock, crafting lavish, symphonic rock compositions and hits like "Owner of a Lonely Heart" and "Roundabout." Anderson's distinctly high yet powerful voice — familiar from Yes' heyday hits — is still very much intact.
"There are many musical affinities between progressive rock and jazz rock and what we have created in the past," Ponty said. "It's interesting that we can build from that affinity we have and go to a new level that we could not each go to individually."
Added Anderson: "We're not just going to play his music or my music — it's new music."
Finding that new sound at the Wheeler has taken a lot of back and forth, trading ideas and experimentation. It appears to be headed toward something with elements of jazz fusion and prog-rock, backed by rock rhythms, some African-influenced beats and occasional touches of electronica. They're putting together a show driven by long, prog-rock-inspired suites of linked songs in a style a grinning Ponty described as "progressive jazz-fusion rock."
"Everyone is mature enough — Jon, myself, the other musicians — to leave their egos at the door and serve the music to achieve the best result for the song, whether it's his or mine," Ponty said.
The notion of doing a dual greatest-hits show with two elderly rock stars was distasteful to this creative pair — they wanted to do something new.
"I knew I was never interested in just getting together to make money," Anderson said. "I want to make a fusion and see what we can do with that."
Though they were fans of each other's work and had bumped into each other in airports over the decades, they didn't have a relationship before this year and had never played together live until they met up in Aspen.
They had once, in the '80s, even chatted about collaborating. Ponty reminded Anderson of that long-ago conversation, which occurred in a chance encounter at Atlantic Studios in Los Angeles when they were Atlantic labelmates.
"I was coming out of a meeting, and you came in, and we exchanged a few words, and I remember you mentioned at that time that we should do something together," Ponty said.
"Well, better late than never," Anderson responded. "We should call this the 'Better Late Than Never' tour."
What they'll call it is still up in the air, but they plan to hit the road next spring after releasing the album and video they'll record Saturday.
Expect the crowd to be sing-along-ready. Along with locals and tourists, the audience will include Kickstarter supporters who helped fund the $100,000 project in a crowd-funding campaign that included incentives like passes to the Aspen show and a local meet-and-greet with Ponty and Anderson.
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