By now, many of you out there in audiophile land know of the progressive rock band named Yes and its trials and tribulations. Particularly, you may know that the band's co-founder and lead singer has not actually been in the band for some time now; Jon Anderson was dealing with health issues for a while and has subsequently been pursuing his solo career again including a collaborative tour and album with former Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman.
Anyhow, when I heard rumblings that Jon Anderson had connected up with the great jazz-rock fusion violinist Jean Luc Ponty, my ears perked up. I've long been a fan of both, so the potential for a fascinating collaboration intrigued me. Reports of an exclusive concert in Colorado spread around the Internet and it had me feeling a bit envious of those who got to see the band lift off. Prog rock and audiophile type geeks were getting all excited 'n stuff, getting up out of the sweet spot to do a little happy dance.
And then the buzz stopped; there was a delay. I think it was due to Jon's health.
So we all retreated to our man caves and waited patiently, hoping for the day when Jon would be well enough to finish up the project. Well the good news is he is back and the project is real, the band is touring and they have just released a fine new first album.
Appropriately titled Better Late Than Never, the album is a joyous celebration of tearing down boundaries between musical genres and reinventing great ideas with new arrangements, lyrics and counter-melodies. The album comes in a CD + DVD package, the CD containing several additional songs not found on the DVD.
The core of the Anderson-Ponty Band -- or APB, for short, as its listed on the album cover -- is an assemblage based on Jean Luc Ponty's band from the 80s, these players can quite literally tackle anything, with classically trained chops fine tuned with jazz-rock-fusion precision. Add Jon Anderson's pop and spiritual sensibilities and you have the potential for a heady brew...
And most of it works really nicely...
It seems that basic tracks for the album were recorded in a series of rehearsals for the live concert at The Wheeler Opera House in Aspen, Colorado, with sweetening and re-recording of select parts done afterwards by the musicians as necessary. Mastered by Craig Calibi at Sterling Sound, the result is a fine sounding album of mostly new songs with the energy of a live performance.
Frank Zappa used to do this kind of recording approach a lot in the 70s and 80s...
For those of you mostly familiar with Jean Luc Ponty's work, you might cock your head for a few moments like a confused puppy when first hearing these recordings. I know I did when I first heard "Listening With Me," which is basically Ponty's "Stay With Me" (from his excellent Taste For Passion album) with an added melody and lyrics from Anderson on top.
Initially Anderson's new melody felt like random chanting, but then as the song progresses you see how they blended the two together to create something new.
"Infinite Mirage" fares better, with Anderson's melodies more fully developed and integrated into the tune ("Mirage" from 1977's Enigmatic Ocean). "Renaissance of the Sun" is based on the track "Renaissance" from 1975's Aurora album and by this point Jon is integrating his lyric approaches more in the groove of the music, which works real nicely.
But the album is not all jazz fusion remakes, as some of you may worry. There are inevitably some songs related to Jon Anderson's old band Yes including a surprisingly fun reggae take on "Time and a Word" (from the like-named 1970 album) which, goofy as it may sound, actually works.
The stripped down almost unplugged version of "Wondrous Stories" -- a #7 hit in the UK from the album Going For The One which itself was a #8 top seller in the US back in 1977 -- is quite beautiful.
There is also a lovely abridged version of "And You And I," originally from 1972's Close to the Edge the crowd pleasing "Roundabout" -- originally from Yes' 1971 breakthrough album Fragile -- works just great. I really like the Anderson-Ponty Band's more organic version of "Owner of a Lonely Heart" much better than the original (which I always felt was cold and over-produced).
"I See You Messenger" and "New New World" are both joyous new Jon Anderson tunes that could have easily been on a new Yes album, both very positive songs with upbeat messages. The latter probably displays the best integration of Jean Luc Ponty's sound with Jon Anderson's words and melodies into something that sounds new, genuine and even fresh.
The visuals on the DVD look fine for a basic, fairly well lit concert recording, post-produced with intermittent special effects and cut-aways to tripp-y graphics and such. I personally would have liked to have seen a better integration of the two concepts, but for the most part it works and doesn't become overly annoying despite its sometimes gimmicky nature. The audio on the DVD is basic Stereo, AC3 running at 48,000 Hz and 256 kbps (at least that is what the VLC player on my computer is telling me). I do wish they could have delivered a higher resolution audio track (but, ah well... I guess they didn't ask me for my input, now did they...). If all goes well on the tour and they make some money on it, maybe just maybe we'll see a bigger, better concert Blu-ray Disc released with high resolution stereo and 5.1 surround soundtracks.
Overall this album sounds pretty decent but I am taking it for what it probably is: a digital recording made from a live session, sweetened up in a digital workstation. That isn't a bad thing but analog purists need to be forewarned that it has some of that digital sound, which some people really don't like. Its not my preference, but, hey, I'm here primarily for the music and in this instance I'm just thrilled that both of these fine musicians are back making new music and -- amazingly -- making it together! This is a cause to celebrate. I'm looking forward to seeing them when they come to perform here in San Francisco in November.
The Anderson Ponty Band is indeed hopefully a new world for both artists and their fans.
Lets see where it all goes...