Protect Ourselves From Excessive Violins? Heck, No!

(Appeared on November 6, 1997)

Folks generally know what to expect from a violin. They've heard it before in folk, classical, and country, and it sings quite nicely. But sometimes violins get pushed over the top -- to excess -- and, for some listeners, that's when the fun starts.

Shocking examples of excessive violins are in stores and libraries, and these examples threaten all rock fans who want to remain complacent, huddled among their preconceptions. If you wish to protect yourself and your loved ones from excessive violins, make sure to avoid the fusion (by Jean-Luc Ponty), instrumental hard rock (David Ragsdale), and mostly-instrumental metal (Mark Wood) albums mentioned here. "Excessive" violin playing pounds tradition into submission, dissin' classical and folk for rock and beyond, and it's a very real threat, a very real treat, and in the Big Room. Don't be afraid, though, come on in -- nobody with an open mind will get hurt.

Jean-Luc Ponty -- _Le Voyage: The Jean-Luc Ponty Anthology_ (Rhino, 1995)

No discussion of excessive violins can ignore the titanic contributions of Ponty. Originally a classical violinist, he swung to jazz to help break away from the Conservatory crowd and eventually broke into rock circles as a member of Frank Zappa's Mothers Of Invention and John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra, groups taken seriously in the worlds of both jazz and rock at a time when it seemed good musicianship was enough to earn a band a following. Those were the days, eh?

_Le Voyage_ is a well-chosen anthology of Ponty's work as a solo artist from 1975 to 1995, highlighting early ventures of violin beyond its traditional constraints. Compositions such as "Enigmatic Ocean" flaunt Ponty's command of texture, moving from rock to jazz to funk with ease. Performances like the solo "No Strings Attached" spotlight Ponty's groundbreaking violin experimentation. As he progressed, Ponty expanded into synthesizers, waxing electronic on tunes like "Computer Incantations For World Peace".

Overall, rock fans may find Ponty's music similar in places to that of Jeff Beck or Manfred Mann's Earth Band. They will certainly hear Ponty's influence on Eddy Jobson (Curved Air, Roxy Music, UK, etc.) and violin solos in tunes by Bruce Cockburn, Rush, and others. Ponty gave us good fusion, the stuff that got 1970s rock audiences all aglow (well, perhaps there were pharmaceuticals involved), influential and intense. _Le Voyage_ should sail into the collection of any rock fan who harbors an appreciation for early experimental rock and should steer clear of people who find rock-jazz fusion nothing but wind.

David Ragsdale -- _David & Goliath_ (Renaissance, 1997)

David Ragsdale is little-known, but he has big credentials as a member of Kansas and from guest shots including the latest Queensryche album. On this, his first solo effort, David wisely chooses to oppose towering tradition, and he wins big. From the aggressive, Satriani-ish lead single "Bach Stabber" to the progressive, Ponty-ish "Opus 2 No. 1", the funk-tinged "Dimon Street", the Chick Corea-penned "Jungle Waterfall", and the epic, intricate title track, David always hits the spot, deftly throwing rock at us and showcasing his skills as a composer and violinist. Ragsdale's guitar mastery also shines and, rather than splitting this baby apart, that edge makes the album a glorious combination of top-flight instrumental guitar rock and visionary violin performance. _David & Goliath_ is easily in a league with the best of Joe Satriani, Steve Morse, or the Dixie Dregs, earning a position of royalty among the most impressive instrumental rock offerings of the 90s. It is an upbeat (except for the beautiful "Stu's Lament"), hard-charging, diverse, monumental surprise of a debut that will catch many off-guard, an aptly-titled victory for instrumental rock fans. Rejoice!

Mark Wood -- _Voodoo Violince_ (Guitar Recordings, 1991)

Mark Wood is a Juilliard alum with attitude and enough engineering and musical chops to make bizarre things happen. Wood is wired for melodic heavy metal, but his music is so strong and innovative that even metal-haters can appreciate it. There is no guitar on the album, although after hearing the record you might not believe it; it is uniquely deceptive, full of killer guitar parts, empty of guitars.

Wood plays the wild six or nine-string fretted violins he designed and built, and his music is as intense as his designs, full of Hendrix/Satriani technique, mean riffs, a flair for funk and a sense of humor. More important than all this, though, the tunes are catchy and clever, spanning a range of heavy rock music and all, dare I say it, en fuego with Wood's incendiary wirework. The adrenalin rush of "Monkeybats", the funk stomp of some Sly & The Family Stone covers, Eastern melodicism, balladry, hip-hop, even a snippet of "Sweet Georgia Brown" -- It's all here, all presented with flair and energy. This is not a record for the faint-of-heart, this is not EZ listening violin. This is mosh, dance, laugh, and be amazed stuff, serious high-energy innovation from the wonderfully warped Wood.


Eric Aaron has no current plans to write a follow-up about "graphic sax" , but that could change. He is a graduate student, a guitarist for Ithaca modern rock band The EFFECT, an ex-jazz DJ, and not afraid to refer to ESPN from time to time.

Back to Main BIG ROOM Page