Sit & Spin, Fri Dec 7, $10.
Whether out of necessity or simply for its own, often entertaining sake, improvisation surrounds our lives. Off-the-cuff conversation and on-the-fly cooking permeate our daily existence--as does music, a largely intuitive medium that's usually best when its core is improvisational.
Of all the live instrumental bands that currently espouse this risky, primeval approach, Ponga is arguably the finest. There is tremendous breadth, depth, and power in this quartet's collective ability and resolve. Skerik (sax, electronics), Dave Palmer (keyboards, electronics), Wayne Horvitz (keyboards, electronics), and Bobby Previte (drums), play 100 percent improvised music of a nearly all-encompassing nature, as evidenced on the group's excellent new CD, Psychological (on P-Vine in Japan, and self-released in the States via www.crittersbuggin.com). Ponga's massive musical world is on full display here, ranging all the way from magnificent Augustus Pablo-like dub musings to visionary electronic extensions of Miles Davis' high-heeled early '70s stances.
However, expertly flipping through a jukebox of style isn't what this band is fundamentally about. Instead, ever since the group's formation in the mid-'90s, Ponga has strived to blur the lines between musical aesthetics in a rocking keyboard- and bass-driven free-improv laboratory setting. It's a warped dimension, where styles and sounds exist in a state of constant interaction, reaction, and evaluation. Electronic music is refracted through a jazz lens, and vice-versa, bringing a myriad of new musical possibilities, sounds, and considerations into focus. Organic and synthesized traditions have collapsed into each other at Ponga headquarters, and the resulting double-helixed intertwine sounds like no other. It's no accident that Ponga's self-titled debut CD was enthusiastically remixed by pioneering artists such as Amon Tobin (who then sampled Ponga, in turn, for his own use), Fila Brasillia, and Spacetime Continuum. Say what you will about Ponga's relentless fusion of past traditions, present directions, and future impulses, but you'll never find yourself using the words "unoriginal" or "cheesy."
Also, the prolonged spells of pure chaos that plague so much of modern improvised music are effectively kept at bay by Ponga's overall prowess for spontaneous composition, most notably that of longtime collaborators Wayne Horvitz (Zony Mash, 4+1 Ensemble) and drummer Bobby Previte (Bump the Renaissance, Voodoo Orchestra), two hall-of-fame-worthy composers and bandleaders. "Ponga's a lot of fun for me," notes keyboardist Dave Palmer (MC 900 Ft. Jesus, Earl Harvin Trio, Joe Henry, Seal), "as Wayne and Bobby are always arranging." Together, they rock like a quartet of networked supercomputers that's constantly scanning the musical landscape, with Bobby's beat factory on red alert, ready to support whatever comes along, from restrained electronic ambience to apocalyptic drum and bass blitzkriegs. When Ponga locks onto a musical target, the quartet's swiftness is devastating. Moreover, when an individual leads the way, he's always looking to bring the entire band's force to bear. Simply put, this is not a band prone to missed opportunities or gratuitous solos.
In addition, Ponga does not take to the stage with the sort of arrogant over-intellectualism that's so prevalent among modern improvised-music practitioners. Ponga is a true anti-formula collective, driven by hyperactive listening habits and a genuine willingness to do whatever it takes to keep things moving along. Consequently, it's just as likely that someone might stop playing as it is that someone may break away from the pack.
Countless musicians give lip service to "anything goes" aesthetics of this sort. Ponga, however, is one of the very few to actually put its music where its mouth is--the group's members do not talk among themselves about their music. Agreements, conflicts, and the like are all worked out solely onstage. Skerik (Critters Buggin, Garage à Trois, Mike Clark, Stanton Moore, Les Claypool, Elemental) notes the following running joke within the band: "We'll stop playing when we start to talk to each other about our music."
So, rather than try to tag Ponga with one of those long, multi-hyphenated catch-phrase compounds favored by critics and record companies bent on pinning down the styles of "eclectic" bands, I opt instead to examine some of Ponga's many motivations and inclinations. Sound bites rarely succeed at communicating what an improvising group might sound like. Unless, of course, they're mission statements, such as Bobby Previte's record label motto: "Music for the sheer sensual pleasure of it, goddamn it." Such pleasures revolve around the meetings of exhibitionistic musical conversationalists such as Ponga, and voyeuristic audiences eager to revel in the unpredictability of the group's always exciting exchanges.