The music of Yes – that magical, genre-bursting marriage of classical, folk, jazz and rock that was to the 1970s and ‘80s what Radiohead is to the past 20 years of popular music – is not dead, but it has certainly been ailing of late. When Yes co-founder and bassist Chris Squire died last year, it seemed that the band had been dealt its final blow. And yet, a version of the group with no original members will perform at Artpark. Imagining a Yes without Squire is too much for some. Imagining a Yes without co-founder and singer Jon Anderson has been too much for many fans for nigh on a decade now.
Happily, Anderson – rather unceremoniously evicted from Yes following a health issue in 2008 – has found many new forums for the summoning of the Yes muse in the time since. Whenever Anderson sings, one can’t help but hear the sound of the band he fronted for the better part of 40 years. The latest of these projects finds the singer teamed with iconic jazz-classical violinist Jean Luc Ponty for the aptly named Anderson Ponty Band, which stopped by the Riviera Theatre for a sold-out, rapturously received show Tuesday evening.
Anderson and Ponty’s long-delayed musical marriage is one clearly favored by the prog-rock gods, for the two have taken to each other as if born to the task. Tuesday’s show expanded on the band’s sole album release, the recent “Better Late Than Never,” a collection that found Anderson and Ponty fusing elements of their back catalogs into new hybrids, and composing several new pieces. Though the album was tracked live last year, this tour finds the band stretching the possibilities of the material, toward winning ends.
It helped that Anderson’s voice – the range of a choirboy, with the power and dynamic range of a commanding rock singer – is still an abundantly impressive instrument. When the band opened with the new composition “One in the Rhythm Of Hope,” Anderson’s vocals were crisp and clean, and Ponty’s violin dashed between the spaces, adding searing melodies here and strident counterpoint there.
Even though some of the performance consisted of tunes culled from the Yes and Ponty back catalogs, those tunes have all been seriously reworked – keys changed, rhythms altered, dynamics manipulated, new sections added. Thus, the former techno-glitz of “Owner of a Lonely Heart” was replaced by a stripped-down, mostly acoustic arrangement. The Beatle-esque folk paean “Time and A Word” had traveled to Jamaica and come back with some skank in its step.
“Infinite Mirage” was an early highlight, a song that offered an intelligent superimposition of Anderson’s lyric and melody from the Yes tune “That, That Is” atop Ponty’s ethereal instrumental “Mirage,” creating new multimovement piece in the process. Ponty was afforded the opportunity to strut his stuff during the country-fusion piece “New Country,” and his playing during Anderson’s dream-like “Wondrous Stories” was particularly elegant.
In addition to Anderson and Ponty, guitarist Jamie Glaser, bassist Keith Jones, drummer Rayford Griffin and keyboardist Wally Minko lent their considerable skills to what ended up being a lush and airy mix, after a tough start, where the bass and vocals were ill-defined in the mix.
Ponty brought the serious jazz fusion, and his tunes featured the most ebullient jams. But Anderson held his own, directing an inspired “Long Distance Around” and finding ways to add to the improv sections with his various percussion flourishes.
The joy the two principals take in playing together was evident from the beginning. High-level musicianship met profound composition on Tuesday. I felt lucky to be there.
Who: Anderson Ponty Band
Where: Tuesday evening at the Riviera Theatre, North Tonawanda