Saturday, October 16, 2010

John Paul Jones: Zooma and Thunderthief

He was the quietest member of Led Zeppelin, but arguably the most talented. John Paul Jones had already spent the first part of his career as a session rat when he joined Zeppelin on bass and keyboards, and having spent much of that band’s tenure in the shadows of the other three, it wasn’t all that surprising that he didn’t pursue a high-profile solo “career” after the band was finished. Some session work here, some arranging there, but it seems he got the most notice anytime Page and Plant did something together, with or without him.
It wasn’t until the turn of the century that he finally released proper albums under his own name. By then he had hooked up with Robert Fripp’s Discipline Global Mobile operation, which still strives to put the composer and performer first. Indeed, the first two tracks on 1999’s Zooma sound very much in line with that decade’s version of King Crimson, and not just because Trey Gunn is in the credits. The majority of the instrumentation comes from the man whose name is on the spine, via basses of multiple string quantities, lap steel guitars, mandolas and keyboards. (Of the two credited drummers, one is modern session rat Denny Fongheiser, and the other is Pete Thomas, best known from Elvis Costello’s Attractions.) Of the nine tracks, most could qualify as prog, all extremely toe-tapping, with some quieter atmospherics for variety. He even brings in members of the London Symphony Orchestra for one track. The listener will find him or herself looking at the credits to discover that more often than not, it’s Jonesy himself playing the screaming lead.

A tour supporting Zooma (opening up for Crimson) meant he needed to find a band, so he hooked with the rhythm section of a Celtic prog band, including the bass player from Kajagoogoo. They contributed somewhat to The Thunderthief, which begins very much in the Zooma mode, even featuring a guitar solo from Robert Fripp. The first sign that it’s not the same album comes on the title track, where he actually sings. (News flash: this is not a talent kept criminally under wraps all these years.) He also chooses to warble the lyric on “Ice Fishing At Night”, which sometimes overpowers the otherwise haunting “No Quarter”-like piano. Similarly the toothless soccer hooligan delivery on “Angry Angry” is worth skipping, particularly as it leads to a lovely interpretation of the Appalachian standard “Down The River To Pray”. He plays a lot more mandolin in general on this album, providing a wider palette of sound.
For whatever reason, he hasn’t released a third album, seemingly content to collaborate with others, in different genres. As it is, Zooma and The Thunderthief remain enjoyable listens for diehard Zeppelin fans—and certainly Crimson fans—and are at least as enjoyable as some of the stuff Page and Plant did on their own.

John Paul Jones Zooma (1999)—3
John Paul Jones
The Thunderthief (2001)—3

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