Guitarist Jimmy Ponder Leaves The Organ Behind

B-3 band veteran tests new ax against an acoustic piano on Ain't Misbehavin'.

PITTSBURGH — Despite 18 albums and more than 80 appearances as a sideman on various labels, Pittsburgh's Jimmy Ponder inexplicably remains one of the best-kept secrets in jazz guitar.

Ponder has everything: a bit of Charlie Christian's chromatic swing, a dab of Wes Montgomery's rhythmic excitement and a sprinkle of Kenny Burrell's gentle lyricism. But mostly he has his own personality — a bracing, distinctive sound that's rock steady at all tempos, combining aggressive blues configurations with a blurring thumb and upstrokes that are meaner than a raccoon with its foot caught in a trap.

On his latest release, Ain't Misbehavin' (Highnote) — featuring songs as diverse as "The Man Ain't Got No Thing on Me" and Miles Davis' "All Blues" (RealAudio excerpt), which here sports a guitar and piccolo bass duet — Ponder shelves his mainstay Gibson Super 400C Guitar for a new, custom-made D'Leco guitar, which is now called the Jimmy Ponder Model.

It all started when a man from Oklahoma City called and offered to make Ponder a new guitar. Ponder, who is quite fond of his own guitar, said he told him, " 'Man! Ain't nothing you got can beat my old Super 400.' And the cat said, 'You'll see.' " About a year and a half later he sent Ponder a new guitar.

The D'Leco, like the Gibson, is acoustic. But in place of the customary f-holes, the D'Leco has two beautiful hand-carved leaves that allow for better acoustic qualities. It also has pickups floating on the outside.

Ponder was shocked by the results. "It performed great during the sessions," he said. It's a beautiful instrument."

And it performed well throughout the recording, especially on "The Man Ain't Go No Thing on Me," which spotlights Ponder's characteristic bracing style.

Ponder, 56, left Pittsburgh when he was 18 with organist Charles Earland's band. He returned almost eight years ago after being away for nearly 30 years.

Ain't Misbehavin' — which features Pittsburgh drummer Cecil Brooks III, bassist Dwayne Dolphin, saxophonist Don Braden and pianist John Hicks — is the one Ponder hopes will take him to the top.

Ponder is confident that he'll eventually reap the benefits of his labor.

"I didn't get into this business to get rich," Ponder said with a chuckle. "But when you've been down as long as I have, there's only one direction to go."

And he thinks Brooks, who also is the record's producer, can help him get there.

"Cecil challenged me to explore all the different modes of expression on guitar," he said. "He brought a sharp, contemporary edge to the session. He is also a genius when it comes to putting different people together. I hate the studio, but he has a way of making it a seem like we were at a picnic."

Ponder also benefits from Braden, an intelligent saxophonist who listens carefully to his colleagues; he shares a sensitivity throughout, especially on "On Broadway."

Ponder's previous projects inevitably found him in the company of a Hammond B-3 organ. But with the encouragement of Brooks, Ponder decided it was time to do something different.

"I still love the instrument," Ponder said. "And I played with some of the great practitioners, from Jimmy Smith to Lonnie Smith. But if you do something for a long time, you get locked into a bag. I wanted this record to be different."

So he enlisted the help of Hicks, one of the most passionate and inspiring pianists in the business. The two share wonderful interplay on "Three Little Words" and "I'll Remember April."

"This recording is a statement of musical maturity," Ponder said. "I'm not perfect. Sometimes I fall and scrape my knee, but I'm a survivor and this recording is a reflection of that."