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Jean-Luc Ponty: Strong As Ever

By Published: August 20, 2007

"There is a slight change, rhythmically, I would say, says Ponty, relating an experience in 1991 for an album called Tchokola (Epic), which contained different rhythms and got Ponty's musical mind pointed in that direction. "I learned new rhythms on which I had never played before in my life. Some of these African rhythms are found at the roots of modern music, especially jazz, blues or rhythm and blues sometimes. So these you understand immediately. But there are others that we have never heard in the West. They are still very local. There are some rhythms from Cameroon, polyrhythms—like three rhythms altogether. Even musicians from neighboring countries have a hard time understanding these type of rhythms; they are so wild and out. Once you understand how it works, it's fantastic. So, that experience was very enriching for me.

But melodically and harmonically, Ponty says there is no real change in his playing and the album reflects that. "I have evolved. I have the addition of years of experience, but basically I'm the same guy. My musical roots are the same: European classical music and American jazz, bebop. The change would be mostly the rhythmic framing.

Jean-LucThe album may be his best, and most accessible, in some time. There is a different kind of fusion going on, not particularly the wild, more rock-influenced work of the 1970s, though there s scintillating playing by the violinist and fans will not go away disappointed. Quite the contrary.

"I think all my albums and the way I compose and play, both consciously and unconsciously, they are the result of my past experiences that are adding up, so it's all there, he says. "There is some African rhythm influence in a piece or two, or just a passage. For instance in 'Point of No Return,' the long piece with Allan Holdsworth on it, after his first long solo, we go into a section that's a triplet feel, typically African. Then it goes back to the first section. Sometimes it might not be the whole piece. There it is just the middle, there is that type of rhythm. So yes, it's definitely a fusion of styles that have become part of my music.

He says the travel experiences during the album's development influenced certain musical ideas that were rooted in his past, "by revisiting them with a new approach, such as sketches of electronic improvisations from the 1980s that I never developed and that came to maturity as a collage in the title track "The Acatama Experience. These sound colors evoked perfectly the vast canyons of the Acatama Desert in Northern Chile, which I visited after a show in Santiago. On the record, "Desert Crossing is the first unaccompanied acoustic violin Ponty ever recorded. So there is theme, but also variation.

It's a long way from his roots in France to the The Acatama Experience and it's been a good ride.

Ponty was born in a family of classical musicians in Avranches, France. His father taught violin, his mother taught piano. He was admitted to the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris at the age of sixteen, graduating two years later with the institution's Premier Prix award. He played in symphony in Paris, but picked up a side gig playing clarinet—which he also earned as a youngster—in a band that performed at parties. His segue to jazz, he admits, was "a bit by accident.

"No one expected it, including myself. There was no plan to play jazz when I arrived in Paris and studied classical violin at the Paris Conservatory. I was there in '58, '59 and I graduated in 1960. In those days, the jazz scene in Paris was very active. There are still jazz clubs in Paris, but I would say that then it was almost comparable to what New York City was when bebop came to life. A big reason was that some American expatriate musicians were living in Paris or in other European capitals, but they would play very often in Paris. I'm thinking about Bud Powell, Johnny Griffin, and Dexter Gordon. Keith Jarrett lived in Paris for a few years before he played with Miles. In fact, I took Miles in my car to hear him, after Miles played a concert. I took him to listen to Keith Jarrett in a club, and he called him the next day.

The band looking for a clarinetist, "was a swing band, Benny Goodman style, says Ponty. "I had studied clarinet. It was like my third instrument. I never played jazz, but they hired me because at the audition they tested me and saw that I could improvise. I instantly could hear a chord and play something on it. They said, 'OK, you don't know anything about jazz, but you have a good ear and can improvise, so we'll take you in the band.' That's how I started. It was just for fun. A hobby. And it turned quickly into a passion.

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