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Interviews

Jean-Luc Ponty: Strong As Ever

By Published: August 20, 2007

Once bit by the jazz bug, "quickly I started investigating albums and I discovered the whole history of jazz, says Ponty. "There were big concerts in Paris very often. I saw Miles. I saw Coltrane when he started his band. Once it turned into a passion, that's when I switched to violin because I had a lot more abilities on that instrument than on clarinet.

Ponty found himself rehearsing and performing with the orchestra while also playing jazz at clubs throughout Paris. The rigors of life at that point forced him into a decision. Players like Stéphane Grappelli and Joe Venuti had made names as excellent swing-style violinists. But there weren't that many violins around and none distinguishing themselves in the "new music brought on by Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, the architects of bebop. He found himself with a bit of a prejudice to overcome.

Jean-Luc "The thing is that I started playing jazz in '59, '60. It was post-bop. Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane. Jazz had gone through a whole revolution. Since bebop, the swing-style violinists, people were looking down on them and the instrument. They thought it was not suited to play modern jazz. So I started with a prejudice, definitely. But I was able to turn the prejudice into an advantage, because I proved it was possible to play bebop and modern jazz on violin, he says.

"In order to do that, the path I took was different from most swing players, especially Grappelli, for instance, who I admire very much. But I never studied with him because there was nothing harmonically or rhythmically that I could adapt from his playing to play bebop and post-bop and avant-garde. By listening to horn players, and all these albums by Miles and Coltrane, and Bill Evans. These were my first influences. I was trying to reproduce on the violin their phrasing on the horn and piano. And also the sound, because I wanted to play with a rhythm section. The violin being of modest volume, I had to amplify it in order to be as loud as a trumpet or a sax.

"The road I took was to adapt the instrument to the music as opposed to the other way around.

Ponty's reputation grew and in 1964, at age 22, he released his debut solo album for Philips, Jazz Long Playing. A 1966 live album called Violin Summit (Polygram) had Ponty on stage in Switzerland with Grappelli, Svend Asmussen and Stuff Smith. His first break brining him to the U.S. came in 1967, when pianist John Lewis of Modern Jazz Quartet invited him to perform at the Monterey Jazz Festival, where Lewis was musical director.

"He was touring Europe all the time, Ponty says of Lewis. "He had his ears open and was very curious about what was going on in Europe. He discovered me and heard of what I did and my first record. He invited me in '67 for the first time when he was musical director of the Monterey Jazz Festival. That was my very first appearance in the States. Yes, it was a big step because that was where a record producer by the name of Richard Bock, he had started the Pacific Jazz label in LA and recorded so many west coast musicians—Wes Montgomery, Chet Baker and so forth. He signed me to his label and that brought me back to California for four years. That's how I met George Duke, that's how I met Zappa. That's how I finally moved to L.A. in '73.

He has since kept dual bases in Paris and L.A.

Ponty's career rose as he achieved critical and popular praises and began working with a variety of artists. In 1969, Frank Zappa composed the music for Ponty's solo album King Kong (Blue Note) and in 1972, Elton John invited Ponty to contribute to his popular Honky Chateau (MCA) hit album. He continued to work on a variety of projects, including those of McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra, with whom he recorded Apocalypse (Columbia, 1974) and Visions of the Emerald Beyond (Columbia, 1975). In 1975, he signed on as a solo artist with Atlantic Records and toured the world, recording twelve consecutive albums that reached the top five on the Billboard jazz charts. Albums in the 1970s like Aurora (1975), Imaginary Voyage (1976) and Enigmatic Ocean (1977) established him as major force in the jazz-rock movement.

Ponty fondly remembers his time, though short-lived, with Zappa.



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