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Jean-Luc Ponty: Imaginary Voyages, Part 2

Jean-Luc Ponty: Imaginary Voyages, Part 2

Courtesy Dan Codazzi


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I was with Zappa’s bands and later with Mahavishnu and even when I started my own band, these engineers who were creating new sound devices, pedals, and phase shifters, and this and that, and delays... would come to a famous musician like Zappa to [get him to] use it, you know. And so Zappa would say to me, check it out, after he’d tried it... and pass the device to me [to try out]. And that's how I was able to try all these sound devices.
—Jean-Luc Ponty
Part 1 | Part 2

American violinist Stuff Smith once said about the young, classically trained and self taught jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, "He plays violin like Coltrane plays saxophone." Born in 1942, Ponty has almost single-handedly taken jazz violin from the swing era into modern jazz, and beyond. At rock musician Frank Zappa's urging, Ponty moved to the States in 1973 to record and tour with Zappa and The Mothers of Invention. In the following years he made his home in California, and toured with Zappa, the Mahavishnu Orchestra (from 1974-1975), and later (2011) with Chick Corea's Return to Forever IV on their reunion tour, as well as making a name for himself as a transformative and influential musician in his own right.

All About Jazz: You had this clearly classical background, so I'm curious why you never really experimented with combining the two at some point. I guess I mean something like your own version of the Jacques Loussier Play Bach records?

Jean-Luc Ponty: For a long time I didn't want to touch the classical composers. But I must say that a few years ago I heard some albums by Jacques Loussier and was surprised that—-some of it, anyway—really worked.

Anyway, I'm going to say that I became less strict about that, because while I really hated to touch classical composers and add some jazz style to it, it depends how it's done, it really depends indeed.

I ended up improvising on a prelude by Chopin because my daughter studied classical piano at USC. And she was practicing a prelude, number twenty, and all there is, is a lot of changes really. The melody note is just the top note of each chord, that's it pretty much. My wife, who is not a musician heard this and said, "Wow, why don't you try to improvise on this?" I said, yeah, that's a good idea. I tried, and liked it so much that it was included in the album that was recorded at the time; that was in 1988 I think. But that was an exception. I remember meeting a guy who was working at Sony. He was in the jazz department, but he also came from the classical world as well. And he didn't like the idea. He loved my album, but he was touchy, you know, to do that. But on the other hand, a lot of violinists liked it a lot.

AAJ: I guess part of why I was asking is that, on one level, it seems an obvious direction to experiment in, but it also makes total sense that as you've been evolving the violin, for yourself at least, you wouldn't want to have those sorts of classical chains, given that there remains a reluctance among jazz musicians to treat the instrument as a real jazz instrument. But in fact, you probably know both Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau have recorded Bach albums. In Mehldau's case he also recorded improvisations on the themes. Gil Evans and Miles Davis did that of course with Sketches of Spain (Columbia, 1960), Jim Hall did it with Rodrigo's concerto (Concerto, CTI, 1975). And Bach was an improvising musician, which everybody forgets.

JLP: Right, right. Bach was so much ahead of his time. You know, I still listen to a lot of classical music and I'm still discovering works I didn't know about. And Bach has written so much. At times I hear polytonalities, but just one note or two, you know. It's quick, but sometimes I'm very surprised, like, wow, that's really modern. He was so much ahead of his time. And he was interested in the instruments made in his time as well, and, adapting music to these instruments. And that was my approach. So, to me it felt natural to be a musician of my time, whatever that means, with the tools, you know, the electronics, the amplification for the violin and this and that available to me. And which I would not have used to play Bach because they didn't know about these sounds, this amplified instrument. It wouldn't be appropriate. But, anyway, yeah, there is a similar approach, spirit, you know, to be open.

AAJ: I know that by the mid-to late-sixties, the guitar certainly had become an instrument, with all the amplification and effects, where you had to learn all the amplification technology and which amp and what strings and what pedals, you know, which pick-up and all that kind of stuff. The violin, I think, was still somewhat limited at that point. Did you have to spend a lot of time and how did you go about finding out what worked and what didn't, in terms of the sound and how you got all that kind of stuff together?

JLP: Yeah, you're right that it was limited, you know. At first what happened is, as I mentioned at the beginning of the interview, I thought the Hot Club de France, an acoustic string ensemble with Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt, was fantastic, a great idea, it was great but I wanted to play like a trumpet or a sax as a soloist in a jazz band with drums and bass. And I realized immediately, when I started going to jam with a band with a drummer...

AAJ: ... .that nobody could hear you!

JLP: Exactly. You know, in a symphony orchestra you have twenty violins for four or five trumpet players. So, volume-wise [the violin] didn't make it. I inquired, and the only thing available in the sixties was a pickup that you would put on top of the wood. It was pretty warm as a sound, it was okay. Except catching the high notes. When you went all the way up the register it didn't catch the top notes. They wouldn't go through it. So it was limited for sure. But when I arrived in California to record Hot Rats, (Bizarre/Reprise, 1969), and then King Kong, (Blue Note, 1970), I played in a club, [and it was there] I first heard about a Barcus Berry pickup. I hadn't heard about them before, but they were doing good business mostly with Nashville, with all the country players. John Berry was the violinist, and Barcus was the engineer who came up with a system. So, John Berry came to a club where I was playing with George Duke, and he gave me one of his first electric violins. And that was better adapted to playing louder, you know, like in rock bands because he had worked on the instrument so that it wouldn't feedback. You could be on stage with a loud drummer and all that and an electric guitar —-although you would still have to be careful.

But, basically, it [worked well when it] would have been impossible to just put a pickup on the classical instrument. Because the instrument picks up too much of the sound around you, whatever is on stage. So that was already much better. And also they got the idea of making it a five string instrument with a lower string. He gave me what they were calling the Violectra, which was like a bass violin. It was still the same shape as a regular violin, but with thicker strings that were tuned an octave below the traditional violin. And I used that on the King Kong album. So that's when it started to develop. I was with Zappa's bands and later with Mahavishnu and even when I started my own band, these engineers who were creating new sound devices, pedals, and phase shifters, and this and that, and delays, and there were a few in Los Angeles, would come to a famous musician like Zappa to [get him to] use it, you know. And so Zappa would say to me, check it out, after he'd tried it, and pass the device to me [to try out].

And that's how I was able to try all these sound devices, you know. And as I said, it went on with Mahavishnu and McLaughlin as well, and when I started to be successful they would come to me directly and say try this. It was not my personal intention to go that far with all the electronics, but trying them inspired me. I would hear sounds sometimes that would open my imagination. So that's why, you know, I was experimenting with all the gear coming out and when it worked I incorporated that in my gear and it became part of my sound. But even the Barcus Berry violin was a dry sound and not satisfying to me a hundred percent. It was far from being as rich [in sound] as a traditional classical violin. Which is why I was very happy to use these devices, like phase shifters, then chorus and later on flangers, because I felt it helped me get the modern sound.

AAJ: Like guitars really, a properly amplified instrument is not the same as playing a louder version of the acoustic instrument. It's really a different instrument. I mean, the first time I ever played with a chorus, suddenly I could play one note and not feel that urge that sometimes sweeps over you to play a lot more notes just because you feel you need them to boost your sound. It's sort of like a harpsichord and a piano. You don't have a sustain pedal so you have to play a lot of trills to make up for it. So, it's interesting that all this sound researching helped you come up with a new concept of how and what you wanted to play.

JLP: Absolutely. For me, it became a totally different instrument. Yeah.

AAJ: Especially if you're adding strings to it as well. Didn't you play a six string violin as well as one point. Is that right?

JLP: I did at some point, but that's a bit too much. The [extra] low string is not really useful—you really need a cello or a big instrument to make it sound great. But five strings is already great. It's great to have a low C, it gives me a wider range and a deeper voice closer to the effect of a saxophone somehow. But, I'd like to add that things have evolved a lot since then. And nowadays there are really good systems for even the classical violins, you know, pickups that are in bridges, or all the things. And it started with the Zeta, which was the first solid body violin I played and one of the first that were made. A friend at Fender, who had made one of the very first solid bodied violins in the 1950s, though I don't think it sounded as good as the Zeta, let me play one. The Zeta was really great. And that one, I felt, didn't need to be changed with sound devices as much at the previous lines. I often use it just straight. I still sometimes use a chorus, and it's a different atmosphere, it might fit depending on the piece of music you're playing. And nowadays, young fiddlers and cellists have a lot better choices of amplification. So, you can reproduce a sound which is a lot closer to the traditional violin sound, and that's easier today than it was decades ago.

AAJ: What was your concept of "success"? And I use that word in quotation marks. When you were young, and now you have matured as a player? How has that changed? You know, after a 60 year or so career, pretty much, what does success mean to you now? I think is what I guess I'm asking.

JLP: Wow. That's, um, that's... [pauses for a moment.] For me success is having had the chance [to explore] all these crazy new things I was coming up with sound-wise and musically, that have been appreciated by audiences around the world. You know, the messages I get today, what people tell me that my music did to them, and it's coming from young musicians or just a non-musician, a music fan, I did not expect. I didn't know how much my music would affect people, when I'm not the only musician doing that, but I'm very happy and pleased to be one of them. And the other aspect of success for me is to say that, to see that there are young violinists and young string players who were inspired by what I did and musicians of my generation. And, it's a chain, you know, and they pick up on that. And the most intelligent ones, which means the most musically talented, are able to create something original using the tools of today. But with the same spirit that we had when we started breaking away from traditional styles, starting with jazz rock and then jazz fusion later. Because for a while we were so few playing violin in jazz or rock or modern styles of music in general. Because at some point I said [to myself], maybe it's too crazy what I've done and nobody else will ever do that in the future. So, that's a great reward for me to see that today. That's great.

AAJ: One of the things that I have really enjoyed is some of the music that you did with Stanley Clarke, and Bela Fleck [in the mid 2000s]. It seems that there was a kind of companion adventurous spirit in Bela Fleck to you, that was more apparent than maybe since Zappa in some ways. I don't know, maybe I'm being overly romantic.

JLP No, but you're right about that because Frank was not a jazz musician, you know...

AAJ: Well, he was a composer even more than a rock musician. I understand. For example, he was the only rock musician I knew who deliberately and consistently brought humor into what he did in a way that no one else really did. The rest of us were all, like, so intense about things back then.

JLP: He was a great composer.

AAJ: I know he wrote a complete classical piece that was recorded, which I first heard about when somebody sat me down one day in the 1980s and played it for me.

JLP: Frank was extremely brilliant as a composer. Yeah. Very creative. But as a guitarist he was also original in a rock style. He didn't have that jazz spirit at all. He liked jazz, he enjoyed listening to it. And that's why we put up a record. That's why he was immediately interested to have me collaborate when I arrived in Los Angeles. But he himself never got into improvising and chord changes, and rhythms like in jazz, as opposed to Bela Fleck. Bela does, and you know, he can play any style of music. He's a brilliant technician on banjo, but musically, he can play anything including jazz or even classical music. It's amazing.

AAJ: I've heard him play Bach, and thought, "That's a banjo?"

JLP: [Chuckling.] Right. That's what I was thinking about. But, so that's why we had an immediate affinity, you know. It was easy to play together, violin and banjo. I'm not really a country player, but I like country music and some of the bluegrass music and some of the players [I heard] when I was in Nashville. It's pretty impressive.

AAJ: Well, that kind of nicely segues into talking about "New Country." You recorded it in Los Angeles in the 1970s I think.

JLP: Yes. 1976. On Imaginary Voyage (Atlantic, 1976) I think.

AAJ: Right. It has that kind of subtle, virtuosic country fiddle nod. I've always assumed it was a conscious nod, you know, to that kind of fiddle playing. Nashville and jazz together. I mean, there's a bunch of really good players there, but they seem like their day work is one kind of music, and then their late night jazz work is separate, you know?

JLP: Yeah. What happened is I had just arrived in Los Angeles ... No, it was a year later because I had been doing Zappa for a year and then I started my own band, and my first manager I had in Los Angeles when I started my own band in '75. I think he might have also been managing, I don't know, he was involved in a show somehow about country music in Los Angeles. And he gave me a ticket and that was the first time in my life I saw a country band. Because in Europe we didn't hear much [American] country music then, maybe singers, but we didn't hear any instrumental dance music like I did that night. And in fact the instrumentation was exactly like my band. It was electric violin, electric guitar, electric bass, and drums. And, so coming out of that show, that's what I wrote coming back home that night, or maybe the next day I forget. But it inspired me to come up with a piece which would have this country flavor. And since I arrived in America and it was my new country, therefore the title, but it's mixed with a bit of funk as well, you know?

AAJ: And it has all these polyrhythms going on in there, which are very subtle within the actual line.

JLP: Right. Because you can keep slapping hands all the way through.

AAJ: Yeah, it felt like it was kind of an eight bar phrase which was actually only seven bars, although I've never counted it out. And then you say to yourself, "Wait a minute, and you pause and think, you know, I don't know now . . ." As I say, I haven't analyzed it, so I don't know whether that's true, but that was the sense the piece gives you. That it's taking us on a journey that's seems familiar and comfortable and then suddenly it's a little bit unexpected, like you've somehow stepped into another world..

JLP: Yeah. So anyway, I never expected that it would be my first hit and then big time all over the world. I mean, I met one of the greatest classical violinist when he was young, by the name Vadim Repin, he may be in his 40s now I think. [Ed. note: Repin is actually 50 as of this interview]. He comes from Siberia, in fact. I mean, he left Russia and the communist regime when he was young and went to live in Europe I think. But just to say that when we met, he told me that they were trying to play "New Country" as young students in Russia. I was very surprised in Italy too, [in fact] several part of the world, that piece appeals to a lot of people, and in Nashville of course. The country fiddlers there. In fact, I recorded that piece with Mark O'Connor on one of his albums. He is great. And I remember he said, when he discovered my playing in the seventies, he said that I was the one who had the biggest classical background, and yet you couldn't tell that from the music I was playing which was totally different from classical style of playing a violin. So that matches what you said earlier.

AAJ: Oh, that's interesting. So just a couple more questions if you've just got a little more time. One of them came from a musician friend of mine who said, "I'd like to know what he's listening to these days?" So, who and what do you listen to these days?

JLP: Well, unfortunately, with the world of internet and everything I have to do every day, I don't have much time to listen to music. But when I do I listen to the radio. Mostly, unfortunately, I don't have much time to put on an album anymore. So, when I do other things like having dinner I listen to jazz radio and classical radio, because I like to discover new talents in jazz music. So there is not one specific musician I listened to nowadays.

AAJ: And I wasn't trying to put you on the spot like that, but obviously if something had occurred to you then that would be a different thing. I mean, I'm well aware that your influence is such that you can have an outsize impact without meaning to, so I'm not trying to put you in that position. I'm just genuinely curious as to what you're listening to. I know you said you listened to a fair amount of classical music now.

JLP: I used to listen to albums, and relisten and be inspired by them. But not anymore. You know, the little time I have left for music every day, I just take my violin and practice because, otherwise [playing] becomes quite a nightmare...

AAJ: But that's interesting that you still practice though. I mean, I remember talking to Joe Pass years ago in London who told me he had stopped practicing. Playing solo guitar on the stand was practice for him by that time. Funnily enough, he said that Clifford Brown was one of his big influences too,

JLP: The violin is a tough instrument and you have to keep practicing. I mean, very little, just warming up my fingers, you know, scales and arpeggios. Recently I rediscovered the Bach Sonatas for violin. And I appreciate this now differently than before [and try to] go deep in these compositions and things like that. But then I also play my own music or prepare for pieces, a recording or whatever, you know.

AAJ: Do you find that you're playing classic music, certainly for yourself anyway, with a different kind of feel than when you first started? I'm thinking, about Bach because I saw a documentary not that long ago by a classical violinist, on public television and he ended up going to Germany. And it finished with him having this sort of big revelation. The closing scene is actually of a group of professional dancers in period costume, and seeing people dance to Bach, which is what they staged, was a very different thing to just being in the concert hall. The dancers, doing period dances, seemed to influence the musicians somehow. There seemed to be a more natural jazz swing to it in a way, which is interesting coming from classical players who are notorious among jazz musicians for not being able to swing. That flow if you like, doesn't always come across if you're just hearing it as a concert hall performance.

JLP: Yeah. Okay. I understand that it can reveal that aspect. But I always felt it. That's why I liked him and Baroque music in general. It's like the Four Seasons, of Vivaldi. I mean, rhythmically, very, very rich and very moving, and Bach indeed is very regular and rhythmic. I would say that growing older, maturing, has given me a deeper appreciation of the talents of these great classical composers, than I had when I was young. I mean, I have noticed something, and I'm talking in general, but very talented and gifted people, when you have talent, you have it from birth and you're good. And you can hear it while the musician is still very young. I'm thinking about the drummer, Tony Williams, for instance. Was he 17 years old, I think. . ?

AAJ: Yeah, that's right. He was 17 when he first played with Miles. Actually, pretty much the same age as when Miles was first invited to play with Charlie Parker...

JLP: Amazing. Amazing. So creative already.

AAJ: But all of those guys, interestingly, because I think Herbie Hancock was also young, like 24 or something. George Coleman and Ron Carter were a tad older perhaps, I'm not sure now, but it was a pretty young band.

JLP: Yeah, that's why I'm saying that the talent is there. You can can hear it. You can feel it from a very young age. But mentally though, your mind and your life experiences, after you mature and you've played so much, it makes you appreciate even more the depth of great musicians, whether it's jazz, or classical music.

AAJ: I've just realized something as you say this. Is it right that in late-ish sixties you played with [bassist] Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen]? And he must've been pretty young...

JLP: Exactly.

AAJ: You were pretty young yourself at that point, right?

JLP: I think we were about the same age.

AAJ: Because he'd been playing with Bud Powell as a teenager, as I recall.

JLP: Maybe, I'm not sure. What's interesting is that, MPS Records [in Germany] just re-issued an album recorded for their label in 1967 (Sunday Walk, MPS, 1967), with Niels Henning on bass. And, we were touring, you know, it was a combination of European musicians, me being French, Niels Henning being Danish. We had Daniel Humair on drums who is Swiss, and Wolfgang Dauner a German pianist. And in fact, [the tour] was organized by MPS and they called it the European Jazz All-Stars, but I really enjoyed playing with it. The thing about Niels Henning was that one of my very first gigs when I started my career as a jazz musician, was to play for a month in Copenhagen at the famous Montmatre Jazz Club. And he was part of the house rhythm section. I didn't come with a band. So, it was Kenny Drew on piano, a great American pianist, and Niels Henning on bass and Alex, um [I forget his last name], on drums. So, I spent a month in Copenhagen with Niels. What a great musician he was. He was really the best double bassist at the time in Europe.

AAJ: Tell me about this latest recording you made with your old colleague from Sunday Walk, Wolfgang Dauner?

JLP: The new recording is called LIVE—-At The Bern Jazz Festival, 2011 and was recorded by Swiss Radio. It was released last Februrary (2022). This new release is very important to me. It's the first one I ever recorded as a violin-piano duet, and probably one of the very last productions I will release in my life. I was extremely saddened when Wolfgang passed away in January 2020 and the release of this live album became even more important to me as it adds to the legacy that Wolfgang has left the musical world. It felt very special for me to work again with the MPS label. Wolfgang and I did several recordings in the 60s, and toured, as I said. I've always loved his lyrical pieces, with their rich harmonies, their poetic, spacy moods. I felt such an affinity to his music. We lost touch for a while after I moved to California in '73. I had my career and he had his. He was among the pioneers in the jazz-rock movement in Germany.

AAJ: How long was it before you guys reconnected?

JLP: Wow, I don't know, maybe twenty years. I was 24 years old when I first met Wolfgang. I was invited to collaborate with him and his band to perform his compositions for a Jazz TV show produced by NDR in Hamburg, Germany in 1967. I immediately loved his music and his playing, very avant-garde yet very melodic. We also got along real well, and he invited me to perform with him again in Germany throughout the late 60s. In 1995 I was invited to play at a special concert celebrating his 60th birthday, at Theaterhaus in Stuttgart . He suggested we play a few tunes together as an acoustic duet. I loved it so much that I suggested that we do more concerts with this format. Years later we heard a recording of our live performance at the Bern Jazz Festival and we both agreed that we should release it as a live album.

AAJ: Anyway, I guess on behalf of my son (the aspiring jazz violinist), my last question is, What's your advice to young musicians at this point, certainly young violin players?

JLP: Well, the thing is, if I had listened to the advice I got, maybe [chuckles] I would have never had any kind of success with it all. The only advice I give is to follow your intuition. It's very important. And the thing is you have to adapt to the world, to the music world, and the way you have to deal with the internet nowadays. It's totally different, you know, it's so different from when I started in the States, especially in the seventies, eighties. All we had to do is care about music, produce an album and give it to the record label. And the record company would take care of everything after that, including paying you a little something. Yeah.

AAJ: Well, there's a whole other conversation there...

JLP: Exactly. So let's not go into that now ... Nowadays, I see my daughter, and [also] young musicians [who] have to know how to expose their music to the world. Through digital means, they have to be part of that. But the other thing is we live in a period where violinists can play in different styles, which is different from my time. Then, it was more important to go deeply in one direction. But I see young string players switch styles with different bands. You know, different music, and why not? I mean, there is not one secret or several. There is no real advice that you can pass on to someone else to be successful in life because it's a question of circumstances, you know. The people you meet in your life and where and when you meet them. For me, it has been a mix of decisions I took, but also unexpected encounters, things that would happen in my life. So, that's why it's not necessarily repeatable [by someone else], but I'm happy that I opened some doors, and I see young violinists following, and that's great. That's fantastic,

AAJ: Jean-Luc, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. Really appreciate it.

JLP: You too. I enjoyed it. Take care.

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