As a violinist in the changing music world of the 1960s and 1970s, Jean-Luc Ponty was it. He was a pioneer on the instrument, plugging in to be heard with screeching guitars and blaring horns. He not only had the chops-busting harmonic and rhythmic language of bebop down pat, but he had virtuoso abilities from his classical training. He combined them during a time of upheaval, in music and in society, in groups like Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention and John McLaughlin's hair-raising Mahavishnu Orchestra. And he transferred it to his own bands and music.
Ponty has remained at it ever since, even as others on his instrument come onto the scene, some of them gaining significant stature among critics and listeners. Ponty remains one of its virtuoso players and an important stylistic springboard from violinists of the swing era to the age of post-bop, rock and even psychedelia.
The group he's been playing with for the last few years has provided different rhythms and voicings through which Ponty weaves his dynamic playing. Soon to be 65 (Sept. 29, 2007), Ponty is still open to new ideas and his passion for the music is obvious. It's noticeable on stage, and clearly evident on The Acatama Experience (Koch, 2007), with his working band augmented in spots by guitarists Alan Holdsworth and Philip Catherine.
Caught in June, 2007 at the Freihofer Jazz Festival in Upstate New York, Ponty's band was vibrant. The layers of rhythms from William Lecomte on keyboards, Guy Nsangué Akwa on electric bass, Thierry Arpino on drums and Taffa Cissé on percussion served as a strong canvass on which Ponty could paint. The music was alive, much to the pleasure of Ponty himself.
"I was happily surprised that the new material sounds so good quickly, he said a week later. "It was tight very fast. The fact that this is performed by a band so used to playing together, it really helps to foster the performance.
But in the creation of the material for the album, the band was unable to work on the pieces, Ponty was so busy with other things. Plus, he didn't want any of the music to get out prematurely because of his record deal.
"What we did in the studio was totally fresh, which is also pretty good, says Ponty. "After playing them on the road, it's true, they change a little bit. It's not necessarily better, for the improvisations, at least. There's something to be said about the fresh improvisation, the very first stream that you get from the very new impression from the new music piece. If it inspires you, it can be special and something that never comes back once you know the piece better. I like that freshness. Later on, I can do a live album and then you have a dated interpretation with new improvisations.
He says when he signed the record deal with Koch, he didn't realize an album would be due so soon. The band was booked all over the world. "Sometimes it would be a whole tour, like in the U.S. Sometimes it would be two or three dates a month, but very far away, taking us on long trips to Chile or India. At first I was a little concerned it would delay a lot of my work on the album. On the other hand, each time I came back to the project, my ears were totally fresh. Somehow, the freshness I got from these travels influenced the development of the music.
There was also new music written throughout 2006 for the new recording. Says Ponty, "The main concept was performances with the band, which has been together for quite awhile. Then I have also two solos, which are going in extremely different directions. One is totally electronic, the other one being completely acoustic. The goal was to play as live as possible in the studio, the way I was recording in the beginning of my career before all the technology came; building a lot of albums bit by bit, different layers of improvisation on different days. This was more the band playing in the studio.
"I started collecting new material whenever ideas would come to my mind. I don't wait until the last minute, until I have to deliver an album, to start writing. Whenever inspiration comes my way, if I am at home in my studio, I will record immediately the ideas, to be developed later. If I am on the road, maybe sheet music. When it comes time to do an album, I start developing good ideas. I also ask the guys in the bandmy pianist [Lecomte] contributed one piece and he made the arrangement on the be-bop piece by Bud Powell ["Parisian Thoroughfare ], which he rearranged with modern rhythms.
The resulting CD is a fine mix of electric and acoustic, strung together by tight modern rhythms, some influenced by the African roots of Cissé and Nsangué. Ponty plays gently, even sparingly at times. The music breathes. Other times he veers off to make bolder and brighter statements. His sound and chops are very together as he negotiates the different tempos and adds his signature touch. It's expressive, and even funky at times.
"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, polyrhythmslike 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.
The 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 clarinetwhich he also earned as a youngsterin 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.
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.