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.
"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 musiciansWes 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.
"He was impressive. He was really together, very mature. He knew what he wanted musically, says the violinist. "He was a strong leader. I was a little surprised to be in a unit that was so disciplined like a symphony orchestra. A lot of rehearsals and precise structures to read. But I was ready because I had the background and that's why he hired me. His music was a patchwork of styles and he appreciated the fact that musicians like me and George [Duke] and the rest of the band, we had a classical background that allowed us to read any music that was put in front of us, but also to improvise, being jazz musicians. I didn't expect it, coming back from a serious field of music, classical music, where you have to practice so much and everything is so prepared. I was expecting something a lot looser, but was extremely strict.
After King Kong came out, "he invited me to tour with his band. That was six months only. What happened is, he was losing his audience with all this beautiful and intricate instrumental music. Most of them came for the satire and the songs and the funny lyrics. What was happening is, as the tour went on, the share of instrumental music was really being reduced to one piece. I had one solo a night. For me, I was looking for something else. So I didn't stay with the band. But I was impressed by his creativity as a composer. He had really great ideas. One of the first fusion guys, for sure.
The experience with McLaughlin was more up his alley, as the guitar wizard soared, looking for individual expression and creativity. "I have a lot more affinity with him. We have more similar background. And the concept was improvisational music. When I was in that second version of the band, it was mostly him and me as the main soloists. Lots of improvisation all night, pushing the limits, harmonically and rhythmically. That was very exciting.
Besides recording and touring with his own group, Ponty also performed with orchestras and his recordings have continued through the years. In 1995, he joined guitarist Al Di Meola and bassist Stanley Clarke to record an acoustic album, The Rite of Strings (Gai Saber). The band did a world tour and drew high praise. It also reunites later this year and into 2008.
"If anything, this was not planned, but there was demand that came spontaneously for The Rite of Strings this year. So Stanley and I thought: why not? The three of us are touring with our respective bands. Stanley is on tour and recording a new album himself right now. Al is on tour in Europe with a new band. When we are supposed to off, that's when we go back on the road as a trio, says Ponty. It will feature some of the material the group was known for, "but we're thinking about new material as well. And it has evolved. We united already a few years ago, in 2004. We toured in the summer. It was great. It was interesting, when you stop doing something and come back to it, you understand a lot better. We understood each other a lot better. The interaction was a lot better than the first time around. So hopefully, it's going to be even better this time around.
Ponty has toured with other notable musicians, including Indian violinist L. Subramaniam and drummer Billy Cobham, while his bands routinely tour the world. In 2005, he toured with a new project called Trio!, in collaboration with bassist Clarke and Bela Fleck on banjo. So there always seems to be a new twist to keep the violinist on his toes.
Of the music scene in general, Ponty realizes there have been changes, but feels hat music is still progressing.
"There is so much going on, and different things in different countries. It's difficult to be aware of everything that's going on. Things are changing, that's life. I've heard that it's difficult for young musicians to have the chance to be hired and booked for a long period in clubs, like we were. That was such a good school. When I started playing jazz and I would be hired in Paris for a month or two months in the same club. We'd play ever night. That's really how I came up to be a strong player. Too bad young people don't have that opportunity anymore, he says. "But now there are schools that didn't exist in my time. So that's another story. I think generally speaking, it's like anything else, the technical level of young musicians, the young generation, has gone up tremendously. They know a lot much quicker because they can take advantage of the experience of the elders, like us.
Ponty says the number of "real geniuses, as opposed to just followers are far fewer. "There's a sort of conformity... The young generation might be more conformist than we were, especially in the '60s. It was the whole society, it wasn't just music. The goal was to push the limits and experiment and that was praised. We were able to experiment and develop our own vision. Nowadays, for young musicians, it's very difficult to find a record deal, especially if they don't comply to a specific style so that the record companies will know how to market it. We did not have that worry when I started. That has to be taken into consideration.
"I see two branches, basically. Those who really conform and learn jazz like we were learning classical music before. They are not really creators. They are more interpreters of styles that they learned and reproduced. But I still hear young people who have their own vision and who are experimental and are able to use the sounds and tool of their generation. In Europe, there is a whole movement that is especially strong in Scandinavia where they play acoustic jazz but mix it with some electronic sounds and some rock rhythms. There are some pretty good things.
"I think we can trust mankind to always produce some individuals who will be able to change music at some point.
Jean-Luc Ponty, The Acatama Experience (Koch, 2007)
Jean-Luc Ponty, Life Enigma (JLP, 2001)
Stanley Clarke/Al Di Meola/Jean-Luc Ponty, The Rite of Strings (Gai Saber, 1995)
Stanley Clarke, East River Drive (Epic, 1993)
Jean-Luc Ponty, No Absolute Time (Atlantic, 1992)
Jean-Luc Ponty, Tchokola (Epic, 1991)
Jean-Luc Ponty, Enigmatic Ocean (Atlantic, 1977)
Jean-Luc Ponty, Imaginary Voyage (Atlantic, 1976)
Chick Corea, My Spanish Heart (Polygram, 1976)
Jean-Luc Ponty, Aurora (Atlantic, 1975)
Jean-Luc Ponty, Upon the Wings of Music (Atlantic, 1975)
Mahavishnu Orchestra, Visions of the Emerald Beyond (Columbia, 1975)
Mahavishnu Orchestra, Apocalypse (Columbia, 1974)
Frank Zappa, Apostrophe (Ryko, 1974)
Elton John, Honky Chateau (MCA, 1972)
Jean-Luc Ponty, Cantaloupe Island (BGO, 1970)