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Jean-Luc Ponty: Strong As Ever

R.J. DeLuke By

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"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.

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.

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