Jean-Luc Ponty: Strong As Ever

R.J. DeLuke By

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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.

Jean-Luc "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.

Jean-Luc Ponty "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.

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