The Life and Music of Jean Luc Ponty
by Paula Edelstein
| Jean Luc Ponty is a pioneer and undisputed master of violin in the arena of jazz and rock. He is widely regarded as an innovator who has applied his unique visionary spin that has expanded the vocabulary of modern music. Ponty was born in a family of classical musicians on September 29, 1942 in Avranches, France. His father taught violin, his mother taught piano. At sixteen, he was admitted to the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris, graduating two years later with the institution’s highest award, Premier Prix. In turn, he was immediately hired by one of the major symphony orchestras, Concerts Lamoureux, where he played for three years. While still a member of the orchestra in Paris, Ponty picked up a side gig playing clarinet (which his father had taught him) for a college jazz band that regularly performed at local parties. It proved a life-changing jumping-off point. A growing interest in the jazz sounds of Miles Davis and John Coltrane compelled him to take up the tenor saxophone. Fueled by an all-encompassing creative passion, Jean-Luc soon felt the need to express his jazz voice through his main instrument, the violin.
Ponty’s notoriety grew with remarkable leaps and by 1964, at age 22, he released his debut solo album for Philips, Jazz Long Playing. A 1966 live album called Violin Summit united Ponty on stage in Basel, Switzerland with such notable string talents as Svend Asmussen, Stéphane Grappelli and Stuff Smith. In 1967, John Lewis of The Modern Jazz Quartet invited Ponty to perform at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Jean-Luc’s first-ever American appearance garnered thunderous applause and led to a U.S. recording contract with the World Pacific label (Electric Connection with the Gerald Wilson Big Band, Jean-Luc Ponty Experience with the George Duke Trio). Through the late-60s and early 70s, Ponty achieved mounting critical praise and popularity across Europe. In turn, the violinist soon found his signature talents in demand by top recording artists the world over. In 1995 Ponty, Al DiMeola and Stanley Clarke formed the RITE OF STRINGS and recorded an album under the same name. The tour was met with astounding success and once again in 2004, a new generation of fans are privileged to hear and see the original Rite of Strings concert at venues across the USA. In addition to the Rite of Strings concert tour, Jean Luc Ponty has released a DVD and CD titled IN CONCERT to coincide with the Rite of Strings tour.
As one of the most innovative electric violinists to ever grace a bandstand, Jean Luc Ponty electrifies his fans during this awesome “live” recording in Warsaw, Poland on October 23, 1999. Simply titled IN CONCERT, Ponty is joined by his touring band of William Lecomte on keyboards, Guy Nsangue Akwa on bass, Thierry Arpino on drums and Moustapha Cisse on percussion and together they deliver a powerful musical journey that will have listeners feeling as though they have been accompany the great man on this exemplary voyage. With the release of the audio CD and DVD of the same name, the two-volume set provides a fascinating insight into Ponty’s diverse repertoire, which remains unparalleled by many of his electric violin contemporaries. With its West African rhythms, French classicism, electric jazz and a superlative command of the many ranges of the violin, Jean Luc Ponty captures the many flavors of music in this exciting MUST HAVE event. We had the extraordinary privilege of speaking to the great Jean Luc Ponty about IN CONCERT, his life and his music.
P.E.: Jean Luc, thank you so much for the interview. Congratulations on the re-emergence of the Rite of Strings collaboration with Stanley Clarke and Al DiMeola in addition to the release of your latest recording and DVD titled JEAN LUC-PONTY IN CONCERT. What a remarkable job of providing both a historical overview of your development with Stanley and Al plus giving a new generation of fans a chance to see and hear some of your best concert performances from around the world. What are your thoughts on the Rite of Strings at this point of your career?
J.L.P.: The experience, to me, is better than ten years ago because it grew on us and we know each other better than we did when we first got together. We have a better grasp of the music each of us have brought original compositions we have thought about what we need to do to improve our more improvised direction.
P.E.: I’d like to give our readers some insight into your musical career. So let’s start with your major influences and why you chose to play the violin as opposed to another musical instrument and how you go into jazz?
J.L.P.: My father was a violin teacher and my mother was a piano teacher. It was an influence but I guess the vocation and the talent has to be there personally and you either have it or not. But since my parents were professional musicians, they knew how to direct me so that I would learn my instrument in the best way possible. They just started me out.
P.E.: Were you trained formally and with whom?
J.L.P.: Once I decided to become a professional, they sent me to the best school in Paris, France Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris. I graduated from that school at age 17 and was going to become a classical musician. In fact, my vocation was to become a classical conductor I love conducting. But before I could get into that, I got into jazz because I also played piano in the background. I chose violin as my main instrument when I was eleven and I stopped studying piano somehow. But whatever I do on the keyboards was extremely helpful when I wanted to start writing my own music later on. So to answer the question of how, I got into jazz… I also had learned to play the clarinet but it was more like a hobby cause I really love the wind instruments as well. So that’s how I got into jazz because there was a jazz band in Paris made of students. They were not professionals but they were playing at the university and they were looking for a clarinet player. They taught me what jazz was about; I had a good ear and could improvise the art. In the late 60s, I discovered Miles Davis, John Coltrane and the whole bebop and hard bop school of jazz and I became very passionate about the music and decided to switch to the violin because I had a lot more technical ability. However, I did not know that my instrument was very rarely used in that style of jazz and more so in modern jazz. So I started with some prejudice against me because many in jazz thought the violin was to be used to play the older styles of jazz like swing, but certainly not modern jazz.
P.E.: Combining the violin, guitar and acoustic bass as the core of the band was a daring move at that time. Now, that your fans have come to know that this combination of strings, professionalism, and personal interaction is timeless and continues to excite another generation, what advice can you give to aspiring trios that are contemplating the use of this particular string format?
J.L.P.: Well the format that particular one was initially Al DiMeola’s idea. The three of us had come from the same background of music in that Era jazz/rock fusion in the 70s and we had crossed paths but had never played together. I had played with Stanley on two occasions in France but had not played with Al. So Al’s idea was to have us play acoustically because he knew of Stanley’s sensational playing of the double bass and that he had done arrangements as an acoustic bass player, and was also well known around the world as an electric bassist. In fact he started on a classical instrument as a young man and he also wanted to become an electric guitar player. So at first, I wasn’t sure because in jazz even though I play electric violin and had studied classical music. But very quickly in jazz, I improvised myself so that I could find the right volume to play with the drums and jazz rhythm section and that led me to a whole other sound. It was kind of a challenge for me at first, but then we realized that we had come up with original instrumentation. Sometimes you have to follow your inner voice. For the younger generation, I would say be less conforming. The whole thing is to dare, to not be afraid to be adventurous and explore new formats.
P.E.: Your compositions have such exquisite arrangements and you write with an easy grace, energy, warmth and experimentation. What are some of the technical difficulties associated with playing the electric violin such as playing in a venue that may not be suitable for the acoustics?
J.L.P.: I must say of all the instruments I play, the violin is the most difficult technically. I have to keep practicing every day if I want to stay sharp. I don’t think there is any difference as far as the venues go. I think it’s better playing in a concert hall.
P.E.: What equipment do you use?
J.L.P.: My main instrument is a 5-string electric violin (with a low C string) made for me in 1993 by Zeta Music Systems. It is available for sale as the “Jean Luc Ponty Signature Model”. I also play the Zeta violin through a MIDI controller, model VC-225, also by Zeta. I also use a 5-string Barcus-Berry made in 1980 with natural wood finish, which I use when I want a more acoustic sound but still needs amplification. I use my Barcus-Berry through a small EQ box called PARA ACOUSTIC D.I. made by L.R. Baggs. They also make a great bridge with incorporated pickup for acoustic violin. On occasion, I might also use a 6-string electric violin (with low C and F strings) called the Violectra. This is not to be confused with the violectra by Barcus-Berry which I played from the late 60s to the mid-80s, which is a regular 4-string violin with special strings tuned one octave lower. This new 6-string “Violectra” was invented by David Bruce Johnson in the 90s. My favorite violin bow is a “Spiccato” made by Benoit Rolland, a very talented bow maker from France recently established in the U.S.A. – this bow is made of composite material and has a unique system to adjust the tension and balance of the stick according to the personal needs of the player. All of the violins are equipped with Helicore strings by D’Addario.
P.E.: The material on IN CONCERT covers much of your versatile career and includes some of your best work with “Enigmatic Ocean,” “Open Mind,” and “Pastoral Harmony.” What is your favorite composition and why?
J.L.P.: No favorites, they are all like my children. I have written at least 200-300 compositions and obviously the ones that I keep playing, like the ones on the IN CONCERT DVD and the recording, or the ones with The Rite of Strings go all the way back to the 70s. So there are some contrasts right there.
P.E.: I understand that you will be making personal appearances with your daughter Clara at the Border’s Book Stores very soon. Is she still a protégé?
J.L.P.: She was. She is no longer. She began playing at a very young age and started composing at a very young age. She studied classical technique and has since started composing on her own. The Borders tour is not a concert, but Clara will be playing the piano and I’ll be doing mostly a meet and greet!
P.E.: We’re looking forward to that. Finally, Jean Luc, you’ve explored many facets of the jazz idiom and have opened the doors for many of today’s contemporary jazz violinists such as Regina Carter, Karen Briggs, etc. What are your thoughts of the state of the violin in jazz today?
J.L.P.: I think they are doing a very good job. I know Regina personally and I’ve heard Karen. They are very talented. There are a few wonderful violinists around the world…I heard a young man in Moscow, Russia and he was swinging! I didn’t’ expect to hear such great jazz in Russia! There is another young man from Denmark Mads Vinding. He is sensational. There are also a few up and coming jazz violinists in France. For a very long time, I was thinking what I had started was at a dead end. But I am very pleased that the younger generation has picked up on the idea and it makes me very happy!
P.E.: Thank you so much Jean Luc. We really appreciate everything you have contributed to the music world and especially your influence on modern day jazz violinists. Where can your fans visit you to learn more about upcoming concerts and tours?
J.L.P.: Thank you Paula. My fans can visit me at http://www.ponty.com for tour and concert information.