Having worked with Frank Zappa, John McLaughlin and Chick Corea, Jean-Luc Ponty has brought his unlikely instrument to the summit of the jazz fusion arena. Through his rich career (as Jean-Luc puts it, “I’m 20 again for the fourth time”), Ponty shares great stories about Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette and … Elton John.
https://youtu.be/y3Xc8INcxXc Michael Fagien:
I wanted to start by saying that you actually made me listen to the violin. What I mean by that is, as someone who got into jazz transitioning from progressive rock, as a fan I didn’t really care much for violin. It’s not that I don’t love classical music or know about violin playing in jazz, but the violin never spoke to me until I listened to you. And I want to ask you, what was it, even with your traditional upbringing in jazz, that gave you that voice? Jean-Luc Ponty:
My passion has never been violin. It was music, first of all, and violin was just a tool. And since I got attracted by modern jazz, I adapted the violin to that phrasing, that sound. Because the violin, you’re right, is mostly associated to very romantic and mostly European music — classical and folk and so forth. But also, I started playing jazz on clarinet. I was studying violin very seriously, classical violin to become a professional. But my goal was really to become a conductor and composer. That was really more than being a violinist.
But then I discovered jazz and jazz gave me that opportunity to create, to write music and play at the same time. So I started on clarinet, which was my third instrument, and switched to tenor sax when I heard modern jazz — you know, I was listening to Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane. And then one day, by accident, I didn’t have my sax nor clarinet, only my violin. I was coming out of a classical gig. And I jam on violin, and it was a revelation. I realized I could play jazz also on violin. And at the time, I was not aware of any jazz violins. I discovered that after, and that encouraged me to pursue and use that instrument in jazz, but my way. And already I was coming from a wind instrument, adapting the jazz phrasing to the violin.
And since there was no modern jazz violinist as an example I could follow at the time, my influences were trumpet players like Clifford Brown, big time, Chet Baker, eventually Miles, and piano players as well, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson. And all this phrasing I was absorbing, you know, listening to jazz from when I discovered that music and I was 18 years old — I think I would put on an album as soon as I would drink coffee in the morning, and the whole day I’d jam with the album. There were no jazz schools in those days. And then I’d go to a club, to jam in the evening. And that’s how I developed I developed my sound. Michael:
And from saxophone, clarinet, classical, you became one of a handful of jazz-rock icons — whether it’s with John McLaughlin or Billy Cobham or all these other wonderful artists that you’ve performed with — on an unlikely instrument, the violin. Jean-Luc:
Well, my life has been full of surprises, unexpected encounters. Especially imagine when I started playing jazz in the late-’50s, early-’60s, the media was far from what it is today. So to discover another style of music, you really had to move somewhere on the planet. I got my first contract with an American jazz label in 1968. I signed with World Pacific Jazz in Los Angeles after I had performed for the first time in the U.S. at the Monterey Jazz Festival. And so, in 1969, I went to Los Angeles to spend most of the year to record an album for Richard Bock, the founder and president of that label. And after I recorded a few albums, and after he heard me play live in clubs with George Duke, he got the idea of having me do a different type of project in the rock world.
And he had heard through the grapevine that Frank Zappa, who was living in Los Angeles as well, was interested to do either a jazz album or a collaboration with jazz musicians. So he asked me if that was OK. And I said, ‘Well, I don’t know what can come out musically, but yes, Zappa is a very creative and progressive composer, so why not?’ So we got a meeting, and Zappa accepted me when he heard me my playing. And that’s how it started. I discovered progressive rock that year in the studio because, two weeks after the meeting, Zappa was ready with the music, and we were in the studio recording the album King Kong
. And so that was my first experience with [rock]. Of course, he had arranged his music in a more jazzy way, but still, there were these different elements of rhythms that were new to me.
And after recording that album for a year, I digested all this music, and it opened my mind and incited me to expand and not stick to American jazz from the ’50s and ’60s, especially. Also, I was very much interested to use the new tools of my time. In those days, there were new electric instruments being invented. I had to amplify the violin because I wanted to play with a drummer and a rhythm section full of energy, like in a rock band. And the violin couldn’t be heard unless I would amplify it. And that’s what attracted some rock musicians, when they heard I was using an electric instrument. And coming up with that electric sound I got invited to collaborate with a few, and it started in Europe with the guys from Soft Machine, Robert Wyatt.
And so with Zappa, when he invited me to join his group and tour with them in 1973 — which is when I moved to Los Angeles, because it was full-time with touring and recording with him — that really incited me to look into my own background, which was classical music, and to draw from the structures, therefore not that simple three-minute song with simple chords, but to do long structures similar to symphonies. And that was like what Zappa was doing, and like what John McLaughlin was doing, as well. They were so open, so unrestricted. They were not worried to break any walls. And so there was still that jazz element in the music improvisation, basically, but with the instruments, the sounds, the devices, the tools that were coming out in those days and that were brand new. So I found it exciting, and that’s why I didn’t hesitate to go into that.
Frank Zappa’s kind of an enigma. We think we know a lot about Zappa, but he was very complicated, personally and professionally. And because of that, you have to have a good Frank Zappa story. Jean-Luc:
Well, he was not a jazz musician himself. My feeling is that if he had been born in Europe, I think he would’ve studied classical composition and become a modern composer, but in the European classical style. But being born in California, there were no traditions, no walls. And that makes me think of Ornette Coleman, as well. I think he was in Los Angeles. So Zappa was not a jazz musician himself, but he was very interested, he loved Thelonious Monk. I remember spending some time with him at his home drinking coffee and listening to some albums. And I was talking to him, and he had not heard of Keith Jarrett. I made him aware of Keith Jarrett, for instance, but he was very open to jazz and a narrative of people who could improvise like me and George Duke. But his genius was in his compositions. I mean, where did he go find his ideas? [laughs] He was really out there and very daring. I think he was the very first one, or one of the very first, to fuse different styles of music, to make fusion music. No doubt. Michael:
People who like interesting music, jazz, gravitate to Zappa. Interesting how your music incorporates that. And one of the things that I always loved about your albums, when I was introduced to your music in the ’70s, is that you can listen to a Jean-Luc Ponty record and it takes you somewhere. I was hearing that in progressive rock when I listened to Yes, and I really enjoyed that. And now I had someone in jazz who took me on that journey. Jean-Luc:
Well, that’s what I found when I myself discovered Yes, and Genesis. I already had started writing music, drawing from my classical background. And I found out when I met some of these musicians from progressive rock bands, British and American, that that’s the common element we had, which was the experience of classical music without being neoclassical. But the difference is that me, coming from jazz, there was more improvisation. It was more instrumental. But there was that link with the progressive rock bands. That’s why, in fact, I did a project with Jon Anderson. We had met in the ’80s, and finally we did it. I mean, it’s not something that is conscious and that I did voluntarily, but it’s something in me that I let my inspiration come through whenever I was creating music. And I love to, when my mind is traveling, and I guess my music produces that. And I’m glad it has that effect on you as well. Because that’s what I prefer in music in general, is that it takes you into another world.
I read somewhere that Louis Schwartzberg, the filmmaker, obviously heard that as well, because his cinematography takes you on a journey through living things. And, and I guess he heard that in your music to marry the two together. How did that happen? Jean-Luc:
He called me saying he was a fan and he was doing a short movie for a competition, I think. So I went to see what he had put together, and he was extremely creative and ahead of his time with that time-lapse filming and what he conveyed through that. So he had used one of my songs, and I didn’t think it was the best. And I suggested he use “Individual Choice” [title song from his 1983 album]. That was very robotic, with synthesizers, and I felt it would fit better with these images. And so we worked together.
I know nothing of photography, of filming, but we collaborated on that. He didn’t have any money, so he said, ‘Look, you can use it for promotion for your current album.’ So it was incredible to have such a video to promote Individual Choice
, because I was not in it. That was like the original music video — it was portraying the artist, but I was not in there. But there was such a strong message in it that it was a huge success worldwide, and it was the very beginning of music videos. Michael:
Return to Forever’s Romantic Warrior
was the album that really opened a door to a whole different world of music. You’ve worked with Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, Lenny White and Al Di Meola over the years in various projects, and there seems to be a relationship, an affinity to Return to Forever, even though, from what I remember, you never actually performed in Return to Forever. Jean-Luc:
Oh, yes, I did. In, in 2011, they invited me to join their reunion tour. It was a long world tour from Asia to Europe through the States. So that was a great one, one of the highlights [of my career], and I had quite a few. Interestingly enough, I met Chick very early on in my career. And we met again when I was with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. We were rehearsing in New York, and he was living in New York and was coming to rehearsals, and we became friends. And he and Stanley — I had played with Stanley before — invited me to join Return to Forever when I left Mahavishnu in 1975. And that was a tough decision, because I love their band, of course, I love these musicians.
I thought it was really one of the top bands in the world. But I had just started my own band and I was just releasing my third album, Imaginary Voyage
. And so it was a tough decision. And finally, I decided to keep trying with my own band because I thought, you know, I have this album now, I’m young, this is now or never. Chick, after that, told me I had taken the right decision because Imaginary Voyage
was a big success, and that’s what attracted attention to my own band, my own sound. But then in 2011, we were in touch again with Stanley and, and Chick, and when they called me and invited me to join the tour, I didn’t hesitate. [laughs]
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Photo credit: Hans Batschauer.[/caption] Michael:
And was that with Al Di Meola? Jean-Luc:
No, it was Frank Gambale. And Lenny on drums. … I miss Chick. It’s so sad he passed away. It was such an experience for me to be on stage with Chick and Return to Forever, because I had attended some of their concerts, but to be on stage right between Chick and Stanley, and to hear Chick soloing, they were so tight. With Stanley and Lenny, it was like ESP, it was unbelievable. And Chick was so adventurous and he was like flying in the sky and then coming back down right in the right spot. I was very impressed. So it was a great experience.
When we rehearsed, Chick was very humble, and whoever was the composer of the piece we played was the leader. If I played my piece, I would be the leader, and Chick would be like a background musician, at the service of the composer and his piece. That’s what was great for such a genius, you know? Michael:
In the earlier days of Elton John, you connected with him, and if I recall, you were featured on one of his songs. Jean-Luc:
Two songs. It was the album Honky Chateau
, which was recorded in a castle outside of Paris. That was before I moved to America, maybe a year or two years before. And I was not aware of pop music in general. I had turned from a, a classical purist to a jazz purist [laughs]. Anyway some friends told me, ‘Elton John, he’s very talented, he’s a great pop singer.’ So I accepted and I went to the studio, and it was a great experience because I was like part of the band. He would create a song per day and start singing and playing piano. And then each guy in the band, including me as a guest, we would come up with our ideas, you know, accompanying his song. And so I recorded on two songs, and in fact, after hearing me, he wanted me to do the whole album; but the producer said, no, it’s going to be more special if he only plays on two songs.
Obviously, you’re also a fan of Miles Davis. Any interaction performing with Miles over the years? Jean-Luc:
No. It’s funny because at some point, Wayne Shorter told me, ‘I think Miles is going to call you,’ but he heard me play for the first time at the Monterey Jazz Festival when I played there in ’67, I think, or ’68. And that’s the time he didn’t have his voice anymore. And so I crossed paths with him backstage, and he was just mimicking playing violin. Big compliments coming from Miles was awesome for me. And then in Paris again I went to attend one of his concerts, and same thing, he saw me and he came [over] to me.
And Keith Jarrett was playing in town in a club. He was living in Paris for a couple of years at the time. And so, knowing that Keith had played with Jack DeJohnette, who was a drummer in Miles’ band, I told Jack that [I would pick him up in my car], and we were going to that club where Keith was playing. And Miles asked me, ‘Where are you going?’ So I said, ‘I’m going to take him to this club to hear a pianist.’ ‘Oh, I want to go.’ So I took Miles to that club, and after hearing Keith Jarrett, he said, ‘Wow.’ And he hired him the next day, Michael:
[laughs] Well, thank you for that! It worked out well.
Well, I want to talk a little bit about your daughter, pianist, vocalist and composer Clara. When I listened to her very first album, I said, not knowing anything about her, ‘This has to be Jean-Luc Ponty’s daughter.’ And I loved it. So, how’s Clara doing these days? What’s she up to? Jean-Luc:
Well, it’s tough times with the pandemic and all that, but she’s still creative. She had been invited to play in a festival in Germany in the city where the composer Handel was born. And besides the classical musicians, they asked some modern-style musicians to to arrange Handel’s music and play their own style, which she did. And it was very successful. And now she’s preparing an album with variations she created on Handel. So she keeps going. Michael:
What’s in store for you? What’s next? Jean-Luc:
Well, retirement, maybe. Michael:
I don’t think you’re gonna retire. Jean-Luc:
[laughs] Semi-retirement. I’m tired of traveling, and it’s a bit too much for me. It’s time to enjoy life. I’ll be 20 years old again for the fourth time [September 29, 2022].
So of course, music is still a passion, and always what feels the best to me is to be on stage, to share my music with an audience. But slowing down. I just released an album as a duet, violin and piano, which I had never done before. And it was a German pianist, Wolfgang Dauner,
who I met in the ’60s, and I worked a lot in Germany with then. And I love this. To me, it’s kind of a modern Bill Evans, beautiful harmonies, could be a avant-garde, too daring. We lost track, but we hooked up again in the ’90s and we did some shows. And so there is a live album that just came out. He passed away [in 2020], so it’s a nice tribute to him, as well. And I’m very happy that this album is out, Live at the Bern Jazz Festival
in Switzerland. And who knows? You know, I mean, I keep composing, but maybe I will record something new someday.
https://open.spotify.com/album/0M6LqMIjqEdMeNErUtlI27?si=0cI4Q6AcRsiQlE2o8eyWMg Featured photo courtesy of Kevin Raymond.