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Interview with Jean-Luc Ponty

16 Ianuarie 2006
de Mihai Plamadeala, Horia Diaconescu, Ioan Cora

"Greatness means finding your own voice"

Maestru indisputabil al viorii electrice in zona de expresie jazz si jazz-rock, Jean-Luc Ponty este primul muzician care a dezvaluit potentialul expresiv al instrumentului in cele doua genuri. Artist desavarsit, apartine deja mostenirii culturale a contemporaneitatii, alaturi de figuri precum John McLaughlin, Al Di Meola, Jeff Beck, Chick Corea sau chiar Frank Zappa. Ponty este cunoscut iubitorilor rockului progresiv datorita colaborarilor cu Zappa (care i-a compus un intreg album), cu John Mc Laughlin, pentru legendarele discuri Mahavishnu Orchestra, iar publicului de jazz prin intreaga sa cariera solo, punctata de intalniri memorabile cu George Duke, Chick Corea, Al Di Meola sau Stanley Clarke.

Cariera sa prestigioasa de peste 40 de ani demonstreaza ca muzica poate fi motiv si resort de renastere spirituala. Prin intermediul dialogului avut cu redactia Muzici si Faze, Jean-Luc Ponty a acordat primul sau interviu mass-mediei din Romania. Aflat la Zürich in timpul interviului, artistul lucreaza in prezent la inregistrarea noului disc alaturi de un grup interesat de valentele muzicii africane.

Jean-Luc Ponty - the official page

Discografie selectiva. Recomandari Muzici si Faze

THE JEAN-LUC PONTY EXPERIENCE (with George Duke Trio) (1969)
JEAN-LUC PONTY plays the music of FRANK ZAPPA - King Kong (1970)
JEAN-LUC PONTY - Imaginary voyage (1976)
JEAN-LUC PONTY - Enigmatic ocean (1977) esential
JEAN-LUC PONTY - Cosmic messenger (1978) esential
JEAN-LUC PONTY - Civilized evil (1980)
JEAN-LUC PONTY - Individual choice (1983)
JEAN-LUC PONTY - Open mind (1984)
JEAN-LUC PONTY - Tchokola (1991) esential
JEAN-LUC PONTY - No absolute time (1993) esential
JEAN-LUC PONTY - Life enigma (2001)
JEAN-LUC PONTY - Live at Semper Opera (2002)
JEAN-LUC PONTY - In concert DVD (2003)
 Discografie selectiva a colaborarilor

 FRANK ZAPPA - Hot rats (1969) esential
 FRANK ZAPPA - Overnite sensation (1973)
 FRANK ZAPPA - Apostrophe (1974)
 ELTON JOHN - Honky chateau (1972)
 MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA - Apocalypse (1974) esential
MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA - Visions of the emerald beyond (1974) esential
CHICK COREA - My Spanish heart (1976)
 STANLEY CLARKE - East river drive (1993)



01. You have graduated from the Paris Conservatory, with the goal to become a classical musician, but turning into one of the representative jazz figures. It is known that many professional musicians dismiss jazz by considering it insufficient when compared to the great classical music ("Jazz can be challenging and interesting, but as long as there is Bach, Mozart or Chopin..."). What did jazz and rock offer you and classical music couldn't?

          Do you mean many "classical" musicians dismiss jazz?... because you say "professional" and there are many professional musicians in jazz as well, although there are professional jazz musicians who dismiss other jazz musicians....(laughs), but that would lead us into another discussion, let’s stick to music. My goal was to become an orchestra conductor and a composer but I discovered jazz and never got to study conducting and composing. In the early 60s classical composing was limited to atonal music, I loved some of it but it was too restrictive for me once I discovered jazz rhythms and improvisation. 
          I agree that many classical composers have created masterworks that are rarely equaled, and you can become a jazz musician without the extensive training required to play classical music, but both styles are based on such different concepts that they should not really be compared. Some people like one or the other, some like both, like me, I chose jazz but still love listening to some classical works. I also know some famous classical musicians who respect us, jazz musicians for our ability to improvise. Also my involvement with progressive rock made me discover electronic instruments and sound effects in the late 60s and early 70s. These experiences in jazz and rock gave me a chance to create new sounds both as violinist and composer.

02. We would be interested to know several musicians that left a major trace in your life or artistic career. To which degree do you think they influenced you? (in composition, interpretation, attitude etc.) 

          Debussy, Bartok, Stravinsky and Olivier Messiaen were among the few composers who influenced me on a melodic and harmonic level. Chet Baker, Clifford Brown, Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderley, Gerry Mulligan, Bill Evans (the pianist), Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner and a few more were my early jazz influences in terms of rhythmic phrasing and also for me great examples of jazzmen incorporating the harmonic richness of classical music in a new way. I also learned from them that greatness means finding your own voice. 

03. Could you please draw several relative delimitations between various creation periods of your artistic activity? 

          1962 - 1969: These were my be-bop and freeform jazz years. I was mainly a jazz improviser, forging my violin sound while performing allover Western Europe in jazz clubs and the few festivals that existed. First solo albums, first collaborations with some of the best jazz musicians in Europe and first collaborations in the USA with George Duke, Lalo Schifrin, the Gerald Wilson big band, Quincy Jones and Frank Zappa
          1970 – 1974: Tours and recordings in the U.S.A. first with Zappa, then with McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. My sound changed from being just amplified to being more electronic with the use of new effects. I also started to compose a lot, waiting for a recording contract. Moved to California in 73. This was a transition period. 
          1975 - 1990: My recording contracts with Atlantic Records and later with Sony Music gave me a chance to form my own band and to dedicate myself fully and exclusively to my own music as composer-arranger-leader-producer and violinist. I released 15 albums during that period and toured almost every year with my band in North America and in several other countries.
          1990 - 1991: Collaboration with West African musicians in Paris, recording of "Tchokola" and touring with them in America. This was a new chapter in my career as I was putting my own music and band aside for a couple of years to venture into a new musical territory. 
          1993 - 2005: I came back to my original style and formed a new band with a mix of West African and Western musicians to incorporate the African rhythmic element. I toured with this band almost every year in North America and Western and Eastern Europe, and for the very first time in Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Georgia and India. In parallel with my band activities I also did several collaborations, such as with Stanley Clarke and Al Di Meola in 1994-95 (Rite of Strings), with Stanley Clarke and banjo player Bela Fleck in 2005, and one-time projects with Lalo Schifrin, Miroslav Vitous, film composer Vladimir Cosma and Indian violinist L. Subramaniam
          2006: I will record a new studio album and tour again with my band as Jean Luc Ponty & His Group. Also Stanley and I intend to keep collaborating.


New Violin Summit - Jazz Days in Berlin, 1971
Nipso Brantner, Don "Sugar Cane"' Harris, Jean Luc-Ponty, Michael Urbaniak

04. What is the relation between composition (premeditated creation) and improvisation (spontaneous creation) in your work?

          It varies depending on the piece but the average is roughly 1/3 arranged and 2/3 improvised. Although my music is not at all inspired by big bands, the concept of alternating written arrangements with improvised solos is very similar. People who are not familiar with jazz or who are non-musicians are often confused about the exact meaning of improvisation. Generally speaking in jazz it is creating spontaneous melodic and rhythmic variations on a pre-written melody or any pre-established structure. You can create a totally new piece in front of an audience if you perform alone, but with a band it leads to chaos in my opinion and I noticed when I was into freeform improvisation without any imposed structure that everyone fell back on formulas and it ended sounding the same every night. 
          Improvising on pre-established structures can be more of a challenge, and it guarantees that not all pieces and not all improvisations will sound the same since you have to respect the particular spirit of a given piece. Also excellent improvisers are not necessarily good composers and vice versa. It’s like two different gifts and rare are those who have both. 

05. What is the role of experiment in your work? What is your outlook on avant-garde in music. Classicism or modernism? Baroque or mannerism? 

          I experimented all the time from when I started playing jazz until I started my band in 1975. After that I kept experimenting mostly offstage, in my home studio, always trying different approaches as a writer, as a violinist, with sounds, and with my band before recording a new album or going on tour. Then on stage we play the same arrangements as on the albums but we can experiment in the sections where we improvise, so every night is different. 
          As for music categories, I see basically two choices, to be a creator or to be an interpreter of music from the past. We need both, we need artists who are visionary and think ahead of society and others who keep alive masterworks or great ideas from the past.

2005, Béla Fleck (banjo), Stanley Clarke (bas), Jean-Luc Ponty

06. In a past interview you say "I did not realize music was spiritual until I became conscious of my own spirituality". Could you please detail this sentence? 

          I don’t remember saying exactly that music is spiritual in general; it depends on the music and on who is playing it.....I remember saying in the 80s that I noticed the spiritual nature of some of my pieces after I became interested in spirituality. I always wrote music from instinct, from inspiration as opposed to making an intellectual decision, so I had never analyzed my music until messages from fans, comments from musicians and interviews with journalists forced me to do it. I realized then that ‘spiritual’ in music evokes beautiful and positive emotions, introspection and meditation, music that affects and lifts the spirit, for the mind, spiritual as opposed to physical. 
          Fans often send messages to musicians saying that their music has been a source of great relief while going through very difficult life experiences. It is also a great emotional outlet for musicians themselves. Some types of music can heal on an emotional level, and that’s what I mean by spiritual.

Individual choice, 1983

07. What do you think of post-modernism, or about a possible post-postmodernist period that we are nowadays crossing. Do we live a crisis of the arts (music in particular)? 

          There is less innovation, what is presented as new is often a rehash of old styles. The current generation is more conservative compared to mine, but mine was encouraged to be experimental, young musicians are now encouraged to fit in a mold if they want a recording contract and be played on radio. Economic pressure has invaded the music world like anything else in our lives. The smaller independent labels are the ones that keep carrying the flame and where young musicians who dare be different can find a home. 
          On another hand there a lot of talented young instrumentalists allover the world, the technical level has risen up, and some play also with great feeling. Not all music from the 60s-70s was great but the spirit of searching and taking risks was great. New music was not valid unless it was truly original and an evolution compared to anything previously created, but perhaps there is a limit to evolution, or evolution will take a new turn after some stagnation. I still trust that mankind will produce a few visionaries once in a while.

08. Where would nowadays be the world capital of jazz (continent, country, city or cultural area)? Have you observed cultural differences as far as the jazz music is received in various parts of the world? Or the jazz public is rather "globalized"? 

          It makes me smile when I am asked to speak as a representative of the jazz world because some purists do not consider my music as being "jazz" and I agree that it is not in the traditional sense, so they must be squirming when hearing or reading my comments. I have a very mixed audience, some are jazz fans, some come from a rock background, others from classical music etc. etc. so regarding audience reactions, I can only talk about my personal experience, not for jazz musicians in general; with my group I have had very receptive audiences all around the world, they just express their appreciation differently depending on the local culture, it goes from very reserved to very extraverted and loud reactions. 
          Otherwise from what I observe mainstream jazz is still deeply rooted in American culture, there are pockets around the world where a fusion of jazz and other elements is developing like in Europe with electro-jazz and other alternatives to American jazz. There is also Brazil, where local music has been influenced by jazz as much as Brazilian music has influenced many American jazz musicians.

2005, Jean-Luc Ponty, Bela Fleck, Stanley Clarke

09. We would like to know your opinion on the electronic jazz scene. How does electronics affect the human element that fundaments the jazz equation. Is it an evolution, is it something else? Can we consider it as a serious artistic option inside the digital age? 

          Electronic instruments are a human creation and when used with taste and intelligence they can add a dimension that cannot be achieved with acoustic instruments. Sure, nothing replaces acoustic instruments on the expressive level, violin being a perfect example, even if amplified the violin is still totally controlled by the player, but the addition of electronic instruments and sound devices stimulate my imagination. Some musicians and critics consider that there are rules defining what is jazz and what is not, for them the use of electronics is ‘not jazz’. For me only those who dare venture beyond secure and established forms have a chance to become innovators and whether it’s still jazz or something else does not matter, only the result is important.           
          Can you believe that some musicians and critics considered that Thelonious Monk was not a true jazz musician during his lifetime? Outrageous! 
          Jazz started as a mix of cultures, why would it stop evolving? Some choose to stick to an academic form of jazz, fine, but let those with open minds venture beyond what is officially supposed to be jazz. Let them follow their intuitions. That’s what I do, I don’t need to fit in a category, to be part of a specific group of people; I can bare being different even if it’s tough sometimes. Of course not every new experience is valid, so for regarding what is now called electro-jazz, some musicians do a very good job at incorporating electronics while producing music that is poetic and makes you vibrate, others sound gloomy, with repetitive grooves and loops that go nowhere, no story, no development, like low clouds in the sky and the sun never comes through, but don’t blame electronics, blame those who use it badly.

10. If you were to recommend your music through several albums of yours spanning the entire career, which would those be? Which composition or album of yours would you send as a message to outer space?

          Outer space?....I believe that there must be some forms of life in other galaxies but no guarantee that extra-terrestrials can hear sounds like us, or can hear at all...! Perhaps they can see sound waves but not hear them....who knows?? So forget outer space, for humans I would recommend: Jazz Long Playing, my bebop album (1964) - Enigmatic Ocean (1977) - The Gift of Time (1987) – Tchokola (1991) – No Absolute Time (1993) – Life Enigma (2001) and my DVD “In Concert” (2003) which is like a live compilation with images.

JLP's collection of electric violins

JLP's main instrument is a 5-string electric violin (with a low C string) made for him in 1993 by Zeta Music Systems. Available for sale as the "Jean Luc Ponty Signature Model". Jean-Luc also plays his Zeta violin through a MIDI controller, model VC-225, also by Zeta. 

The second most played violin by Jean Luc is a 5-string Barcus-Berry made in 1980 with natural wood finish, for a more acoustic sound that still needs amplification. 

On occasion, Jean Luc also uses a 6-string electric violin (with low C and F strings) called the Violectra. Not to be confused with the violectra by Barcus-Berry which Jean-Luc 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. 

JLP's favorite bow is a "Spiccato" made by Benoit Rolland, a very talented French bow maker who lives in Boston. 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. 

JLP's Zeta violins are equipped with Helicore and his Barcus-Berry with Zyex, all medium tension strings by D'Addario. 

Synthesizers and samplers by Kurzweil, stage mixing console by Mackie, reverbs and delays: various models by Lexicon. Since 2000 Jean Luc Ponty's recording projects are entirely produced on his digital music computer system with ProTools with different plug-ins such as the amazing ChannelStrip by Metric Halo Labs for the violin EQ in particular. 

11. Zappa was a rock star, yet he was also a composer of contemporary music, influenced by Stravinsky. How did you perceive Zappa’s two sides back when you have played his music on King Kong album and later when you have toured with him. How would you comment Zappa’s musical idiom from an aesthetic standpoint? 

          Interesting how some of the most daring musicians grew up in California, like Mingus, Ornette Coleman and Frank Zappa. Perhaps because they grew up without the walls that tradition can impose in the mind of musicians growing up elsewhere. Zappa was practically self-taught, had he grown up in Europe or New York I imagine that he might have studied classical composition and never become a rock musician. When we played together it was difficult for him to place too much instrumental music in his shows, the majority of his audience came for the satiric songs and it appeared to me that he was prisoner of his freaky rocker image and losing his audience with intricate instrumentals. 
          However he was able to realize his dream when he was accepted as a respected composer in the classical world years later, not bad for an autodidact. 
          Some of his pieces were a total musical patchwork; a few measures of basic rock suddenly moving into jazz then into a Stravinsky like written section. He was a true pioneer of fusion but I preferred his pieces that were in one style from start to finish, some were very inventive, intricate yet melodic.

1969, with Frank Zappa, recording King Kong

12. What was the common artistic element that made you and John McLaughlin work together? What made you two different? 

          We were both totally involved in jazz when we met, both playing electric string instruments and also interested in rhythm & blues and rock instrumentation. John also loved classical music and violin in particular. He is a guitar virtuoso and we had fun pushing each other’s limits on stage. He came from England and me from France, two different cultures but both rich in tradition, and that gave us a similar look on America. Our personalities were different but we had many musical affinities.

13. John McLaughlin with Shakti. Ravi Shankar with Yehudi Menuhin. Jean-Luc Ponty with whom? Do you have such an artistic plan similar to the "East meets West" projects? 

          No, especially after Shakti did it so well. Violinist L. Subramaniam invited me to tour India with him in 2003 but we played jazz-fusion pieces together. I love listening to Indian classical music, which I discovered in the 60s, but I also love flamenco and that does not mean that I have to play music from all around the world.

John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra, 1974
Recording the classic Apocalypse

14. You currently tour with a team of musicians, two of them of African background and two others having experience with African musicians. Could you talk on the chemistry between the members of Jean-Luc Ponty group? What means Africa (and Western-African fusion) musically, as far as you are concerned?

          All rhythms in modern music have roots in West and Central Africa. Some of the rhythms in these countries are easy for Westerners to understand because of being almost unchanged in jazz, or Latin music. Others never traveled outside Africa and are very intricate, polyrhythm of up to 3 different grooves at the same time. I had to play some very difficult music in my life but never as difficult as some of these rhythms, because it’s not enough to understand where the beats are, you have to feel them so that you can really groove and flow on them. 
          Guy, my bass player who comes from Cameroon and Taffa (Moustapha) my percussionist from Senegal can also play jazz and other modern styles besides their native music. They grew up listening to fusion groups like Weather Report, Return to Forever, my band, Taffa even played some of my pieces in the 70s with his group in Senegal called Xalam. Sure there were times where we each had to make an effort to fully understand each other musically, but after playing so much together we now communicate with no problem.

Jean-Luc Ponty Group, 2004

15. If you accept this little game, that our readers appreciate, we propose you a brief questionnaire in which we ask you to choose solely based on your subjective affinity (it is not a matter of hierarchy). 

          All these names evoke great musicians whom I appreicate, but I feel an affinity with some in particular, not just suggestive, also reasoned and conscious, so I’ll play your way. 

             OK! Here we go: Gerry Mulligan or Thelonious Monk 


          Dizzy Gilespie or Miles Davis


          Nigel Kennedy or Frank Zappa (sic!)

          You’re’s like asking if I want fish or dessert...
          I want both.

          Jaco Pastorius or Dave Holland 

          John Abercrombie or Pat Metheny


Dizzy Gilespie and Jean-Luc Ponty, 1970

16. What do you think of the Romanian composer and violin virtuoso George Enescu? Does Romania tell you anything musically wise? 

          I like the way Enescu incorporated elements of Romanian folk music, especially his sonata Nº 3 for violin and piano. I know some excellent musicians from Romania, among them my friend film composer Vladimir Cosma who moved to Paris in the 60s, I am also familiar with gypsy music, violins with a horn and pan flutes. Florin Nicolescu who now lives in Paris is a very good jazz violinist. Romania has a strong musical identity and I hope to be able to visit your country some day.

Thank you!

          My pleasure...!

Interviewed by Mihai Plamadeala, Horia Diaconescu, Ioan Cora
December 2005

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