Within our generation there are only a few musicians that have pioneered such a unique sound that their impact and commercial success has even caught the purists and critics off guard. Thanks to Jean-Luc Ponty and these few others, many who resided safely within narrow musical boundaries have expanded to embrace the intellectual nuances and freedom of jazz.
"At first jazz was a hobby while I was studying classical violin at the Paris Conservatory," recalls Ponty. "I started playing jazz on clarinet and than switched to tenor sax. Once I really became so passionate about jazz and started to take this passion seriously, I decided to switch to violin because of my technical abilities, and so I could go jam with the top musicians in Paris, which included some Americans like Bud Powell, Johnny Griffin, Dexter Gordon and Kenny Clark." Even tough his father, the founder of a music school, had played some jazz in his youth and his mother was teaching music privately and at the high school, they did not put great value Jean-Luc's new found interest in jazz. "One reason," explains Jean-Luc, "was that they did not understand this type of jazz; and secondly, they were worried for me financially. At that time my friends and colleagues from the conservatory were getting jobs in the opera and in orchestras and starting to make a decent living and driving nice small British sports cars and owning their own apartments. I was with a third-hand car that didn't work and I couldn't pay my rent. However, when I started to appear on French television and be written about in the newspapers, [my parents] started to understand my music a lot better."
In addition to working with such innovative groups as the Mahavishnu Orchestra to recording on such popular albums as Elton John's Honky Chateau, Jean-Luc has enjoyed a long and successful recording career as a leader. Through almost three decades of albums, Ponty has continually pushed the envelope of original ideas while becoming a defining force of new instrumental music in the process. "Although I had the greatest respect for the big innovators and masters I had listened to, the lesson that I had personally learned is that in jazz, particularly, each innovator, each master, created his own sound and his own phrasing. To be worth something and for my own self-esteem, I felt that the last thing I should do is copy someone else, but to try to move forward. I find that there is a trend among the younger generation to be a lot more conservative--they seem rarely as adventurous as we use to be."
The continuation of Jean-Luc's adventurous spirit is evident in African influences found on his last two recordings. "When I discovered these West African musicians in Paris," states Ponty, "I fell in love with these new rhythms I learned and that's what prompted me to try to improvise these rhythms. On Tchokola, every piece was based on African rhythms, and I tried to fit in with them rather then than use their rhythms for my material. But on No Absolute Time, I came back to my style of working. For three songs--'Savanna,' 'The African Spirit,' and 'Speak Out'--I started with the African rhythms and wrote the music on top."
It was at the age of eleven that Jean-Luc's parents asked him choose between the two instruments he had studied up to that point, piano and violin. And why violin? "That I don't remember," states Ponty. "Maybe because of the father image--my father was a violinist . . . I don't know. I've never talked to a psycho analyst about it," jokes Ponty. "It's probably because I found it so expressive--and physically to hold the instrument against your body--there was a connection I felt with the instrument."
Ponty on Zappa:
"The news hit me, although I knew he was vary ill," said Jean-Luc referring to Frank Zappa's Passing, "but yet I didn't expect it so quick. I remember being introduced to Frank through Richard Bock, the man who founded the Wold Pacific label, who I had known thorough working with George Duke. Dick Bock wanted to have some more tapes in his drawers before I flew back to Europe and he wanted to set me up in something totally different. So we spent a whole evening in his office where he played me records of famous popular artists of the time including the Doors, the Fifth Dimension . . . then he mentioned Zappa. I had read about him in French jazz magazines--I don't know if he was popular yet [in America], but his name was already well known in France. The whole idea behind this meeting was to push me to record some popular songs of the time--like they were producing with other jazz artists--and I did not like this idea at all. But when I heard Zappa I knew that it wouldn't be a top-40 endeavor, and I was intrigued, at least to meet him. I wasn't sure where we could meet musically, but at least I thought the idea was interesting, and Richard arranged the meeting." This meeting not only led Jean-Luc to work with the Mothers of Invention but also to record a highly acclaimed album of Zappa compositions, King Kong, which has just recently been reissued by Blue Note.
- Ralph Burnett