While the ravishes of time have recently silenced many of the genre’s great voices, including a few of his own friends, the seminal fusion violinist Jean-Luc Ponty is still ripping, teasing and lofting the genre’s most melodic voice at 74. Ponty talks with Boulder Weekly about keeping his joints healthy, circling back with old friends, redeeming his youthful promise and why he got along so well with Bud Powell.
Near the end of a wide-ranging interview with Ponty, I find myself apologizing a little for talking so much about the storied violinist’s career. Many artists can be frustrated when asked about their past triumphs, either because it can inadvertently suggest that their best years are behind them, or because writers are simply trying to pepper their copy with anecdotes about greater or better-known players.
Ponty, though, seems delighted by it.
“No, no,” he effuses in effortless, French-accented English, “I like it. It’s fun. I like to think of so many of these great memories myself.”
Still, Ponty finds himself touring the states this spring in an enterprise built around that very thing: the old days. While he maintains and still tours with his acoustic European trio — Biréli Lagrène on guitar, Kyle Eastwood (son of Clint) on bass — the French master is taking a plugged-in swing through the colonies as part of The Atlantic Years tour, a live retrospective of the string of albums he released between the late ’70s and the late ’80s, including such landmark releases as Enigmatic Ocean and Imaginary Voyage, with largely the same band.
Reminiscing as a private indulgence is one thing, but actually going back to re-learn old material and bring it back to life onstage is another matter. Ponty says the current Atlantic Years tour came about as a coincidental confluence of renewed interest in his electric years.
“What happened is there was renewed interest that first started in South America, where I toured pretty regularly — Brazil, Argentina, Chile. Since I toured there so much, I kept coming with different projects, new projects… but in the end, the fans were really craving to hear the music from my beginnings, the American albums. So I brought my band from 1988 down there… that was in 2011.
“And then strangely that same year — and there was no link — Warner France, which releases the Atlantic catalogs of my albums from that period, released a whole re-mastered four-CD compilation called The Atlantic Years. And they asked me to collaborate, to shape the sound and re-mastering and all that.
“I don’t really listen much to my own albums,” he says, “except once in awhile, like looking at old photos as memories, but that’s it.
“But working on that project made me listen attentively to all these early recordings, and I saw the value … because, after all these years, the tunes and the sounds are all still fresh. That’s what encouraged me to do it.”
• • • •
Somewhere in the murky shadows of fusion musicology, there are a few obsessives who will insist that King Kong, Ponty’s 1969 album, composed by Frank Zappa, is the first real fusion album. I’m not sure about that, and it’s a little late in the game to start an argument in favor of Tony Williams or Larry Coryell or Barry Miles. What’s probably inarguable though, is that Ponty, through sheer force of will and clarity of voice, made the violin an all but essential component of the fusion movement. A lesser player, or for that matter a great player with a shallower compositional well, would have left little more than an asterisk on the genre, a curiosity, an answer to an unasked trivia question.
Ponty, unsurprisingly, comes from a classical background, having won highest honors from the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris at age 18, then spending three years playing in a symphony orchestra, a pleasing turn for his violin-teacher father and classical-piano-instructor mother. Somewhere along the line, his father made the tactically dubious choice to teach the young Jean-Luc some jazz clarinet, which prompted the youngster to start lurking in Paris jazz clubs, at that time (early 1960s) brimming with some of the best of the American ex-pat jazz cats.
Clarinet wasn’t Jean-Luc’s forte, however, and he gradually felt compelled to bring his violin along and sit in on jams. One such jam was with the estimable American pianist Bud Powell.
“[He] was living in Paris at the time, and he was playing at a club called the Blue Note (which is not related to the Blue Note in New York), and I don’t know how I had the guts to go and jam with him, but I did. And he was very nice; he liked me, in part because of the way I was playing, but also he told me because he had started on violin, before piano.”
Ponty sighs and says, “Yes, that’s going way back in my youth.”
From that and other sources of encouragement, Ponty came to a point where he had to choose between a safe career in classical and a chancy career in jazz.
He chose the latter, to the furrowed skepticism of his parents.
“Especially my father — he did not understand the kind of jazz I liked, it was foreign to my father’s ears. He was used to really old swing style jazz; for him, that was jazz. When he heard me play modern jazz — bebop and all that — he couldn’t understand it. I had fulfilled my duty of being a good boy, going to conservatory and getting my diploma, and was hired right after to play in symphony orchestra in Paris. They were relieved; all had gone well, according to plan.”
And then Coltrane screwed everything up.
“Exactly,” he says with a laugh.
“But what’s interesting is I got invited a few times to play on French television, and they were a bit proud. ‘Maybe he was right, after all.’ In fact, my daughter told me that later, when I started recording my own albums in Los Angeles in 1975, which of course had a strong influence from classical, she would tell me that my father would listen to my music at home when she was visiting my parents in France.”
• • • •
It was after a two-album and tour cycle with a re-constituted Mahavishnu Orchestra, replacing Jerry Goodman, that Ponty, now firmly established in the U.S. as a jazz fusion violinist without peer and a highly sought–after collaborator, decided to start making his own records. He assembled a band, distilling his unique classical and jazz background through his experiences playing with Zappa and John McLaughlin.
And then, a chance meeting with Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke presented him with another career choice. Better too many than too few.
“With Chick and Stanley, we met and became friends in the ’70s, as they had just started Return to Forever. I had just joined Mahavishnu, and I met them in New York. And they asked me, later after I had left Mahavishnu and started my own band, if I wanted to join Return to Forever. I had just started my own band and it was a difficult decision because they were such great musicians and the band was at the peak of their glory. It was tempting in many aspects.
“But I had put so much into my own project, for months. Starting the band, rehearsing, recording two albums for Atlantic, and finally I said, ‘Nah, if I have a shot at doing it without my own group, it’s now or never.’
“And it was funny. My third album, Imaginary Voyage, had just come out. And four months after we talked about my joining, Imaginary Voyage was number one on the jazz charts and in the top 40 on the rock charts. And Chick told me, ‘Well, you made the right decision.’”
And the wheel turned, as Corea re-approached Ponty to join a reconstituted RTF for a world tour in 2011 — 35 years later. The second later reincarnation of Return to Forever, with Frank Gambale replacing Al DiMeola and Ponty assuming a shockingly natural place at center stage, was a looser, more relaxed, in some ways a more deeply humanized version of the revived RTF experience. One of the highlights of that band, and easily the most satisfying cut on the live album spawned from that 2011 tour, was a lengthy and sublime read of Ponty’s “Renaissance” (from his 1976 release Aurora), limber and spirited, a distant cousin of the driving electric RTF material that constituted the band’s 2008 set.
That one piece, the marriage of Ponty’s gently laced melodic romanticism and RTF’s seldom-appreciated facility for acoustic understatement, neatly and elegantly paying homage to two great musical forces of 40 years ago, closed a circle and gifted fusion fans with a fleeting promise finally fulfilled.
• • • •
Time pities no one, and Ponty has seen, in only the last year or so, the loss of several of his old collaborators. Allan Zavod, the highly esteemed Australian pianist/composer, passed last November. Larry Coryell, who was Ponty’s longtime friend and whose band (with Philip Catherine) opened for Ponty on tour in the mid-’70s, passed in February. And Alan Holdsworth, whose jarringly virtuosic guitar graced several of Ponty’s early Atlantic recordings, passed only days after my chat with Ponty in April. And old mentors like George Duke and Zappa have been gone for years.
Just being here is a gift.
For a violinist deeply invested in fiendish compositions and quicksilver phrasing, 74 should be a challenging age. Few instruments, with the exception of perhaps the drum kit, demand as much sustained physicality as playing a jazz violin. Neck and back bent, tight and precise left finger placement, unnatural arm positions — what’s the key? Exercises?
“I did not [do any], until recently. I’ve been very lucky. Sometimes I read the weekly musicians union newspaper, even young players dealing with pain.
“But I must say, I started practicing yoga soon after I moved to California, when I was about 30 years old. I did feel a little bit of pain sometimes, even then, in my back, my shoulder, my neck. Yoga helped me.
“It was incredible; to be conscious, to feel your muscles while you play. So I learned to relax my muscles, and that saved me until recently, when I had a bit of pain in my left arm. I went to see a physical therapist, and he gave me some exercises, and it went away. Gone. I just played two shows in Poland, and one in London with Nigel Kennedy, and it was great, no problem.
“Y’know, playing is a pleasure for me, and also to communicate with the fans, to play for people. It feels great.
“Eh, I know it won’t last forever. This might be one of my last tours, maybe the last big one with my band. You never know.
“But, I just feel blessed, to be able to still do it.”