This started out as a post about three different songs by three different artists. But I found Ponty’s music so compelling and I’ve written about him so little (i.e., not at all) that I figured it was about time I gave him some space.
“Trying to invent is not something I ever had in mind when composing or practicing violin. I just like exploring different ways to compose and also try new techniques on my instrument just to break the routine. It does not always work but sometimes you come up with an idea that nobody else had thought of before, and so you invent a bit by chance, just because you are not afraid to be different”. – Jean-Luc Ponty in an interview.
French violinist Jean-Luc Ponty has been a force in music since just about forever. His parents were classical musicians and teachers and he himself was admitted to the impressive-sounding Conservatoire National Superiéur de Musique de Paris. (Not associated with Trump University.)
Interestingly, while still a member of a Parisian orchestra, he was playing clarinet and sax on the side in jazz bands. One night he showed up at a club with only violin in hand, played, and well, the rest is history. Given the choice between classical and jazz he chose the latter and the world of jazz is better for it.
It’s not that the violin did not exist as a jazz instrument prior to Ponty. Far from it. Stephane Grappelli of the Quintette of the Hot Club of France was a pioneer in that space. But Ponty’s freedom in playing led some to say he was the first to sound like a horn and have the virtuosity of a Coltrane.
Suffice it to say the only person Ponty appears to have never jammed with is me. A short list includes Frank Zappa, Allan Holdsworth, Bela Fleck, Elton John (Honky Chateau), Chick Corea, Mahavishnu Orchestra – a veritable who’s who of rock, pop, and jazz.
One thing I didn’t know till I researched this post was that in 2014, Ponty and Jon Anderson formed the Anderson Ponty band. They toured and released an album called Better Late Than Never. (In reference to the fact that they’d been wanting to work together for years.) I listened to it and while it’s good, it sounds more to me like Yes with violins than jazz so I didn’t include a song in this post. If you’re curious, check it out here.
I’ll jump around a little bit chronologocially. First up is an album that came out in the ’70’s, the last great heyday of fusion. The album is called Imaginary Voyage and I have always loved the opening tune, “New Country.” It’s a foot-stompin’ country-jazz hoedown of sorts. When’s the last time you heard one of them? That’s what I thought. (Daryl Stuermer on guitar who later played with Genesis and then Phil Collins solo):
By the late ’60s, Ponty had played in several jazz festivals and through connections there got signed to the now-defunct World Pacific label. Through that label he met keyboardist George Duke and together they recorded an album called The Jean-Luc Ponty Experience with the George Duke Trio.
Ponty had a long association with Frank Zappa whom he met through his label, not Duke, who was not yet playing with Zappa. In fact, Ponty emigrated to the States largely on the urging of Zappa who wanted Ponty to tour with him. Jean-Luc “loved his instrumental pieces” and played on several Zappa albums including Hot Rats and Overnite Sensation and toured with the FZ.
In 1970, Ponty recorded an album called King Kong: Jean-Luc Ponty Plays the Music of Frank Zappa. The title track is from Zappa’s Uncle Meat album and on that album, it is a suite that takes up one whole side.* There are two bass players on Ponty’s album, Buell Neidlinger, and Wilton Felder. I don’t know which of them is on this track but his work is outstanding:
Ponty eventually had a falling-out with Zappa which rumor (always a reliable indicator) has it was over money. At least that’s Zappa’s version. Jean-Luc’s version is that his role was getting increasingly smaller as Zappa started giving more time over to comedic bits. Either way he left.
Another jump in time here to feature a great album by three incredible musicians (Ponty, guitarist Al Di Meola, bassist Stanley Clarke)** called The Rite of Strings. This is a number Ponty wrote called “Renaissance” and it has the three virtuoso dudes in fine form (can’t find on Spotify, alas):
I’ll leave you with a little bit of live Ponty. This is from a DVD called Jean-Luc Ponty in Concert. It’s called “Jig” and has some outstanding ensemble playing as well as some great solos not only by Jean-Luc but also pianist William Lecomte:
Spotify link (studio version)
At 75, Jean-Luc Ponty is still going strong. According to his website, he’s scheduled to play a few select dates in Europe in spring 2018.
*One movement is called “King Kong (As Played By 3 Deranged Good Humor Trucks).”
**George Duke and Stanley Clarke had a long association as the Clarke/Duke project.
Sources – Ponty’s home page; Wikipedia; Ponty interview