In the more than 15 years that Jean-Luc Ponty has been a solo artist, his music has undergone a remarkable evolution.
Today, the French violinist appears on a stage full of electronic instruments, his band is very loud and his repertoire is a pulsating brew of originals that draw from jazz, rock and classical. In 1969, when the distinctive string player made his U.S. debut, he played more or less straight-ahead jazz at Donte's and the now-defunct Thee Experience with a quartet that featured keyboardist George Duke, bassist John Heard and drummer Dick Berk.
From Ponty's point of view, these two seemingly disparate styles are all part of a continuum. "Because I don't reject the past, my changes in style have not been zigzags," the soft-spoken Ponty, whose English still bears a medium-thick French accent, said in a recent interview. "I just wanted to keep this feeling of fresh adventure in my work and not be stuck in styles, whether it's jazz or rock or anything else.
On Ponty's newest Atlantic LP, "Fables," his "fresh adventure" continues as he heads deeper into the world of electronics, relying heavily on the Synclavier, a keyboard instrument used for composing, playback and performing.
"The Synclavier is a computer-driven instrument on which you can create electronic music, starting with sound waves and eventually coming up with musical sounds," Ponty explained. "And it's also a recording studio. It has 16 digital tracks, each in stereo. But since it's computer-driven, all of the notes I play are stored on a floppy disk."
Ponty thinks that composing greats of the past would embrace such a commanding instrument. "Because it's so fast and you can hear whatever you've just written," the violinist said, "people like Bach or Stravinsky would love one of these.
"In the past, you had to wait until you had an orchestra to hear what you'd written, and then make changes. Now, you can play back what you've written and know what it sounds like."
"Fables" is the first album on which Ponty has played both his regular Barcus-Berry violins, which are painted blue and equipped with various pick-up devices, and the new Zeta, the first totally electronic violin. "The Barcus-Berry is a traditional violin," Ponty said. "It's made of wood and the sound still comes from the box inside the violin. It can be played without an amplifier, and even when it's amplified, it has more of the traditional violin sound.
"The Zeta is a solid body instrument, also of wood, with a crystal pick-up. Each string has a separate control for tone and volume, and I can play each string in stereo. It sounds like a violin, but with a very electric, modern sound."
The 43-year-old Ponty, born near Normandy, France, wasn't supposed to be a musician. Both his parents were, and their life as music teachers--his mother was a pianist and his father played violin and clarinet--had been hard, often without a steady salary. "They weren't crazy about me being a musician," Ponty said with a sly smile. "But I had the fire within myself to be a player. You have to have both--the gift and the motivation--to become an artist. I had to argue a lot.
"Once they let me do it, they said, 'You have to do it the right way.' That meant practicing five hours a day, so that I could get into the conservatory. I knew that was the price I had to pay."
Ponty was accepted into the Conservatoire de Paris, from which he graduated at 17 1/2 with its highest honor, the Premier Prix. He then began a three-year tenure with the Concerts Lamoureux, a symphony in Paris. "I began in the last chair of the second violins," he noted with a chuckle, "but in three years, I was sitting behind the concertmaster."
His classical career was short-lived. "In the orchestra, we had to play many of the same pieces," he said, "and I found that a lot of the orchestrations seemed corny." As time went on, he became more and more interested in the modern jazz that he had first heard at 16.
"Some friends had played records by people like Clifford Brown and Miles Davis and John Coltrane," he remembered, "and they took me to hear Bud Powell and Kenny Clarke. I really liked the way they phrased. It was something that grabbed me."
Ponty began playing jazz on saxophone (he'd learned clarinet from his father and the switch wasn't difficult) but the wind instrument presented some problems. "I was blocked technically by sax," he said. "But the violin was part of myself, so when I got really serious, I decided to play jazz on violin because I had much more ability."
The abundantly talented musician embarked on a full-time jazz career at age 21, and his astonishing speed and fluidity were a hit at the 1964 jazz festival in Antibes. During the '60s, Ponty traveled throughout Europe, playing to enthusiastic audiences everywhere. While he started out as a be-bopper, he soon found that his technical prowess was also well-suited for free-form playing.
With time, this structure-less approach also proved dull and, in 1969, Ponty changed his objectives once again. "I came into contact with rock, first through progressive groups like the Soft Machine, and then people like Elton John, who called me to record with them." (Ponty was on John's 1972 album "Honky Chateau.")
"I started to open my ears," Ponty said. "All the time I was discovering different musical elements that I liked. Jazz was a revolution. It took me away from the classics, but the impact of the great composers like Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel, the Impressionists I loved, remained. I was finding I missed the organization of moods that existed in classics which didn't exist in be-bop."
Ponty stepped down as a leader in the early '70s and joined groups led by Frank Zappa and John MacLaughlin before deciding in 1975 that he not only needed his own band again, but his own direction. "Being able to appreciate so many styles was hard psychologically," Ponty said, "until I realized the only way I could find my musical balance was to create my own music, incorporating all the things I knew and personally liked."
That personal direction began with 1976's "Imaginary Voyage," his second of 11 Atlantic LPs. "In the four-part suite that highlights the album," Ponty said, "I was trying to create a lush sound, similar to a symphony orchestra, but in a modern, electric way."
"Cosmic Messenger" from 1978 found Ponty employing a thumping rhythm section over which he played long, flowing lines, while on "Individual Choice" (1983), essentially a solo album, Ponty used synthesizers to create repetitive, driving backgrounds to underpin his eclectic soloing. "Fables" brings him full circle, using electronics for backdrops while a band plays on top.
Ponty, who just finished a lengthy tour that began in Brazil and ended in Los Angeles, has lived here since 1973.
"It was hard to leave the life in Paris at first, but when I found the musical environment here in Los Angeles so stimulating, I decided to stay," he said. "I took a place in Paris again in 1981, but I conduct all my music business here, because you can get anything in the way of music you want. Plus it's a great base for someone who's traveling. It's nice to come back from a winter tour and find the lovely weather here."