Jean-Luc Ponty has built a substantial reputation as a versatile jazz violinist who is equally at home in many musical genres: swing, bop, modal jazz, free jazz, and jazz-rock. The native of France has toured throughout the world and recorded dozens of records. Making a significant departure from his typical synthesizer-generated fusion fare in 1991, Ponty released an album of African music that was largely improvised in the studio. Musician called the widely acclaimed Tchokola “one of the most bumptious, upbeat cross-cultural collaborations to date.”
Ponty’s work, represented on many albums, is characterized by scored or improvised melodies over hard rhythmic bass patterns, combinations of electronic timbres, and violin virtuosity—electric or acoustic. Among the musician’s instruments are two Barcus-Berry violins, which, though they are painted blue and sport various electronic pick-up devices, are made of wood and can be played acoustically. In addition, Ponty plays the violectra—a baritone violin with strings tuned one octave lower than those of a standard violin—and a Zeta violin, which is made of wood with a crystal pick-up.
The son of a provincial French music teacher, Ponty was given a violin at the age of three. Two years later he began serious violin and piano studies and was trained in the classical repertoire on these instruments. By the time he was 13, Ponty had decided to make music his career and quit school to devote his time entirely to music. Entering the prestigious Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique in Paris two years later, he excelled in his studies and won the 1960 Premier Prix for violin.
During his conservatory years Ponty also discovered jazz. He listened to such musicians as Kenny Clarke, Bud Powell, and Dexter Gordon at Parisian nightclubs. As a diversion from his intense violin studies, Ponty took up the clarinet, and at age 17 he learned that a Parisian jazz band needed a clarinetist. Though he auditioned and was given the opportunity to learn the rudiments of jazz, classical music was still his main interest. Ponty eventually turned to the violin as a jazz instrument because that was the instrument at which he was most technically proficient. He has also expressed that he did not have the patience to learn other instruments more commonly used in jazz ensembles.
After completing his studies at the conservatory, Ponty joined the Concerts Lamoureux Symphony Orchestra in Paris and performed with local jazz groups in his
For the Record…
Born September 29, 1942, in Avranches, Normandy, France; son of a violin teacher and a piano teacher; married; children: two daughters. Education: Left school at age 13 to study violin privately; graduated from Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique, France, 1960.
Violinist, composer, and producer; member of Concerts Lamoureux Symphony Orchestra, Paris, France, 1960-63; compulsory military service, 1962-64; head of JLP Productions, Inc. (music production company), Los Angeles, CA; performed in Europe, often with Eddy Louiss and Daniel Humair, 1964-67; leader of a quartet with Wolfgang Dauner, Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, and Humair, 1967; appeared in nightclubs and at music festivals throughout the United States with George Duke Trio, 1969; formed group the Jean-Luc Ponty Experience and toured Europe, 1970-72; worked with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, 1969-75, Elton John, 1972, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, 1974-75; has toured and recorded with his own ensembles and with numerous other musicians, beginning in 1975; band members have included Rayford Griffin (drummer), Baron Browne (bassist), Wally Minko (pianist), and Jamie Glaser (guitarist).
Selected awards: Winner of Down Beat magazine readers’ poll and critics’ poll in violin category, 1971-79.
spare time. Jazz won out over classical music, and in 1963 Ponty quit the symphony to begin a full-time career in jazz. He frequently performed in Parisian nightclubs, and after playing at the Antibes jazz festival—then the only major jazz festival in Europe—his career blossomed. Ponty was subsequently booked throughout Europe and offered a recording contract.
Ponty’s entree into the world of American jazz came in 1967 when he attended a masterclass at the Monterey, California, Jazz Festival and came to the attention of the American public and recording industry. Before returning to France, Ponty performed in nightclubs and recorded three albums with the George Duke Trio.
By 1970 Ponty had formed his own jazz band, the Jean-Luc Ponty Experience, an ensemble that emphasized improvisation. But the classically trained Ponty was uncomfortable with the lack of structure in the jazz genre, and the musicians scattered only two years after the group’s inception. The innovative Frank Zappa soon discovered Ponty and asked him to join his band, the Mothers of Invention. Although Ponty played four tours with the group and worked with other musicians as well, including rock and roll legend Elton John, he had not yet found his niche.
Still searching for that elusive place in the jazz world, Ponty moved to Los Angeles, California, in 1983. He was composing and arranging his own music—with the hope of forming a band—when he was asked to join John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. Ponty was a member of this group, which performed pieces that were fusions of jazz and Eastern (mostly Indian) music, for two years before legal and personal disputes ended his association. But before the break-up Ponty was featured as a soloist on such albums as Apocalypse and Visions of the Emerald Beyond.
Ponty finally formed his own band, which, while the members varied from year to year, was made up of an electric guitarist, an electric bassist, a percussionist, and a keyboardist. The featured soloist on electric violin, Ponty composed and arranged his groups’ repertoire and founded his own production company, JLP Productions. Early in his solo career Ponty frequently performed at jazz festivals, but he eventually turned to promotional tours, playing to packed houses in the United States and averaging six months a year on the road. Many of the violinist’s albums have been popular by jazz music standards, particularly Imaginary Voyage, Enigmatic Ocean, and A Taste for Passion, and they have sold in the millions.
In 1980 Ponty dispersed his band, declaring that he needed a vacation. But within two years he had organized another ensemble and composed, arranged, and recorded Mystical Adventures. Featuring a less aggressive violin sound, the album was praised for more successfully utilizing the capabilities of the electronic synthesizer.
Ponty’s career has taken many varied turns. Following the release of The Gift of Time album in 1987, Ponty made a major tour of North America, South America, and Europe. He has also appeared as a classical performer with such ensembles as the New Japan Philharmonic, the Montreal Symphony, and the Toronto Symphony, among others. His 1989 LP Storytelling also reflects Ponty’s background in classical music; it is the first time in many years that he performed on acoustic violin.
Returning to Paris, France, Ponty jumped on the world beat bandwagon and joined a group of African musicians to record Tchokola. John Diliberto noted in Down Beat that “instead of writing African-derived music, Ponty decided to play the music itself, using compositions and forms from Senegal, Mali, Cameroon, and finding a way to fit in with his violin.” Though the classically trained musician confessed to Diliberto, “some of [the] rhythms [on the album] were the most difficult I had to deal with in my life,” Tchokola was heralded by Tom Cheney in Musician as “a graceful, sensitive and rootsy foray into world musicianship.” Ponty, ever-willing to experiment, once told Zan Stewart of the Los Angeles Times, “Because I don’t reject the past, my changes in style have not been zigzags. 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.”
Sunday Walk, MPS, 1967.
Electric Connection, Pacific Jazz, 1968.
Jean-Luc Ponty: Experience, Pacific Jazz, 1969.
(With Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention) King Kong, Pacific Jazz, 1970.
Astrorama, Far East, 1972.
Open Strings, MPS, 1972.
Live in Montreux, Inner City, 1972.
(With Stephane Grappelli) Ponty/Grappeiii, America, 1973.
(With Mahavishnu Orchestra) Apocalypse, Columbia, 1974.
Upon the Wings of Music, Atlantic, 1975.
(With Mahavishnu Orchestra) Visions of the Emerald Beyond, Columbia, 1975.
(With Grappelli, Stuff Smith, and Svend Asmussen) Violin Summit, MPS, 1975.
Imaginary Voyage, Blue Note, 1976.
Aurora, Atlantic, 1976.
Sonata Erotica, Inner City, 1976.
(With Grappelli) Jean-Luc Ponty/Stephane Grappelli, Inner City 1976.
Jazz 60’s, Vol. 2, Pacific Jazz, 1976.
Enigmatic Ocean, Atlantic, 1977.
(With George Duke) Cantaloupe Island, Blue Note, 1977.
Cosmic Messenger, Atlantic, 1978.
Live, Atlantic, 1979.
A Taste for Passion, Atlantic, 1979.
Civilized Evil, Atlantic, 1980.
Mystical Adventures, Atlantic, 1982.
Individual Choice, Atlantic, 1983.
Open Mind, Atlantic, 1984.
Fables, Atlantic, 1985.
The Gift of Time, Columbia, 1987.
Storytelling, Columbia, 1989.
Tchokola, Epic, 1991.
(With Tracey Ullman) Puss in Boots, Rhino, 1992.
Also contributed to other albums by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, including Overnite Sensation, Rykodisc, and Hot Rats, and to Elton John’s Honky Chateau, 1972.
Berendt, Joachim, The Jazz Book: From New Orleans to Rock and Free Jazz, translated by Dan Morgenstern, Barbara Bredigkeit, and Helmut Bredigkeit, Lawrence Hill & Co., 1975.
Coryell, Julie, and Laura Friedman, Jazz-Rock Fusion: The People, the Music, Dell, 1978.
Boston Herald, November 5, 1987.
Detroit Free Press, September 27, 1991.
Down Beat, September 1991.
Los Angeles Times, January 5, 1986.
Musician, September 1991; November 1991.
New York Tribune, September 14, 1989.
The Oreganian, February 5, 1988.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 22, 1986.
Pittsburgh Press, November 2, 1987; December 2, 1989.
Sun-Times (Chicago), November 21, 1989.
—Jeanne M. Lesinski
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