Ponty was born in a family of classical musicians on
September 29, 1942 in Avranches, France. His father
taught violin, his mother taught piano. At sixteen,
he was admitted to the Conservatoire National Supérieur
de Musique de Paris, graduating two years later with
the institution's highest award, Premier Prix. In turn,
he was immediately hired by one of the major symphony
orchestras, Concerts Lamoureux, where he played for
In 1967, John Lewis of The Modern Jazz Quartet
invited Ponty to perform at the Monterey Jazz Festival.
Jean-Luc's first-ever American appearance garnered thunderous
applause and led to a U.S. recording contract with the
World Pacific label (Electric Connection with the Gerald
Wilson Big Band, Jean-Luc Ponty Experience with the
George Duke Trio).
In 1969, Frank Zappa composed the music for Jean-Luc's
solo album King Kong (Blue Note). Within a year - at
the urging of Zappa and the Mothers of Invention
who wanted him to join their tour. At his home in Los
Angeles, Ponty continued to work on a variety of projects
- including a pair of John McLaughlin/Mahavishnu Orchestra
albums/tours (Apocalypse, Visions of the Emerald Beyond)
until 1975, when he signed on as a solo artist with
Now Ponty is back, and Gary Hill is just itching to
Crud Magazine: It has been a long time between
solo projects for you. Why the delay and what brought
you back now?
Jean-Luc Ponty: There are various reasons. Number
one, I was not totally inactive. I was touring. But,
I had a major change in life. After living 23 years
in California, in Los Angeles, I moved with my wife.
We settled in Paris and New York. I spent a lot of time
in France and reconnected with my roots, my cultural
roots, old friends and so forth. I was just taking time
to enjoy life and reflecting on life - still doing quite
a few projects. The previous studio album was 1993,
but the two following years - 1994 and '95 - I was busy
doing this trio with Stanley Clarke and Al Dimeola.
'96 I moved. That was a big thing. Then the following
years I was mostly touring in Europe with this group,
which I had neglected for a very long time. Also playing
in front of new audiences for us, like the East European
countries which were now open to concert tours - Poland,
Czech Republic. We went to Russia for the first time.
And, then I was not sure I wanted to or had to record
another album because I had so many behind me. Also
because the state of the recording industry was not
appealing too much to me because I was feeling pushed
away more and more from the inner circle. Sure, I never
abandoned music. I kept writing down ideas I had during
those 4 or 5 years, and I also had the website which
we started 3 or 4 years ago. Thanks to which a lot of
fans who had completely lost track of me reconnected,
and I got a lot of requests for a new album. So, since
I had plenty of material, I did it for the fans. That
was the main reason. Since I wanted to keep complete
artistic control and freedom - not having to seek approval
of A & R in the recording company, that's why I decided
also to start my own label. It's a risk, but if it works
I'll be like a king because I won't have to have someone
tell me "no, you shouldn't record this. I don't think
it will sell".
Crud Magazine: Did you run into that in the past?
Jean-Luc Ponty: No, not really, but I feel it
more and more, and when my contract ended with Atlantic,
and we talked to other labels, some wanted to push me
to smooth jazz or something else. I said, "wait a minute.
I have my style and I have an international audience.
I'm not going to do just the sort of music for one territory
which works maybe here, but doesn't work there. And,
it doesn't make sense artistically anyway." Some labels
have this whole system of marketing an album, which
works well for some artists. They work with radio format,
the whole pipeline, and it works. Not for me. I'm not
making music or albums at my age, after so many years
of career just to be on top of the charts. It's really
mostly as an artist to be the best for whatever years
remain to be productive at my age. I'm 59, so I don't
know how long I'll go on with this. So for the maybe
few productions I have to create I might as well be
Crud Magazine: How would you describe your music?
Jean-Luc Ponty: I have strong roots in jazz and
classical music but with my experience in rock and my
interest in world music, what can I say? It's modern
Crud Magazine: How would you compare the new
album to your previous work?
Jean-Luc Ponty: I wanted to come back to my personal
style of writing without producing an album exactly
like it was in the '70's, which would have made no sense
to me because they are recorded. They are available
for those who want to hear it. Also, I grew up. I'm
different somehow. I wanted to come back, though, to
my style of writing melodies and the harmonic changes
because during the '90's I kind of ventured into other
things. I did the African project, the acoustic trio,
so I kind of wandered a bit away from my personal concept
which I had developed for two decades ('70's and '80's).
Maybe because I was reconnected with my country and
my cultural roots, it felt like musically I shouldn't
always travel and get into new collaborations. So, that's
basically what I did. I wanted to reconnect to that
use of electronics, but in a modern way. Also because
the violin I get now is so big and warm. Little by little
the technology has improved so much. That it's time
for me to record music that is very personal but with
a sonic environment that is so much better than when
we recorded in the '70's and '80's. Again, the production
style is different from before because there is more
accent on the percussion which comes from my experience
with the African musicians, which I keep since I still
have this percussionist with me. The accent is more
on percussion than drums. Also, it's a more acoustic,
organic sound, generally speaking. It's more acoustic
sounds than I used before. But when I used electronic
effects I wanted them to be more up to date. That was
my intent. Behind that there was the inspiration, of
course, being a collection of ideas over the past 4
or 5 years.
Crud Magazine: Some of the tracks on the album
are basically one man shows, with you playing most,
and in some cases all of the instruments. That's not
something you had done before.
Jean-Luc Ponty: Right. I never went that far
before. I never did the percussion or drums, but again,
because I have the technology available, I just decided
to try what fit well in terms of percussion and very
subtle rhythms, and it went well. I'm not against doing
something on album that I can not do on stage because
that's fine, that's something else. On stage we play
it live. Whatever I played is picked up by my drummer
and he doesn't have to stick to what I did exactly.
So we do more of a live version on the road. In the
'80's I started with the synclaviers and the sequencers.
In the '70's it was all going in to the studio and playing
pretty much live. The '80's already I started to use
tools of the studio. Having myself a home studio, I
would start improvising layers of keyboards, synthesizers
and I would add the violin. However, I would just do
maybe mock-ups, demo-style rhythms. So that my rhythm
section would get an idea of what I wanted, but then
they would do it in the end and come up with their own
ideas - if they had some different than mine. So, in
a way, it's not totally new for me to work this way,
but I went even further because this time, with a computer,
recording directly to hard disk, non-destructive, I
could experiment so much. I had all this collection
of sounds of percussion and drums which are pretty much
electronic, but the jungle drums which I kind of like
because it's a fast rock rhythm at the base of it. It's
similar to what we were doing in jazz-rock in the '70's
- just a few accents are different and the sound. So,
a few tracks I decided to go all the way and others
are more with the band.
Crud Magazine: How is the album being received?
Jean-Luc Ponty: Extremely well I must say, extremely
well by critics - in Europe as well as here. I think
maybe because I didn't try to prove anything and try
to reproduce what I did before. I wanted something simple,
straight from the heart. I've seen extremely few people
who were disappointed by it.
Crud Magazine: How about the tour. How is it
Jean-Luc Ponty: I'm surprised how well the tour
is going considering the terrorist attacks. When that
happened I was in France, but the last thing I was thinking
was playing music going on the road or anything after
that. Then, of course, I was in touch with my friends
in New York. No one was hurt. Also my booking agent,
my concert agency, they are in New York. So, I was just
calling to make sure they were safe, and they said,
"we have to go on. Life must go on." But yet I didn't
know what to expect. Are people going to come out? It
has been practically sold out everywhere we went, with
maybe a couple of exceptions. I'm happily surprised.
We have been as shocked as Americans when this happened.
Terrorism is a thing that is in place in Europe already
for many years. It was not on that magnitude, but unfortunately
it has been a part of European life. 10 years ago there
was another group from North Africa placed a bomb in
a department store - 200 people were killed. In '96
there was another one in the subway - 20 people killed.
Although the magnitude of what happened was not like
what happened here, everybody felt closer to the Americans
because of that. Myself I am deeply perturbed by that
because of what it implies for the future. I sat up
til 2 AM and played music as healing. Hopefully that
is what it does for audiences, as well. That's probably
why they come out. This is the first tour I'm doing
entirely on a bus. I did two weeks of touring for promotion
- in-store appearances at Borders. For that I had to
fly coast to coast - long lines in airports.
Crud Magazine: Will we see any more African or
world type records from you?
Jean-Luc Ponty: No. There might be something
else, but I don't want to repeat or keep doing just
African projects because I'm not African. It would be
silly to just do that. However, if people wanted very
strongly to see that group happening again - there was
just only 1 tour and 1 album - yes, I would do it.
Crud Magazine: Are you doing any of that material
on this tour?
Jean-Luc Ponty: We still have one piece, and
I have the two guys in my band who are from that project.
So, it was a very major thing for me.
Crud Magazine: Are there any musicians with whom
you would like to work?
Jean-Luc Ponty: Yeah - there are a few. That's
what I would like to do, some collaborations. Not necessarily
big names that would mean immediately record companies
thinking "how much are we going to sell? How much are
we going to make?" I'm talking maybe Subramaniam. He
is an Indian violinist; unbelievable violin player and
a duet with him would be great. We've been talking about
it for 10 years, but it is a project I could never sell
to a record company. They wouldn't know what to do with
it. There has been such a change in the industry. When
I started in the '70's we were free to do whatever we
had in mind musically, and artists were leading the
industry. Now it's really the other way around. When
I started in the '70's it was not really extremely professional
yet. It was passionate people - musicians or people
who had passion for it who were programming radio -
who were in record companies. Very quickly there were
some real business people who came in. Who sometimes
came from business schools and have no clue about music,
but they know about accounting and marketing and that's
all that counts. So, all they see are the numbers, and
they don't think in the long term of building the careers
of young artists.
Crud Magazine: What has been your biggest Spinal
Jean-Luc Ponty: There have been a few, but there
is just one that sticks in my mind. We were playing
in Venezuela and flying the equipment. We had like 2
or 3 tons of equipment. None of it showed up. Usually
people complain about South America that they are not
really as together business-wise. This time it was Pan
Am. It was the American carrier that was on strike.
All the equipment was stuck in Miami. So, when I arrived
at the sound check in the afternoon, it was a bare stage.
There was nothing - absolutely nothing. The show was
saved thanks to the opening act. We didn't need an opening
act, but they don't respect contracts. That was to our
benefit that night, because we could use their equipment.
Except for the violins, which I carry with me all the
time. But they had electric guitar, bass, drums - so
we did the show. It could have been embarrassing because
that a tour we had postponed already. It was on TV on
the news nationwide the day of the show. They asked
me, "so, this time is everything OK?" I said, "yeah,
the show is happening." So, that's one of those stressful
Gary Hill for Crud Magazine 2001
see also: MUSIC
Some of the biography details above first appeared