In conversation with jean-luc ponty
The liner notes of Le Voyage, the Jean-Luc Ponty Anthology on Atlantic Records say that when your parents asked you to choose between piano and violin, as a child, you chose the latter because it was more expressive. Do you still feel that way?
It definitely is one of most expressive instruments and one that is closest to the human voice. It’s very archaic in fact: you run your fingers on strings attached to a stick with no predetermined notes on it while driving a bow on those strings, and it’s the contact of the flesh on the strings and the pressure of the bow that makes the quality of the sound. Besides, you hold it close to your body, like an extension of it, whereas the piano — which I also adore — is more of a mechanical instrument. My father taught the violin and my mother the piano, so, though I never talked to a shrink about that, it may have counted when I made my choice at 11, after having studied both instruments from age 5. Neither of my parents tried to influence me, they just wanted me to focus on an instrument so as to become good on it, instead of mediocre on both.
Your consciousness of the violin’s expressivity was really natural, then?
Actually I only became aware of it later on, but I must have felt something unconsciously, and I still do now. After all these years, I still like being able to find pleasure with this ‘wooden box’ and in improving my technique. I compose on electronic keyboards, so every time I go back to the violin to try what I wrote, I experience again the feeling of this touch and this vibration.
Were you conscious of this expressivity when you were studying at the Paris Conservatory?
No, I was just a good student learning the classical technique and tradition. I discovered this expressivity with jazz, a music that I almost totally ignored. Actually I started playing it on the clarinet, in dance bands. My father had taught me the clarinet as a third instrument so I would be put in an army band instead of a battlefield in case I were drafted, and I felt a strong interest for this instrument too. When a friend of mine at the Conservatory proposed a gig with a student’s band, I went there with my clarinet and tried my luck, thinking it would be a good opportunity to date girls. I was hired because I could play by hear, though I knew nothing about jazz improvisation, which I learned on the spot.
From then on I discovered a brand new musical world — from Benny Goodman to Miles Davis — started buying records and went to concerts. I really got passionate when I noticed that the harmonies I heard in modern jazz were often very close to those I had learned and practiced in classical music, but I still didn’t make the relationship with playing my violin in a jazz context. I had even started playing the tenor sax in this jazz band.
The leap to the violin happened when I went to hear Albert Nicholas in a club, in 1958. I had my violin case with me, but no clarinet nor sax and I got so excited at the end of the concert that I asked if I could sit in with my violin. When I played, people stopped dancing and started to listen, and this first time was a revelation for me and for everybody around. The French drummer who led the band that had invited Nicholas made me discover that jazz violinists already existed, which I largely ignored, and the one that touched me most was Stuff Smith. He confirmed me that the violin could be really expressive in jazz, and in fact his style is often compared to that of reed players, which was my first experience in the field.
At that time, embracing a jazz career wasn’t usual for a young classically trained musician bound to become a classical concert player, was it?
No, it was very rare, especially on the violin. In France, in those days, some jazz piano players or trumpet players were classically trained, but the violin is a rare instrument in jazz and I think it is due to its difficulties. If you study the instrument deeply, which can only be done through classical studies, you will invest so much time and energy in it that chances are you will want to embrace a profitable career in the classical field rather than a risky one in jazz. On the other hand, the lack of role models on the violin in modern jazz did not make it easy for a kid who liked this music to choose such a difficult instrument. Still it?s very important to acquire the classical technique. That?s what allowed me to evolve and to be able to play any music I chose. The violin is definitely an expressive instrument and as such it can be played in the jazz field, but if you don’t have strong technical roots you’re bound to experience limitations in your musical career.
Some people talk about a ‘French school’ of jazz strings, since each generation seems to have brought a prominent violinist: Stéphane Grappelli, then you, then Didier Lockwood, then Dominique Pifarély . . .
You can talk about a ‘Russian school’ or a ‘French school’ in classical violin, because each nation teaches a different way of holding the bow, and this has an impact on the sound. But I wouldn’t talk about a ‘French school’ of jazz violin. First because I started playing the violin in jazz even before I had ever heard Stéphane Grappelli and became more interested in Stuff Smith than in him, for example.
I guess lots of younger violin players were either influenced by Grappelli’s way of playing or by mine, but since I left France rather early, I’ve had few contacts with French players even if I can hear something of me in the playing of some of them. Anyway this is not limited to France and if people were influenced by me, it’s a choice they made, not a direct influence. I guess I transferred what I had practiced on the clarinet and tenor sax — and what I liked in the trumpet or piano in the post bebop idiom — to the violin. Since there were no other violin players in modern jazz at the time, this opened a brand new path for younger musicians. So, style is such an original approach in jazz, overall on the violin, that I don’t really think there can be ‘schools’. I taught a few master classes all over the world, though I don’t consider myself as a teacher, but I never tried to entice anybody to play like me and I don’t believe much in jazz schools at large, anyway.
Were you aware of being a pioneer, back then in the sixties, or were you just searching for your own identity?
At first I was not really aware of anything, but I was curious, which brought me to explore several musical territories as I met new musicians in France or in Europe. Since I was one of the very few violinists available on the Continent (there was also Svend Asmussen in Sweden and Michal Urbaniak in Poland) I was called here and there. In France, I became a mainstay at the Paris Blue Note, alternating with Bud Powell and, at age 21, I played at the Juan-les-Pins Festival, where I met lots of promoters. This brought a lot of gigs all over Europe: Madrid with Tete Montoliu, Copenhagen with Kenny Drew and NHOP, Germany with keyboardist Wolfgang Dauner and bassist Eberhard Weber for example. In fact my relationship with Dauner has been a lasting one: the two of us toured with Robert Wyatt, formerly from the Soft Machine, in ‘72 and we recently started a new duet. It’s also during this period that I formed this trio with organ player Eddy Louiss and drummer Daniel Humair. It started in a Paris club, the Caméléon, and didn’t last more than a few months, but it has remained famous because it was original and had been recorded. Of course all this opened a lot of doors to me and made me decide to quit classical music for good.
How did you get to leave for the USA, where you made most of your career and switched to jazz-rock?
John Lewis was the artistic director of the Monterey Jazz Festival at the time, and he was always on the look out for new talents. He’d heard about a violin summit where I had played in Basel, Switzerland in ‘66 and he wanted to do it again at Monterey ‘67. That was my first time in the USA, and I met Richard Bock there. He signed me on his label, World Pacific, and made me come back to Los Angeles next year to record my first disc with the Gerald Wilson big band. This time I wanted to stay longer in the US and to play club gigs. I was really willing to understand American jazz from the inside. I stayed three months in California and that’s how I got to meet George Duke, who also was a beginner.
That’s about the time when you met Frank Zappa too, isn’t it ?
Richard Bock was something of a visionary guy: he was a Buddhist, had a guru who later became the Beatles’, had signed Ravi Shankar. . . . He wanted me to play with some of the Californian rock and pop groups of the time, but I was very reluctant until he played me something by Frank Zappa. I knew very little about him, but I thought it worth trying provided George Duke was part of the recording too.
We went to Zappa’s house and I remember very well the cultural shock: at that time, in Europe, even the Beatles had trimmed half long hair. Here eveybody sported ponytails and kids were running around the house at 1 AM. I expected Zappa to be the fairly haughty rock star type, but not at all. When Bock played him the live recording Duke and I had recently done for him, his reaction was: “Whoa! I can’t play with those guys. They are too great for me!” But when he understood he would have to write music and produce the session, he agreed. Two weeks later, the scores for King Kong were ready and we recorded with instrumentalists chosen by Zappa, who were mostly jazz musicians from the L.A. area. I must admit that at the time I didn’t really understand what was happening musically during this recording, but it opened my ears to a type of music that I wasn’t listening to at the time.
But later on you toured with the regular Zappa band…
That was in 1973. He hired me along with George Duke in his Mothers of Invention because he wanted high-level musicians to play his instrumental music. But things didn’t go as well as I expected: in fact we never played any themes from King Kong live. Zappa played to huge audiences and I think he was prisoner of his own image. His fans wanted songs, not instrumentals, and I wound up accompanying songs and playing only one solo per night. So I quit.
You didn’t start your own group right away, though. You played with the Mahavishnu Orchestra first. This experience seems to have been more rewarding, since you discovered jazz-rock with this band, and still play it today.
Even if the last moments with Zappa were not satisfying, playing with him helped my vision of music evolve a lot. It was the same with Mahavishnu. I came from the classical tradition and had switched to jazz at the time of hard bop, and the lyrical compositions I had started to write in Paris at the end of the sixties didn't fit with these formal bop structures. Besides, in Europe, I had started experimenting with rock musicians who were interested in jazz and jazz musicians who were curious about the new technologies. So playing with Zappa, then McLaughlin was relevant: they were experimenting with wah-wah pedals, phase shifters, ring modulators and this brought me to electrify my violin and be able to try these new technologies, just like a guitarist. What’s more, the type of jazz rock I experimented with Mahavishnu allowed me to use my knowledge of classical music. The musical structures that Zappa and McLaughlin were using helped me get rid of the bop and standards tradition and let me follow whatever came to my mind. To this day my music still contains a huge part of structure and a huge part of improv. That’s why I usually write the compositions and why the band remains very stable. This also allowed me to have faithful followers all round the world. You hear everywhere that jazz-rock is dead, but plenty of people come and listen to the JLP Band!
The most recent evolution in your music was the integration of African elements and African musicians. How did this happen?
Actually I discovered African tribal music back in the sixties thanks to Belgian bassist Benoît Quersin. He went to Africa and recorded music on the spot, in the villages, and I was very interested by what he made me listen to. But during my stay in the USA, I lost contact with this music. Still some traces of it must have remained in me because around the time I was with Mahavishnu I started writing tunes using polyrhythms based on a triplet feel like most African music, as opposed to John McLaughlin's polyrhythms being based on even feel. In fact I rediscovered African music during a stay in Paris, in 1988. I had been told about African musicians living and playing there, but this time I met drummer Brice Wassy, from Cameroon, and he introduced me to some of his friends. I realized that most of them were also jazz musicians and that their influences were very diverse. In turn, they told me that they found my rhythmic approach very special and somehow African. I formed a new group with them, which recorded the CD Tchokola, and we toured the US. Ever since that time, I’ve always had African musicians in my group and my music has become more acoustic.