Violinist Extraordinaire Jean- Luc Ponty and ‘YES’ Legend Jon Anderson Merge Creative Forces and Ask
By Ray Shasho
-Interviewed August 8th 2014
An Interview with Jean-Luc Ponty:
Prodigious violinist/composer/ Jean- Luc Ponty and legendary ‘YES’ lead vocalist/ songwriter/ Jon Anderson have united their musical mastery to originate the Anderson Ponty Band, and with the formation of a new musical venture enters a debut album soon to exhibit new music and classics re-imagined. Anderson & Ponty are also excited to include their fans in the experience. Music enthusiasts can pledge to their Kickstarter campaign (already in-progress) entitled the Jon Anderson & Jean-Luc Ponty Project. By contributing you can receive various items related to the project including an invite to the dress rehearsal in Aspen, Colorado where the CD will be recorded, VIP show tickets, and an invitation to the post show band party.
As of August 15th …$67,576 has been pledged, but a total of $95,000 is needed to hit goal with only 8 DAYS to go! (The minimum pledge is only $1.00) The project will only get funded if they hit goal by Sunday August 24th at 1:55 PM EDT. Join the ‘Jon Anderson & Jean-Luc Ponty Project’ and help these incredible legends reach their goal for recording a new album… Contribute and join in on the musical journey HERE
The musical blend of Jon Anderson’s angelic vocalizations of progressive rock virtue and Jean-Luc Ponty’s awe-inspiring instrumentation of jazz-fusion & classical essence… will undeniably be spectacular!
JEAN-LUC PONTY was taught by his classically trained parents who were also music teachers. He learned to read musical notes before he learned the alphabet. Ponty was taught the violin and piano, but at the age of eleven his father asked him to choose only one instrument so he would be proficient with a single instrument instead of mediocre at several.
After graduating from the Conservatoire de Paris, it appeared that Jean-Luc was on the way to a prodigious classical music career and eventually performed with a major symphony orchestra. But Ponty also began to establish a musical appetite for jazz music which led to Jean-Luc recording his debut “bebop” album entitled Jazz Long Playing in 1964.
Ponty’s notoriety flourished and was asked to perform at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1967, which lead to a U.S. recording contract with World Pacific label. Ponty’s subsequent releases featured such jazz luminaries as Svend Asmussen, Stéphane Grappelli, Stuff Smith, Gerald Wilson, George Duke, and Niels-Henning Orsted Pederson. Ponty had conquered classical music and jazz as a critically-acclaimed artist and now it was rock music’s turn.
In 1969, Frank Zappa composed the music on King Kong: Jean-Luc Ponty Plays the Music of Frank Zappa. The release featured an array of virtuosos including …Frank Zappa and George Duke. Ponty moved to Los Angeles after Zappa asked him to join the Mother of Invention tour.
Jean-Luc Ponty performing on Frank Zappa albums …Hot Rats (1969),Over-Nite Sensation (1973), Piquantique (1973), Apostrophe (1974), Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar (1981), The Lost Episodes (1996), One Shot Deal (2008), Road Tapes, Venue 2 (2013)
While heavily in demand …Jean-Luc Ponty was asked to perform on numerous projects. Ponty contributed on Elton John’s Honky Chateau album and several recordings with John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra … Apocalypse and Visions of the Emerald Beyond.
Ponty signed as a solo artist with Atlantic Records in 1975 and over the next decade released 12- consecutive albums reaching the Top 5 on Billboard’s Jazz charts and selling millions of copies. Ponty also became one of the first jazz artists to have a music video.
Jean-Luc scored huge commercially with … Imaginary Voyage (1976 -reaching #2 on Billboard’s Jazz charts) Enigmatic Ocean (1977- reaching #1 on Billboard’s Jazz charts), Cosmic Messenger (1978 -reaching #2), Mystical Adventures (1982- reaching #2), and Individual Choice (1983- reaching #2).
In 2005, Ponty toured with Stanley Clarke on double bass and Bela Fleck on banjo.
Ponty’s daughter is singer/pianist/composer Clara Ponty.
TODAY: Jean- Luc Ponty is as busy as ever … an exciting collaboration and album with Jon Anderson and a new album with Stanley Clarke forthcoming.
I had the great pleasure of chatting with Jean-Luc Ponty recently about his latest collaboration with ‘YES’ legendary songster Jon Anderson …Jon Anderson & Jean-Luc Ponty Project/Kickstarter campaign …. Working with Frank Zappa… Daughter Clara Ponty …Chick Corea/Return to Forever …Stanley Clarke … Acoustic vs. Electric Violin … Classical vs. Jazz & Rock …And much-much more!
Here’s my interview with the legendary proficient violinist, multi-instrumentalist, composer, musical pioneer, former member of Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, and the newly formed Anderson Ponty Band … JEAN-LUC PONTY.
Ray Shasho: Hello Jean-Luc, where am I calling you to?
Jean-Luc Ponty: “I’m in the south of France right now on the French Riviera, also touring Italy and Switzerland … beautiful weather here, a bit balmy like Florida. It looks more like California than Florida but the weather is nice here.”
Ray Shasho: Let’s first discuss the Kickstarter campaign…‘Jon Anderson & Jean-Luc Ponty Project’ which will help fund a new album of classics and new material by the newly formed …‘Anderson Ponty Band.’ As of August 15th … the project has raised $67,576 with a goal of $95,000.00 and only 8 days to go.
Jean-Luc Ponty: “The project was our manager’s idea and Jon and I went along with it. There were record labels interested but he was eager to use the tools of today and the internet. But it is great because we feel the fans are part of it and feels less business-like somehow, not having to deal with business people and record companies. This time it’s more between us and the fans. Either way, we’re still going to record the CD, so it will work one way or another.”
Ray Shasho: So what types of costs will the Kickstarter funds contribute to?
Jean-Luc Ponty: “It will cover roughly a month of work. All the expenses of rehearsing and having the band, we will all reunite in Aspen, Colorado and then the rehearsals begin on August 30th and I will arrive a few days later because I’m finishing a tour in Europe. But the band and technicians start getting together August 30th in Aspen. It covers all the expenses including recording. I think the return will be much more rewarding financially because the difference you get paid from a record company as an artist and owning the masters is very different… it’s like one to six roughly. For me it’s about having total artistic control and we own it. I saw some of my greatest albums early in my career on which I have no control at all. For example … decisions in distribution, remastering, or spreading the tracks in different compilation formats are out of my hands. I see a lot of messages from fans that would like to hear many of my songs remastered with the latest technologies and I have nothing to say about it. About fourteen years ago I started to try and control more of my productions. It involved too much of my time so what we decided was to make license deals and have them distributed by labels, but the good thing is that I am the owner of what I recorded since the year 2000.”
Ray Shasho: I was extremely excited when I first heard the news about you and Jon Anderson forming a band together … I knew immediately that the music and dynamism you both share would mastermind an incredible bond.
Jean-Luc Ponty: “Jon and I really gel very well. It just came up like that! I was contacted a year ago to contribute a violin solo on a song that he was producing. He liked the solo and one thing led to another. Then Jon got the idea of singing on one of my songs … “Mirage.” Spontaneously he took the song and sang half way through it and then sent it to me, and I was so impressed how good it sounded and how it worked really well with my music. In a way, I thought we should have done that year’s ago … but better late than never. (Laughing)”
Ray Shasho: Will “Mirage” be on the new release?
Jean-Luc Ponty: “Yes, right now we are working on it and trying to make a new version. So we’ll see how that works.”
Ray Shasho: Jean-Luc, do you have an idea when the new CD may be released?
Jean-Luc Ponty: “I hear around February of 2015, that’s the plan so far and what we are shooting for.”
Ray Shasho: You’ve been asked to play with so many legendary performers… including Frank Zappa. What was it like working with Zappa?
Jean-Luc Ponty: “It was unexpected for me because coming from classical music, I thought rock or jazz would be fun … just a vacation. (Laughing) In fact, I found out, and rightly so, that it was very serious and demanding. So I felt it was very similar to being in a symphony orchestra with a conductor that demands specific ways to play the music. But then I learned that this was the way to do it if you want to get close to perfection. When we were on the road, I remember comments from other musicians about our band, that we were so tight. At times it was a little difficult because Frank was very demanding, but I respected that because he had so much talent and creativity. That’s what I learned from Zappa and even Jon McLaughlin. If you want to succeed you have to be a strong leader, and I applied that when I started my own group soon after, and indeed it works, but it works if you have a strong and valid comfort, then musicians will respect you. If you don’t really know what you’re doing or the music is not up to par then that’s when musicians will not respond so well.”
Ray Shasho: Your daughter Clara Ponty is a pianist, singer and composer?
Jean Luc Ponty: “She is doing some very good music but is also struggling, like I warned her. But she still wanted to stick to music which is her passion. So what can I say? Last year at a Festival in France they invited me to play with my daughter, and we put a band together and rehearsed. While rehearsing I said wow, this is nice, it’s different because she is singing and has a few vocals and some of her compositions are very good. But it’s feminine and very emotional; it’s a lot about feelings. Although I don’t only have technique and energy in my music, so there is still some of that. It was a good contrast and worked great together. So after that I said let’s do more. In the beginning I wanted her to prove herself first, and then she got a contract with Universal in the late 90’s and released an album that was number one on New Age Radio. So she was doing very well until the music business started changing, especially for instrumental music. But she has recorded several albums and has a good following already.”
Ray Shasho: Jean-Luc, who was some of the musicians or artists that got you interested in playing the violin?
Jean-Luc Ponty: “It started with my father; my parents were music teachers in a small town in France. My father played several instruments but violin was his main instrument. My mother was a piano teacher. They both taught me to read music when I was five years old and I think I was reading notes before the alphabet. (All laughing) Then they began teaching me violin and piano. When I was eleven, my father asked me to choose one of the two so I could become really good at one instrument instead of only mediocre on several instruments. I chose violin, maybe because of the father figure… I don’t know I never spoke to a psychiatrist about it. (All laughing)”
“I think it was because I thought it was the more expressive of the two. The violin you hold up against your body and very archaic. I do love the piano too but it’s a little more mechanical as an instrument. Piano was a great asset as a composer. I would have never written all the music that I had written if I hadn’t been a pianist. The violin is not so much of a composer tool. Then in the 70’s it gave me access to all the latest technology … synthesizers, organ, electric piano, and access to all these new sounds. So it became as important as what I was doing with my violin. It was a combination of all this together that built my personal musical comfort.”
Ray Shasho: You’ve used 4, 5, and 6 string violins?
Jean- Luc Ponty: “The standard is four, but in 1978-79, Barcus Berry brought me a prototype with five strings, and it’s actually the blue violin that you might have seen on some of the covers, it was actually my first blue violin. It was a little strange at first but I loved to have the additional string in the low edge. I quickly got use to it and it became my main instrument ever since. So I’m a five string guy.”
“Then in the 90’s, there was this guy in England who approached me and was making six string violins. There was also this guy in California making seven strings …it can become a gimmick after awhile.”
Ray Shasho: Do you prefer the electric violin sound over traditional acoustic?
Jean-Luc Ponty: “Not really. After I began playing jazz, coming from the conservatory with a four string acoustic classical violin, then playing in front of a microphone and stage, as soon as the drummer played the beat loud … that was it, I was covered. So it was out of necessity that I started looking for amplification in the early 60’s. It was just to get more volume. Once I started plugging in I realized different sounds and it was no longer the sounds of the traditional classical violin. There was no way to amplify the natural sound of the violin … I was just getting another sound. It was like putting a microphone on an acoustic guitar, you also get a different sound. But somehow I liked it and suited well to play jazz. So that’s how it went for a few years until some rock guy’s discovered me, I guess because I was playing an electric instrument, they liked it, and I got called for Zappa, and they liked the sound. Once I got to play with rock bands I needed even more volume … then I got into big amplifiers.”
“At that time, engineers would go to rock bands like Franks Zappa’s to try new prototypes and Frank would tell me to try them … Wah-wah peddles, fuzz, phase shifters, or whatever. So since I had an electric instrument, I tried them with the violin. Sometimes I loved it and other times it didn’t work. In the 80’s, solid-body electric violins came out from Zeta, and then the first Midi violin that Zeta gave me had allowed me to plug into synthesizers. I have to say after exploring so much with all types of sounds, I never lost touch with the original violin. To keep my chops, I have to keep practicing on the traditional instrument all the time. With Jon and me, maybe we’ll have some acoustic sets during the show; otherwise I’ll really need the electric sound to fit with the instrumentation of the band.”
“I’m going to record an album with Stanley Clarke in a couple of weeks and a French Gypsy guitarist and the best I’ve ever seen since Django Reinhardt. Also Stanley Love as well. The goal there will be to not use so many effects and try to be as basic as possible. So I like the idea to explore new ways with my playing on just the basic violin.”
Ray Shasho: I’m also excited about this new album you mentioned with Stanley Clarke. You’ve toured and recorded with Stanley and Al Di Meola as a trio over the years.
Jean-Luc Ponty: “Stanley and I first met in 1972. We’ve always enjoyed doing projects together once in awhile.”
Ray Shasho: You’ve also been a member of Chick Corea and ‘Return to Forever.’
Jean- Luc Ponty: “I met Chick soon after I knew Stanley. Stanley and Chick asked me to join ‘Return to Forever’ after I left Mahavishnu Orchestra but I had started my own band and so I was hesitating because it was a great offer. ‘Return to Forever’ was doing great music, but I had invested my time and even my savings in putting a band together and thought maybe I’ll stick to that for now. I consider myself a lucky guy to keep breathing so long, still in shape to play, and being invited to do projects like with Jon Anderson in fact. Chick Corea invited me to join them again in 2011, and so I did. It was fun; no one was trying to push their egos and step on other guy’s toes at all. It was really the experience of … let’s do the best music we can together, and everybody left their egos at the door for the sake of producing good music.”
Ray Shasho: Jean-Luc, here’s a question that I ask everyone that I interview. If you had a ‘Field of Dreams’ wish like the movie, to play, compose, or collaborate with anyone from the past or present, who would that be?
Jean-Luc Ponty: “Stravinsky, John Coltrane, Jaco Pastorius ... in fact we had talked about doing something together and he passed away too soon.”
“I was supposed to be a straight classical musician, starting with the education with my parents, and then studying in Paris. Then came so many unexpected encounters in my life, getting into jazz, getting into rock … so I consider myself happy and lucky for everything I was offered to do in my life, and now working with Jon Anderson… it was so unexpected and so exciting.”
Ray Shasho: Jean-Luc, thank you for being on the call today but more importantly for all the incredible music you’ve given us and continue to bring.
Jean-Luc Ponty: “My pleasure Ray, it was really nice talking with you.”
Join the ‘Jon Anderson & Jean-Luc Ponty Project’ and help these incredible legends reach their goal for recording a new album and give back artistic control …
Contribute and join in on the musical journey HERE
Very special thanks to the great Billy James of Glass Onyon PR
Coming up NEXT … Don Wilson guitarist, pioneer, and co-founder of ‘The Ventures’… Keyboard extraordinaire Patrick Moraz (YES/The Moody Blues)… Al Kooper (The Blues Project, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Bob Dylan, and responsible for the success of Lynyrd Skynyrd… Country Music’s shining new star -19 year old Mary Sarah … Folk/Rock singer & songwriter Jonathan Edwards (“Sunshine”)… legendary keyboardist Keith Emerson (The Nice, Emerson, Lake & Palmer), and… guitarist/singer/songwriter Randy Bachman (The Guess Who, BTO, Bachman & Turner)
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