I am fairly certain that if I asked 10 people to name the instrument that they most associate with jazz, very few, if any of them would name the violin. The gentleman who is the subject of this article, Jean Luc Ponty, is a violinist who might change that scenario.
Jean Luc Ponty is a trailblazer and virtuoso violinist who had the audacity to take his classical training into the brave new world of fusion. He was born into a family of classical musicians on September 29, 1942 in Avranches, France, whose mother taught violin and father taught piano. At age 16, Jean Luc was admitted to the Conservatiore National Superieur de Musique de Paris, graduating two years later with the institutions’ highest award, Premier Prix. He was then immediately hired by one of the major symphony orchestras, Concerts Lamoureux, where he played for three years.
While still a member of the orchestra, Ponty moonlighted playing clarinet (taught by his father) for a college jazz band that regularly performed at local parties. This gig would turn out to be the impetus for Jean Luc’s musical journey’s detour. The sounds of Miles Davis and John Coltrane would compel him to take up the tenor saxophone. Alas, it was time to express his jazz voice through his primary instrument, the violin. And express himself he did!
He then became a musical Dr Jeckle and Mr. Hyde: rehearsing and performing with the orchestra while also playing jazz until 3’oclock in the morning at jazz clubs throughout Paris. This killer schedule eventually forced Jean Luc to make a life altering decision. “Naturally, I had to make a choice, so I took a chance with jazz,” he says.
While traveling down Jazz Avenue, however, Jean Luc would encounter some very bumpy roads. Very few considered the violin as having a legitimate place in the modern jazz vocabulary at the time. The naysayers had no idea who they were criticizing-Jean Luc’s passion and skill would soon pave a new road on the jazz landscape! Jean Luc distinguished himself with be-bop era phrasings and a punchy style influenced more by horn players than anything previously played on the violin; no one had heard anything quite like it before. Critics, who are never wrong-or at least won’t admit when they are-, then said that he was the first jazz violinist to be as exciting as a saxophonist. Ponty’s notoriety began to spread like a virus and by 1964, at age 22; he released his debut solo album for Philips, Jazz Long Playing.
In 1967, John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet invited Jean Luc to perform at the Monterey Jazz Festival. His first-ever American appearance produced 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).
Through the late-60’s and early seventies, Ponty achieved critical acclaim and popularity across Europe. Very quickly, the trail blazing violinist soon found his signature talents
in demand by top recording artists all over the world. These artists include Frank Zappa,
Elton John and John McLaughlin/Mahavishnu Orchestra.
From 1975 to 1985, Jean Luc Ponty toured the world repeatedly and recorded 12 consecutive albums which all reached the top 5 on the Billboard jazz charts and sold millions of copies. Early Atlantic Records recordings, such as 1976’s Aurora and Imaginary Voyage, cemented him as a figurehead in America’s growing jazz-rock movement. His album Enigmatic Ocean cracked the top 40 in 1977 followed by Cosmic Messenger in 1978. In 1984, a revolutionary video featuring time lapse images was produced by Louis Schwarzberg for Individual Choice. Along with keyboard wizard Herbie Hancock, Jean Luc became one of the first jazz musicians to have a music video.
Ponty’s musical journey was going full steam ahead in the 1980’s and into the 1990’s. In 1991 with his epic release Tchokola, Ponty combined both acoustic and electric violins, for the first time, with the powerful polyrhythmic sounds of West Africa. He then returned to Atlantic Records, after having left them in 1981, to record No Absolute Time where he expanded on the previous explorations from Tchokola with great results. “There is a whole scene in Paris of top-notch African musicians,” he says. “I was very curious and wanted to educate myself in these rhythms, which were totally new to my ears.”
In 1997, Jean Luc joined former Return to Forever virtuosos, guitarist Al Di Meola and bassist Stanley Clarke to record an acoustic album under the name of Rite of Strings. This all-star trio went on a six-month tour of North America, South America and Europe that earned them critical praise.
Ok, ok-enough with the biographical stuff-it’s time for some music! But first, I need to back up to the mention of the electric violin. I’m not certain of this, but Jean Luc may have been the first electric violinist in modern jazz history. His main instrument is a wood finish 5-string electro-acoustic violin with a low C string made by Barcus-Berry in California in 1980, and for a more electric sound he plays a blue 5-string model also made by Barcus-Berry in 1978, as seen on the cover of the album A Taste for Passion from 1979. In addition, Ponty plays a MIDI violin, a Fourness solid body, very similar to his Jazz Fusion Signature model which he had designed for the now defunct Zeta Music Systems. He routes it through his old Zeta VC-225 controller or the Synthony, connected to a sampler or synthesizer.
You’re about to enter a land filled with wondrous musical sounds…….a dimension of jazz…..a dimension of rock……..a dimension of classical. Your tour guide took an instrument beyond the boundaries placed upon it into uncharted territory. That’s the sign post up ahead. Your next stop-The Ponty Zone!
Finally, here is Mr. Ponty with his electric violin in an effects driven solo:
For me, the common thread in all of the projects that Jean Luc has done is impeccable rhythm sections. Not only did his compositions demand great ensemble playing, each member of the band were virtuosos on their instruments and Ponty put each of them in the spotlight. Jean Luc Ponty is one of the phenomenal musicians that I have yet to see live in concert and I truly look forward to the opportunity to do so.
Jean Luc Ponty Official Website