Jean-Luc Ponty: Exploring the Frontiers of Jazz Violin

By Peter Anick, 1997 (originally published in Fiddler Magazine)

In June 1997, violinist Jean-Luc Ponty returned to the Montreal Jazz Festival, with his "West African Project." Soaring above the dazzling rhythmic textures laid down by drums, percussion, bass and keyboard, Jean-Lucís electric violin shimmered like reflections bouncing off a pool of water. His improvisations, at times lyrical and elegant and at other times darting and percussive, invoked images of the Amazon rain forest or Caribbean reefs.

It is not surprising that Jean-Lucís 1996 compilation album, representing his Atlantic recordings from 1975 to 1993, was entitled "Le Voyage." A true musical pioneer, Jean-Lucís travels with the violin took him from classical to swing to bebop to rock to fusion and world music. In this interview, Jean-Luc recounts that voyage and shares his thoughts on composing, improvisation, and his recent collaborations with West African musicians.

JLP: To explain it all, it's important to say that I studied violin and piano with my parents, who were both violin and piano teachers. But my father also taught me clarinet, and I loved wind instruments. In fact, I would have liked to play clarinet more than violin when I was at that age. But nevertheless I chose violin as my main instrument because - it's hard to remember why - I guess I find it the most expressive of all three. So, I was studying classical music in Paris at the Conservatory, which was at the time the equivalent of Julliard, and it was during this period of studying that I met some people who were not professional musicians, but there was this university campus jazz band who needed a clarinet player in the swing style, like Benny Goodman type thing. And I had no clue what jazz was about. I was not listening to jazz then, but I played clarinet and I thought it would be fun to once a month go to parties, meet girls, and have fun outside of the serious environment of the Conservatory. So this band taught me what jazz was about - how to follow a melody, you know they were playing all American standards, "How High the Moon" and the rest. So they taught me how to follow a melody and then how to follow the chord changes and improvise on it, and I had a good ear and that's how I started. At first it was a hobby, but then I discovered what jazz was about, and I discovered the whole history of jazz. I mean, these were the late '50's, early '60's, and already there was Miles Davis and John Coltrane had just left Miles Davis to start his own band and the music was so revolutionary. That's what attracted me most in jazz. I discovered that it was a whole art form, as opposed to just a folk or ethnic music that was defining in time, in history. So I developed a passion for the music, and once I developed a passion, I switched to violin because I had a lot more technical abilities on that instrument. So basically, I graduated from the Conservatory. I was hired in a symphony orchestra, one of the major symphony orchestras in Paris, and my classical career was going on as planned, except that at night I would go in jazz clubs all around Paris and jam with the bands. I started to get noticed and be hired to play in a club.

Q: And this was playing the violin now?

JLP: Yes. So, because, you know, the story was going around that there was this crazy young classical violinist who would come in tuxedo with this small 40 watt amplifier in one hand and his violin in the other, right out of playing Stravinsky and Beethoven and come play "Body and Soul" or the "Blues in Bb" and playing indeed differently from Grappelli - a lot more aggressive and more modern, basically. So I started recording with a French band, avant-garde - a guy who was writing his own material, and then I got my first deal, a recording deal. I did my first solo recording when I was 21 years old, and that was very, very bebop. There was some Charlie Parker and some other material which was in the same vein. No vibrato whatsoever. At the time, I was very much into trying to transfer on the violin what I heard in Miles Davis or Coltrane.

Q: OK, so when you played swing, you played more the Grappelli style or Stuff Smith style...

JLP: That was only for the very, very beginning, when I started playing jazz as a hobby.

Q: And then once you got into more modern jazz, you decided to take out the vibrato. Did you find that difficult to do? I find that some classical players find it difficult to play without vibrato.

JLP: No, no, I think the most difficult was the synchronization between ideas in the mind and realizing them technically on the instrument. The synchronization of movement, of bowing technique.

Q: How did you work on that?

JLP: I didn't work. It's just by playing and playing, by jamming all the time, at home and with records. I was playing along with records and at night I would go to clubs and play with the band and that's how it came. Discarding the vibrato was not the problem. That was the least problem!

Q: How about the bowing? Did the bowing change a lot from classical bowing?

JLP: Yeah, of course, I felt a bit handicapped for a short while for that very reason, because suddenly I was confronted with how to bow, since my training was to have everything prepared and rehearsed. Every move of the bow in classical music is planned, as you know. Let's say that I could play, but there were a lot more ideas which I couldn't realize that just weren't coming through. But that didn't last very long. At that time, I had started really to listen to jazz exclusively. I didn't listen to classical music any more, so that I would really open my mind fully and get impregnated of that new style of music which was revolutionary to my ears. But the right hand, the bow was my forte. That was what I had best in my technique, and my abilities were bowing technique in classical music already - more than the left hand. So I guess that helped me pick up the jazz phrasing quickly.

Q: You'd try to copy the horn's phrasing?

JLP: Yeah, and pianists. Bebop pianists as well, cause it was so clean as an instrument that there were things I could reproduce - I mean, all the good improvisers basically in bebop, and it was a similar style of phrasing from one instrument to the other. Clifford Brown, for instance, when I discovered, I was in awe of his phrasing. He was a big influence on my jazz phrasing.

Q: Given that violin was not considered a jazz instrument, did you find that that worked to your advantage or disadvantage?

JLP: Well, first at my disadvantage, but from my handicap I turned it into an advantage because once I overcame, number one, the technical problems, number two the volume problem by amplifying the instrument, and number three the prejudice in the mind of people who thought indeed that the violin was not a proper instrument - for modern jazz especially. But then it became an advantage because there was no modern jazz violinist at the time who was really doing something valid with the instrument. There had been a great record by Harry Lookofsky, who was - who is, maybe, I don't know if the man is still alive - but that was in the '50's I believe, or early '60's. He was a classical violinist from New York and he had an incredible technique and had gotten the phrasing down pretty well, but everything was written for him, so he did not improvise, so it was a short lived career in jazz. There was just one album. So basically, I didn't even think that the violin was not proper to play jazz. It was my instrument. I knew how expressive it is, and I knew that if I just had the music clear in my mind that it would be fine. Especially, with amplification. That gave me a broader sound, as big as a saxophone, or later on as an electric guitar, when I played with rock bands. So, I could play with as much energy and the drummers and the rhythm sections could play with as much energy as behind a saxophone player or a trumpet player. So when I started playing in clubs in Paris, or even in the US, you know, in my first visits in playing in clubs sometimes, there could be some strange reactions in the audience, you know, saying, "What is this? A violin on stage? Are we going to hear some tango music?" But after I had played, you know, I had turned them over. They would come and say, "Gee, I never thought it would be possible to play like this on the violin." And Stuff Smith was a great example for me, although, musically, again, he could no longer be an example to a certain point. But what he has done on the violin confirmed to me that you could really use this instrument in jazz, because he was such a great blues man and a great swing man that he overcame the instrument. He proved that no matter what instrument you play, if you have the feeling for the music, it just comes through.

Q: So, at that point in time, you hadn't really been thinking about fusion, or rock...

JLP: No already, you know, discovering jazz was a revolution to my ears! Because I grew up in the '40's and the '50's in Normandy in France, you know, at the time we had not many radio stations - there were no jazz programs, maybe a few, but, especially the radio where I was, I could get the British radio better than the radio stations from Paris. Because there are the British Isles, Jersey, that are right next to the coast. So I would hear Glenn Miller and stuff like that but I was not exposed to jazz until I moved to Paris, and jazz was very prosperous in jazz clubs. I mean it was like the late '50's, early '60's in Paris were almost the equivalent of New York in the bebop era of the '40's, because quite a few black Americans were expatriates in Europe and some of them in Paris, some of them in other capitals of Europe. But they would often play in Paris, anyway, so us young musicians had the opportunity to hear innovators like Bud Powell or Kenny Clark or Dexter Gordon live, you know, even play, jam with them. So that's because geographically I moved to Paris that I was exposed to jazz. You know, unlike today - the media is all over the world. Even young people in West Africa or South Africa grow up, they know about Weather Report and Jimi Hendrix and all the rest, Genesis, and everything. But the time I was growing up was totally different; there was no TV until I was 16 or 17 years old, so it was a really big thing I discovered with jazz, so I had to assimilate and it took me two, three years. So that's why at first, I didn't consider quitting classical music. It was fun but it's only until a few years later when I realized that I had so much fun doing it, Ďcause in fact my vocation was more to be a conductor or study composition than being a violinist. I never had the vocation of being a concert player. I mean a soloist, a virtuoso on violin. I loved music in general more than I had a passion for the violin itself, which may explain why I had less respect for the instrument than others, maybe, and I didn't hesitate to experiment with a lot of different sounds. What I discovered, what appealed to me the most was modern jazz from bebop on. Avant-garde as well. It's again a bit by accident that I got involved with rock, pop musicians, because they discovered my work and discovered that I was basically an electric instrumentalist, and suddenly I got a lot more interest from the rock field than I did from the jazz field. Because at the time it was - and may be now still - there was a prejudice against amplified or electrified instruments. You know, the kings were sax, trumpet, and guitarists, electric guitarists were not really considered that seriously in jazz - so imagine an electric violinist! But I didn't find that prejudice in the rock field at all. They invited me with open arms. I was like a cousin - a cousin instrument. So I guess the reason why I got invited to play by so many different people, including Elton John, or Zappa, or others, so it was another shock as an experience, because I wasn't listening much to rock except to - well there was Soft Machine, there were groups already in the mid '60's, late '60's that were using rock instrumentation but using them to create an instrumental music that was pretty sophisticated, using elements of jazz, improvisation, and rhythm, and everything, so I was listening to that type of thing and discovered Santana and other stuff, but I was listening to more jazz than rock albums. But it's by playing with rock musicians that it again opened my mind to something else. And that's how, after a while - I'd say ten years after I started my professional career as a jazz musician, I felt uncomfortable going from playing with a jazz group to a rock group to listening to classical music which I still loved, and it was too much to spread myself like this. I wanted to find a way to combine all these different elements into one music. And I happened to not be the only one to want to do that. It was the late '60's and there were other guys of my generation who felt like doing the same. So that's how, for me, the idea grew that I would like to create my own music where I could incorporate elements of classical music - which was the arrangements, the orchestrations and how to create layers of sounds and atmospheric music, maybe, more lyrical, more poetic, spacier - together with elements of jazz, meaning keeping the idea of improvising. And then some elements of rock, too, progressive rock at the time, which was using new instruments, new sounds, including synthesizers. So it was kind of a natural process for me. [insert fig. 2 around here] Jean-Luc with his electric violins.

Q: Had you been doing any composing before you started into rock?

JLP: Very little, because I was very shy because what I was writing didn't fit the bebop music I was playing with other musicians. It was a lot more lyrical, a lot more influenced by my classical background. Also, the structures were totally odd. The structure would follow my melodic line as opposed to the standards of the time, where, you know, groups of eight measures - eight and eight and then a chorus and then back to the melody, you know. So it was like thirty-two bars maybe. Mine, my melody would be fourteen bars and maybe it borrow five in the middle, I don't know. It depended on the melodic line, so it was issued from classical music and that's why I was shy and didn't really dare bring much material to my jazz groups. Until I realized later on, especially with my experiences with Zappa and McLaughlin, that it would be by using what I came up with that I could do something more original. So basically I gained confidence from that point and realized that that would be a very important part of my work, would be to write.

Q: Now did you write because you wanted to see whether you could or because ideas would come to you?

JLP: Ideas, yeah. It wasn't like an exercise. It was really because I had ideas - because this was a way to combine all these elements I wanted to combine... ĎCause, you know, I kept piano as my second instrument and that helped me as a composer and arranger.

Q: Did you compose on the violin or on the piano?

JLP: I had the ideas in my head. That's how it started, but very soon I got a piano, so that I could check the chord changes and - I couldn't hear everything, of course, but that's before I got synthesizers. But I started with piano, and then eventually, yes, I started writing on piano, rarely on violin, except for "New Country" which was a piece I wanted to be with an influence of country music in it. So that one I wrote on violin. And sometimes I would write some lines to play with my guitarist, for instance, on violin, by improvising on what I had written. But most of my ideas come on keyboards.

Q: Your ideas seem to be based a lot on rhythms. You lay down a rhythmic line and then play with it, even just taking a few notes and laying them down in different ways. It's intriguing how much vitality you get out of the way you layer the violin over the rhythm behind it...

JLP: Or even the way I play piano, because I'm not a great pianist, and I play as a percussionist on the piano, basically, with not the orthodox fingering. That's why my keyboard players sometimes have a hard time until I explain to them how I came up with this rhythm between two hands. [insert fig. 3 around here] Pianist François Marcaurelle hosts a "rencontre" with Jean-Luc as part of the 1997 Montreal Jazz Festival. In addition to concerts, the Jazz festival schedules a number of such "encounters" with artists as a way for the public to get better acquainted with the performers.

Q: So you went through rock and fusion, and now recently you have been working with West African musicians.

JLP: Yeah. After playing with so many different people in the early '70's - and the demand kept coming and I really decided one day, after I left the Mahavishnu Orchestra in '75, I had my first record deal, I had my first album coming on Atlantic and I took this opportunity to just dedicate my time to my own group. Which was not easy at first, because I was leaving very established and very successful groups to start going through the highways of North America playing from club to club, but I wanted to do my own group, and I that's what I had to go through, and I did it and from that time I really dedicated by career exclusively to my own group and my own music, trying to push it to the limits, and I felt that by the late '80's I had pushed it to the limits. My favorite albums being the last two albums I did with my American groups, like "Gift of Time" and "Storytelling". Interestingly enough, it's like destiny again - another one - I was touring with my American band in Europe in 1988 and I had not quite decided that it was time to do something else, but I just was in Paris and a journalist made me aware of the presence of great West African artists in Paris, a phenomenon that started in the mid-'80's. So it was already two or three years that the musical scene in Paris had changed, thanks to the presence of great groups and artists from West Africa. So I wasn't aware of that because I was living in California at the time - I lived in California up to last year, so it's 24 years in California and I was totally cut from the French scene. But I was intrigued, and then she told me that she was in Senegal and heard young people play my music in boom boxes on the beach, and that she interviewed some of these young modern African musicians in Paris and that my name came in the list of people they were referring to. So I was three times intrigued and I asked for names and bought the records. I got mostly records from singers, because some made it very big in Europe as pop singers, basically, and they were produced by Western producers, either British or French, who arranged their music more like dance music, in the background, you know. I didn't really discover the real thing behind it but I knew that if I contacted some of these instrumentalists that I could go a lot further and that it would be very rich. So I finished touring - that took me a while on my late '80 albums - and it wasn't until 1990 that I had to come up with a next project and I went to Paris with my violin and tried to contact some of these musicians, jam with them, and I wanted to see if I could improvise with them. And some rhythms I could very easily, and some others I was completely lost. So, I asked them to educate me in their native rhythms from all these French speaking countries, ex-French colonies which gained independence in late '50's, early '60's. But, because French language and French educational system is still the official system in these countries, once they wanted to move to Europe, they felt they could, whether musicians or not, integrate in society a lot better. Some from the ex-British colonies like Nigeria went to London, but a lot came to Paris as well, because it started to grow as a big African community there. Paris became the big center of world music, suddenly. And so I asked them to educate me in their music, because it's not just rhythm, it's certain scales as well, from Senegal, Mali, Cameroons, and Guinea and it was fantastic and so I decided to do an album with them, but this time where I would be an interpreter and not involved as a composer.

Q: It would be interesting to know what the scales were that you found.

JLP: Well, it's modal. It's mostly modal, and the big richness is, of course, polyrhythms, but based on triplets. So like there is the bikutsi, for instance, to give a simple example. Bikutsi sounds to the Western ear in 3/4, with a group of four 16ths in each beat. For instance, the guitar player does an introduction, like "one-ee-and a two-ee and a three-ee and a" [plucks a melody] but in fact, then the drummer comes and plays the bass drum on every beat, like [taps] "one, two, three, four...", so it becomes triplets in fact. But they all think in different rhythmic feels. When I asked them, "So where is One" and I got different answers. The drummer gave me one and the percussionist gave me another one. And it all works together. That's what is amazing, and it's by instinct, it's not something they mentally learn. It's something they dance on. So if you hear the guitar intro only and if you hear them playing bikutsi in Africa, they don't play the bass drum on every beat. They do that for us Westerners, who would be totally lost otherwise, but without the bass drum to our ears, it sounds in 3/4. So the drummer plays every beat on the bass drum - one, two, three, four - and with the snare, he plays groups of four. [taps out a complex polyrhythm] And they do that naturally. When we recorded that piece in the studio, the drummer played in one take, not one mistake, playing the bass drum on all the beats and the snare every four.

Q: Have you ever written that out, to figure out how that works?

JLP: Yeah, yeah, sure. They wanted me to get involved writing melodies. They wanted that we write all together, because these are traditional rhythms. So I had to write it down to see and so that I could play with that, you know, in the melodies. So, for instance, if you play "one-ee and a two-ee and a three-ee and a" [plucks a repeating two note sequence], that will be on every beat in 3/4. But in fact it should be felt in 12/8, in 4/4 but with triplet feel. So it becomes tricky!

Q: How long did it take to adjust to those?

JLP: Well, those were fairly easy, because, interestingly enough, I did myself a lot of writing, starting with "Imaginary Voyage", for instance in 1976, I had the third part of my suite, which was based on triplets like that. And with group of fours going over three, but not steadily and not exactly the same way, you know.

Q: So did you get feedback from the people you were playing with as far as what things worked?

JLP: Yeah, because some of them - the modern musicians - knew my music, they had seen me in concert and before I got involved in this project, when I was meeting an African musician, he would come to see me and say he felt there was an affinity between my music and theirs, and I couldn't figure out why - and it's the triplet thing! And like when Mahavishnu did a lot of writing on odd meters and there were polyrhythms, but more on even beats. My thing was more from the very start to write polyrhythms based on the triplet feel, you know, by displacing the accents in different places. And that came from, interestingly enough, there is a lot of that in classical music. In Baroque music, for instance, in old music from Italy as well, some folk rhythms from Sicily, which are in 6/8, you know? And then, I found that in the jazz, in the Afro-Cuban rhythms which some jazz musicians were incorporating in bebop. So, I guess that was my influence to write things based on the 4/4 but on the triplet feel, and I'm playing with the accents in a different way. So once I learned the things with the Africans, I realized also they play very steadily. It's very repetitive, it's trance-like music, and that's what I was aiming to in the end of the '80's, with my music in a different way, in a more Western way. So it kind of fit together to have this very repetitive rhythmic patterns. And that encouraged me to improvise in that manner you were describing before, which is taking small rhythmic units and changing them around as much as you can, playing with it - what you can do with just a small rhythmic cell. So that was enhanced by playing with these African musicians. What the most difficult was - I don't know if you have that album "Tchokola" - it's hard to spell the rhythm, it's "min-gen-beu." If you can find a copy of the Tchokola record from 1991 on Epic, it's the title track, Tchokola, and each piece there is an explanation of what rhythm is used, and it's min-gen-beu, which is again in 4/4. Most of the African music is in fact in 4/4 but with a triplet feel, but they don't play what we feel are the strong beats. Even bass drum, when you listen to that album and you hear the drummer, what he does with the bass drum, he always plays on the upbeats. [taps out the beat] So the Western listener is fooled by that and would think that the one, the strong beat is where he plays the bass drum, so he try to pick up one of them and think that's the one and that's not it at all. And even for musicians from neighbors, from Senegal or other countries, they had a bit of a hard time feeling it correctly. Because that's the difficulty, I found, of this African polyrhythm. It's not like our difficult Western music where you just get it right mentally. You know, you can analyze it and it you get it right mathematically, you can play it. On top of that, with African, it has to be felt, because it's a music that makes you move your body. And if you don't feel it, it doesn't do any good to have understood mentally how it's placed. So, that piece Tchokola - I had done a solo and wasn't really very happy with it. Neither my co-producer, who is a drummer from Cameroon. And it's not until the time we are mixing, he showed me a videotape of a burial of one of his cousins in Cameroon, and there was more like 200 people, friends and family, that came to the burial and the ceremony goes on for two days and one night in between, non-stop, if not three days. Because there are hundreds of different tribes that are within Cameroon, which the Westerners decided would be a country, you know, so they speak different language, have different rhythms, different music, so that particular rhythm is used there for that ceremony, and people are not really dancing - they are just in line and moving on the beat. And they have people playing balafons. These are the ancestors of marimbas, they are wooden bars cut from trees with the trunk on a tree and it is empty under, or they have fruit shells, big fruit shells, which they empty and make a body of resonance under. And they have big ones, so they play on the same one - it's very, very long - and the one at the bottom plays what is transcribed by the modern young guys on bass. And that's why the bass players from Cameroon, for instance, or other parts of central and western Africa, use the bass in such a singing way. It's both rhythmic but at the same time, it's very singing, you know, because it's not exclusively playing the fundamental of chord changes like we do in the West. So you see a guy playing at the bottom on the big low notes, and others playing at different registers of that. And it's only until I saw how people move on this rhythm that I could understand how to feel it. So I erased my solo and redid it and I got it right.

Q: Did you try moving as well?

JLP: Well, sure, and that one again is a 4/4 - you can hear it better when the bass comes in, but at the beginning when you hear only the percussion, it's intriguing, you wonder what it is! Anyway, now I'm past that experience. What I did next with that "No Absolute Time" which I do with the group I had since then - because on that project there were some really musicians who play only tribal music. They can improvise, but they can improvise on the music they know, but you cannot ask them anything. You cannot ask them to play something you would like them to play. You play the tape for them, like the guy who was playing balafon and cora, which is an ancient harp, you had to play the tape, and either he hears something on it or he doesn't. And if he doesn't, forget it! Don't ask him to play. In fact, the introduction to Tchokola, it's me and the drummer who play the part that the Cameroonese drummer wanted. And he had warned me, he said that guy will not be able to - either he find something or forget it! So, of course, it worked for that record, but I was not going to play African music all my life. I'm not in Africa. It was a great enriching experience, but I was going to come back to my style of writing - except that this rhythmic experience was so rich that I couldn't come back to playing easy 4/4. Although I do, but I decided to use some of these younger musicians who could also play jazz and rock because they grew up listening to that music. So that's what I did and the fact that they did the rhythmic arrangement of my music gave a very different feel from what I would have done with my American rhythm section, for instance. It was a new start for me in my career and my life which was unexpected after so many years but very welcome, very challenging, because it was very uncomfortable by certain aspects - I had a group of great guys who were excellent musicians and things were going smoothly, but I hate routine. Although it was very demanding on my life for the organization of the project and also for finding people I've never worked with, another culture and everything, but again, definitely, I am a richer musician for it now. So the group I have since then is - I've called back my pianist, who is American, and then kept the percussionist, the bass player, and found a young drummer who is a friend from Paris. We do a blend of repertoire. My late '80's music as well, rearranged with that rhythm section. It's a bit more acoustic, a bit more improvisational than what I did previously with these guys. There are a lot of dynamics. They are very sensitive to what I do.

Q: When you are improvising, what do you think about? How do you approach it?

JLP: That's really tough. It's a tough question, because if I was analyzing what I was doing, I would stop playing! To think about the analysis! So I don't think - it just comes out, but the only thing is subconsciously - no, it's rather conscious - I try to push myself to start solos differently, to really improvise fresh solos, try to get away from the clichés. You know, you have your own patterns. Try to avoid that, basically. Otherwise I let myself be taken by the feeling of a particular piece and try to improvise with emotion. I'm going more for the emotional aspect than thinking of what notes I can play. Except that when it is intricate chord changes or rhythms, I practice my solos in advance. Which is, by practicing, I just become familiar with them by playing over them over and over at home, so that once I am on stage, I try to come up with new ideas but I know the frame, I know what feeds on these chord changes.

Q: Do you ever find yourself up playing and not being sure what to do next?

JLP: Rarely, but sure, yes. When you are really tired on the road, not much sleep, then after being really exhausted, it can play tricks on your mind. But then you have to push yourself, you know. You really have to shake yourself up and it can be just a brief moment, a few seconds, where you have a blank. Especially when you don't want to go through the same motion all the time; you don't want to repeat the same patterns. You cannot be at your creative peak every moment. So live it can be a problem. But it usually happens if there is a bit of a negative situation - maybe the audience is not that responsive, maybe the acoustics are not that good. You know, when the acoustics are not good, it's hard to play.

Q: How about when you are recording an album, do you listen back to a solo and say "I'd like to do that one differently"?

JLP: Well yeah. But after three, forget it! You know, usually the best is to get the first one good because there is a freshness to it that is impossible to get after three or four tries. And if it's really bad, if I'm really not satisfied after four takes, I would try another day or later in the day - because then you become a lot more self-conscious.

Q: Thinking too much.

JLP: Exactly. Thinking instead of feeling. But sometimes I have to have someone tell me that next to me, because as all musicians I would be tempted to do it better - or so I would think. I remember Grappelli when we did that album together in '73, he was saying he wanted to do his solo over and over, never satisfied with it, and I said, "No, that's great!" In fact I remember one solo this way. That was a time when I would never prepare my solos. By preparing, I would never try to improvise on my pieces before going to the studio. It was also a time when I started laying down the basic tracks myself with synthesizers and sequencers and so I was in the studio and had to play a solo on "Individual Choice." And it was a little odd because instead of a rhythm section I had this sequencer that was extremely mechanical. It was playing 16ths. That was the rhythm I had to play over. And also the chord changes, I had never played over them. It's not that they are so special but they move in a way which is more dark, coming from classical music than traditional blues or jazz chord progressions. So we started rolling the tape to try the first one and it was like I was trying and leaving some space and playing a few notes, and when I finished my wife was there. And so immediately I said to the engineer, "OK, let's erase that. Do another one." She said, "No, no! This is great!" I say, "You must be kidding. It's the first one I take!" So of course I took another track and tried two or three others and I agreed with her by the end that the freshest was the first one, although in my musician mind, you know, it didn't sound like what I could do best. But it fit the piece better than the rest, because I was totally listening in to the piece and not trying to play lines I had played before. I couldn't! This was a new structure of chord changes that I was confronted with. So, it depends. I also did a trio with Stanley Clarke (bass) and Al DiMeola (guitar) for two years - the "Rite of Strings" - where I played acoustic. Which had another challenge, which I took after the African project, because that was doing something totally different. Without a rhythm section, you know, I had to do a lot more on stage than I usually do with my group, because I had to play backgrounds for them while they were soloing and come up with rhythmic things I never do usually! And then I listened to my albums from the '80's with my American groups and that's when I realized that something was missing. So wanted to document that and that's why I came up with the live album ("Live at Chene Park"), which is with my American band. Like closing a chapter, I had to come back a little backwards to do that.

Q: Maybe you can talk about the violins that you play?

JLP: I was using Barcus Berry, and I still do sometimes if I want a more acoustic sound. I still use the 5-string Barcus-Berry with a natural wood finish, but in the 80's, Zeta from California came up with this electric violin and I worked with them on getting the right sound. And this is a jazz model. Since then they came up with other models like the Strados, which is more widely used by country fiddlers, but this is the jazz model with 5 strings. For me, I can get a big, warm sound, as well as cutting. Which means that I have a modern sound without having to modify the sound of the instrument with electronic devices like I did in the '70's. And it's a MIDI instrument; that's the beauty of it. [insert fig. 4 around here] Jean-Lucís "violectra" (left) and Zeta (right). [Picking up a second violin] So, this one is the latest in my collection. It's made in England, actually by a Canadian, from Ottowa, I believe, or London, He's from Ontario. But anyway he lives in England, in Birmingham. He married a British girl and stayed there and he's a classical violin maker. You would never guess by seeing the design, but he did the most avant-garde design of an electric violin I ever saw. And Nigel Kennedy played this one. And he goes all the way to six strings, with low strings - a low C and a low F. So it's a bit of a different tone, a little closer to a regular violin, strangely enough, although it's the most remote in shape. He calls it a violectra.

Q: And what is his name?

JLP: His name is David Bruce Johnson. And lastly I would like to mention, I use a bow made in France by Benoit Rolland. He makes this bow out of carbon fiber, but he has won medals; he has learned the bow making. It's a beautiful shape. It's a great balanced bow and it can be any color you want, which is great to match with my electric violin. So this is good for ecology; you won't have to cut exotic trees any more, and he has a revolutionary system where you take the frog, you unscrew the frog and inside with a special key, you can regulate the tension of the bow to your own taste. Which means that instead of trying several bows to find the one that fits the best for you in terms of weight and flexibility, this bow can accommodate a lot of people. Because you can change the rigidity, the flexibility of the bow.

Q: What is your preference? Do you like it more tense?

JLP: No, actually, no. In between, you know. It has to bounce, but yet, since I play with strong energetic music, with percussion and everything, it has to be a strong bow. Actually, I use a viola bow, which is something I got from Sugarcane Harris. He played with rock bands and blues bands before I did. At the time I was only playing jazz and it was loud already but not as much as when I played with Zappa, for instance, or even my own band after that, once I got used to it. And a viola bow is a lot more active, especially with having to play low strings.

Jean-Luc with Rite of Strings, 2004

See the Winter 2006 issue of Fiddler Magazine for an interview with Jean-Luc Ponty during his 2004 Rite of Strings tour.

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