ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT VOICES IN THE HEYDAY OF JAZZ FUSION WAS VIOLINIST JEAN-LUC PONTY. NOT ONLY WAS HE ON SEMINAL ALBUMS BY FRANK ZAPPA AND THE MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA, BUT HIS SOLO ALBUMS LIKE AURORA AND HIS DUETS WITH PHILLIP CATHERINE ARE STILL CONSIDERED STATE OF THE ART.
PONTY HASN’T SAT STILL SINCE THOSE DAYS. RECENTLY, HE’S TEAMED UP WITH VOCALIST JON ANDERSON, WHO MADE HIS MARK WITH THE JAZZ-ROCK GROUP YES BACK IN THE 70S. THEIR RECENT COLLABORATION IS A WONDROUS MIX OF SOUNDS AND STYLES, AND THEY ARE CURRENTLY TOURING IN SUPPORT OF THE ALBUM.
WE RECENTLY CAUGHT UP WITH THE CHARMING MISTER PONTY TO HAVE HIM PUT HIS CAREER AND MUSIC INTO PERSPECTIVE
WHO INITIALLY INSPIRED YOU TO PLAY JAZZ AND VIOLIN?
I started on clarinet and jammed one day on violin because I didn’t have my clarinet with me, I had never heard any jazz violinist before, I loved it and it was a decisive experience. I was into bebop and there was no bebop violin player at the time, it incited me even more to pursue playing modern jazz on violin.
HOW DID YOU COME ACROSS JOINING FRANK ZAPPA’S BAND? WHAT WAS YOUR INITIAL IMPRESSION OF FRANK ZAPPA? IN RETROSPECT, WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ABOUT WHAT YOU LEARNED FROM THE BAND?
I was signed to the World Pacific record label in Los Angeles and in 1969 Richard Bock its president and record producer suggested that I do a collaboration with Frank Zappa for one of my solo albums, which we did, entitled King Kong. Zappa called me a few years later to join his band, which I did in 1973. His great originality came from mixing so many styles of music, total fusion before it became a musical movement and his example encouraged me to let my own musical experiences in classical music, jazz and rock inspire my writing without worrying about traditional styles.
WHAT WAS YOUR MOTIVE IN JOINING THE MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA? WHAT WERE YOUR THOUGHTS ON JOHN MCLAUGHLIN’S VISION OF MUSIC AT THE TIME?
As much as I loved Zappa’s instrumental compositions the focus was on vocals, Mahavishnu was all about instrumentals. John’s concept was a real musical revolution in the early to mid-70s and it was a thrill for me to be touring around the world fronting that band with John, I loved his compositions and he was such such an intense player that performing so many shows next to him made me a stronger player.
FUSION SEEMS TO BE MAKING A COMEBACK. ARE YOU SURPRISED BY IT’S RESURGANCE? WHY DO YOU THINK IT GOT SO POPULAR INITIALLY IN THE 70S?
It appealed to a large audience and the progressive rock audience in particular because we used the same instrumentation, new electric instruments that were just appearing then, electronics and sound effects, with an energy that was typical of music being created in our generation, but the difference was that musicians like myself coming from jazz were also able to bring that spontaneous creativity through improvisation that gave very different dynamics to our concerts compared to our recordings. As for a comeback, personally I never left and have never stopped being invited to perform around the world, but I know what you mean by a renewed general interest for that music and….. no I am not so surprised, I have met so many musicians and listeners from young generations who said they were very inspired by what we did in the 70s and 80s.
WHY DID YOU LEAVE THE MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA? DID MCLAUGHLIN EVER GIVE YOU ANY CAREER/MUSIC ADVICE?
No John did not give me any advice, I left because I had been composing and accumulating so much material that I was ready to record 2 or 3 albums. In fact I was going to start my own band before John asked me to join his, and I postponed my project as I was very excited to play with John, but after a year I decided it was time to start my project.
WHAT WAS THE IMPETUS FOR OPEN STRINGS? WHAT ARE YOUR REFLECTIONS ON YOUR PARTNER PHILLIP CATHERINE?
I wanted to add guitar to my band in Europe in the late 60s and Philip was the second guitarist I hired, I loved his playing and musicianship, reason why I invited him on my last album ‘The Atacama Experience’ a few years ago. The pianist Joachim Kuhn and the other guys were into avant-guard, free form, no setlist, go onstage and start improvising from scratch, just a written melody here and there. That’s what we did for this album ‘Open Strings’ recorded for MPS in Germany in the very early 70s. I was open to any kind of experimentation but came back to the kind of jazz-rock I had started right before with George Duke. That’s the music that appealed to me the most.
YOUR ALBUMS LIKE AURORA AND UPON WINGS GOT GREAT POPULARITY IN THEIR DAY. WHAT DID JAZZ HAVE BACK THEN THAT MADE IT SO POPULAR, AS OPPOSED TO TODAY?
Even though I was not at all writing tunes thinking of radio airplay, we were just doing what we profoundly loved to do, yet the difference with today wasy exposure. When these 2 albums you mention came out in 1975-1976 this type of music was played all over America and the world in jazz, soft-rock, prog-rock and folk stations. I was invited several times to perform on talk shows like the Tonight Show, Merv Griffin etc. and home entertainment was very limited, just radio and a few TV channels and people had to buy albums if to listen to music at home. It has been constantly changing since the early 80s and nowadays it is extremely difficult for young musicians to be exposed internationally on a big scale like before, internet can be a chance to achieve that but so far it has not replaced the old system. I often talk to friends like Stanley Clarke and other musicians of my generation and we are all conscious of how lucky we were to start our careers then. I feel for young generations who strive so hard and have to be so involved with the business side of it, like my daughter Clara.
YOU HAVE A NEW ALBUM WITH VOCALIST JON ANDERSON, WHO WAS WITH THE “CLASSIC” YES BAND. HOW DID YOU MEET ANDERSON?
I first met Jon when touring with the Mahavishnu Orchestra in 1974, we did two shows in Texas with YES. I liked the band and their type of music. Then Jon and I crossed paths again in Los Angeles in the 80s and wetalked about doing a project together some day…….30 years passed till we crossed paths again last year and decided it was time to do it.
HOW DID YOUR RECENT COLLABORATION WITH ANDERSON COME ABOUT? HOW DOES IT FEEL TO RETURN TO THESE SONGS FROM THE 1970S?
When we got in touch again last year Jon spontaneously improvised and recorded short melodies and lyrics on some of my classics like ‘Mirage’ and ‘Rhythms of Hope’. He sent me the mp3s and I was so impressed at how well it worked that I immediately agreed we had to put a band together. I said ‘we should have done this years ago’ and Jon replied ‘well…..better late than never’ which is now the title of our first album together. Jazz-rock and prog. rock have this common element of experimenting with structures and being open to various musical influences. We just don’t rehash the past but take some of our music from the 70s and give it a new live with new arrangements, Jon is very creative and aims at doing the same with his classics.
IS THERE ANYTHING THAT MOTIVATES YOU SPIRITUALLY AS FAR AS PHILOSOPHY, BOOKS OR RELIGION?
Yes, thanks to my wife who became spiritual before I did, I looked for other values, read as many books as I could to learn from famous philosophers as well as Buddhism and Christian Saints and now my spirituality comes first and playing music for me now is the expression of this spirituality.
JEAN LUC-PONTY ARE CURRENTLY TOURING THE STATES IN SUPPORT OF THEIR THRILLING NEW ALBUM. THEY WILL BE IN LOS ANGELES THIS MONTH AT THE SABAN THEATRE. GET READY FOR A MIX OF OLD AND NEW SOUNDS AND VISIONS MIXING TOGETHER FOR A NEW FUSION OF IDEAS!