Our 1991 Interview with Jean-Luc Ponty

By Paul Freeman

With his acoustic and electric violin, Jean Luc Ponty has explored far-reaching musical territories. His latest album, "Tchokola," takes him to the polyrhythmic sounds of western Africa. In the summer of 1988, when Ponty arrived in Paris from his Southern California home to begin a European tour, he was approached by a journalist. "This young woman said that she had interviewed several West African musicians who had settled in France and they had mentioned my name among the musicians they admired.

"My curiosity was tickled. I had listened in my youth to traditional tribal African music. I was intrigued and wanted to find out about the modern music African players were producing." He bought several albums. "The rhythm field was great, which I expected, but I did not expect to hear so rich and profound a melodic content. It inspired me to pick up my violin and join with their records. This hadn't happened to me in ages."

A fundamental difference Ponty noted between western jazz and West African music was the approach to improvisation.

"In jazz, when you take a solo, you try to make a beginning, a development and an end, searching for all possible variations on the piece, going as far harmonically as you can, trying not to repeat yourself. When you feel you have said it all, you stop. African musicians take a few notes and repeat them over and over with just some subtle changes. It becomes entrancing. In that sense, there is an affinity with Far Eastern music."

Ponty was particularly fascinated by the music from Senegal, Cameroon and Nigeria. In Paris, he gathered together with a number of West African musicians. "I asked them to educate me in the different styles. The binary rhythms, which they use primarily in music for entertainment purposes, was easy to grab and understand. But those rooted to the village life, the rites, were a lot more complex.

"In Cameroon, they have a mourning ceremony that lasts three days and three nights following a burial. There were so many complex rhythms going on simultaneously. On top of that, they never play the strong beats, only the syncopated ones. Even when I had analyzed the rhythm and knew how to start it, it was very difficult not to get lost after awhile."

One of the drummers on the "Tchokola" session came to Ponty's rescue. "He brought me a videotape of mourning ceremonies with 200 people in long lines, not really dancing, but moving to the rhythm. Seeing their body movements and how they felt these rhythms, I finally understood how to play it. But it was extremely challenging."

Ponty had not been certain this collaboration would work. "Until we actually tried it, I could not know if I would be able to integrate my style of playing into their music. When the record was finished, one of the percussionists told me he was amazed at how well the violin fit in with his music. The violin is an extremely expressive instrument that offers a lot of room for experimentation.

"Although I use, at times, a very modern violin, it's a very archaic technical principle, which is to take a wood stick, attach a piece of horsetail and rub it against a string. It should not be surprising that it blends so well with primitive tribal instruments." Ponty, who was born in a small town in Normandy, France, moved to Paris at 15. There he received attention as a classical violinist.

"For me, violin was a means to an end. I didn't want to be an instrumentalist. I planned to play it only until I reached the age when I could study conducting and composing. When I discovered jazz, playing seemed more fulfilling, because I could be involved in spontaneous composing through improvisation. That, plus energy and rhythms of jazz got to me. It didn't happen overnight. I had been a classical purist. But, little by little, after playing jazz as a hobby, it developed into a passion. I discovered that it was a great way of musical expression. I had an open mind to musical adventure."

Ponty moved to the United States in 1973 and performed and recorded with Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention and John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra.

"It was a double-edged sword, because these were musicians I admired, but, ultimately, it's better to start a career from scratch and not have a stigma of some other band. Being a member of a famous group does not mean you will automatically be a star when you're on your own. I had to prove myself to the industry and the listeners. People who didn't like Zappa or McLaughlin started with a negative feeling about my music before they'd even heard it. Fans of those groups were disappointed, because my music was so different."

Ponty released the first of his 15 solo albums in 1975. Critics gushed. Yet he has never focused on making his music accessible to the masses.

"Profit is the name of the game in the Western world, even in music nowadays. But whenever anyone tried to tell me to make my record more commercial by adding singers or changing the rhythm to a dance beat, I told them, 'Go to hell!'"

The innovative musician, 49, married, with two grown children, plans to maintain residences in Santa Monica and Paris.

"I had given up my place in France, but I want to spend time there, because there's so much happening musically. An artist in any field cannot afford to fall asleep, to rest on past accomplishments. You can't follow a formula. You must stay creative."

He believes that it is vital for both musicians and listeners to open their ears to other cultures. "What I learned from the West African music will stay with me. It would be hard to go back to the more simplistic Western rhythms now. Making comparisons can change your set of values in music. If you rely on the safety of the familiar, how can you grow as an artist, or a person?"

For information on this amazing artist’s more recent music, including “The Atacama Experience” and “The Mothership Returns” box set, as well as tour dates, visit ponty.com.