Jean-Luc Ponty has had a busy 3 decades. He's not only defined his role in music history, but has re-defined the role of the violin through the clever yet tasteful fusion of jazz, rock and world music covered in over 15 albums since 1975. This is in addition to some classic collaborations and stints with the likes of Elton John, Frank Zappa, The Mahavishnu Orchestra and Al DiMeola (in the Rite Of Strings). Throughout it all, Ponty made major waves in every genre, all while keeping true to the masters in jazz, classical and beyond that inspired him.
For the French-born violin virtuoso, however, 'nothing to prove' didn't mean 'nothing to do'. Jean-Luc took a personal re-discovery and a return to his roots into the studio, and the product is the aptly titled "Life Enigma", which will be independently released in August of 2001. Combining the talents of new and longtime members William Lecomte (keyboards), Guy Akwa Nsanguè (bass), Thierry Arpino (drums) and Moustapha Cissè (percussion), and Ponty's own production prowess, Life Enigma is yet another powerful chapter in a book that Jean Luc continues to write.
I took a few minutes with the amiable and spirited Jean-Luc Ponty to dig deeper on the process behind this anticipated new CD. Also, expect to find the violinist extraordinaire in the near future on tour with his usual lineup. For more information, visit Jean-Luc's official site at www.ponty.com.
JazzReview.com: Was this album a pre-defined concept, or did you take certain undefined ideas and inspiration into the studio and take it from there?
Jean-Luc Ponty: My only conscious decision was to come back to my classical style and roots, what's classic for me, anyhow. Coming back to my western composition and melodic and harmonic style was very important to me, especially now.
Very much like is started to develop [my sound] in the 70's. I'm someone who enjoys exploring new musical territories, but it was important for me to come back home, to come back to my musical roots, but without re-doing the past. Really, to come back to my style, but I wanted it to sound like a modern -day production.
I was in no rush. I didn't even know if I should release another record. I am already represented by 16 or 17 already on the shelf. I was just putting down ideas in between concert tours with my group and in my travels...I wouldn't say it's a total concept album musically because the musical ideas were collected over several years.
JazzReview.com: Tell us about the musicians that have joined you on the road and in the studio recently.
Jean-Luc Ponty: I have 2 wonderful musicians who've bee with me 10 years now, Guy Akwa Nsangue from Cameroon, and Moustafah [Cisse], whose a percussionist from Senegal, both of whom I met in 1990 for the recording of the West African project I did. They are also jazz and R&B and Pop. They can play anything, which is why I hired them again for my band after that special project.
JazzReview.com: What has influenced or inspired you lately, and really contributed to what's been coming out of your violin in the past few years?
Jean-Luc Ponty: It's really looking inside my own experiences rather than outside influences. There is so much variety going on now, [that] you can get lost if you try and assimilate new things all the time all at once. I shouldn't try just anything, and I wanted this music to be as simple as possible for me, something warm and direct for the sheer pleasure of playing music, but also expressing some deep emotion. The only thing new that caught my ear would be the techno aspect of European music, which I was exposed to a lot more since I share time between here and Paris.
I've been somewhat influenced by the toys I acquired for my new home studio. Instead of doing the entire album with my band members, I started playing with this drum samples which I played myself...and then thought it was pretty cool, so I left it on the album for a few tracks. Otherwise, when I use my live rhythm section the accent is a lot more on percussion than on drums... the West African experience is still there and has left a mark.
JazzReview.com: What are your intended tour plans? Can we look forward to seeing you on the road soon with this great new material?
Jean-Luc Ponty: Yes, I'll be with the same drummer as on the album that has been with me for the past 3 years, Thierry Arpino, who is in NYC now, but has been with me since 1998. He grew up in France and therefore he has the experience of working with African bands like Madu De Bongo. He has the feel for African rhythms, plus he's a very sensitive player and has great chops. I have a new keyboard player [William Lecomte] for the same reason, he's used to playing with African groups but he's also an excellent bebop player, and he won several Jazz competitions in France. He's among the top young jazz pianists around in addition he also has experience with electronic instruments. Since i built [the keyboard tracks] myself on the CD, I don't want him to do the same, his contribution is too beautiful on the acoustic piano.
JazzReview.com: Any new ideas or desires, possible concepts for the next record or things you may try out on the road? Maybe something you've heard that you want to try?
Jean-Luc Ponty: It's not so much going out and buying new albums, really, but it's easy to hear so much techno on TV and the radio in Europe, guys who sell tons of albums worldwide, really. Not saying I like [techno] so much, but sometimes I hear fresh, new ideas using the technology.
I'm not really going to try and assimilate corporate avenues, and am not really searching and trying any more in that way. I don't feel I need to prove anything to anyone or myself at this point. In [names a location on last tour] I was strumming my violin like a guitar, testing some equipment, a midi synthesizer, and I discovered that I could hold chords like a keyboard. One day I said, "Wow it would be cool to record a short solo album like. That"...it incites me to explore the violin more as a harmonic instrument..you know, little things like that. I don't think it's a giant step, but I think its additional means of expression that are always exciting.
JazzReview.com: It's an old question, but an important one nonetheless. For those young musicians out there for whom you serve as a big influence, who would you recommend they listen to, you know YOUR big influences, and what advice would you give them?
Jean-Luc Ponty: That's a tough question...if I listened to all the advice I was getting when I started, I wouldn't be here today. The same thing doesn't always work for other people. It's always inspiring listening to listen to what other great musicians have done. I myself tried to collect as many albums as I could on the jazz side, the old guys should never be forgotten, Stuff Smith has been a big one, of course, Stephane Grappelli. For me, my concept throughout my life has been to try to come up with new things by building on the work of my predecessors. We can always pass something on to others. I'm delighted that it doesn't stop with me and that young string players find me worth pursuing as well.
JazzReview.com: Thanks so much for spending this time with us.
Jean-Luc Ponty: You're very welcome.