There was no blueprint for the violin in jazz and rock when Jean-Luc Ponty electrified the instrument with Frank Zappa and John McLaughlin in the ’70s, before he set course on a solo career that brought his richly layered fusion to the top of the jazz charts.
“To be just instrumental with no vocals, it was a gamble, though it was really out of a personal interest for exploration in music,” says Ponty, 75, who credits mixing simple melodies and harmonies with more complex parts in his genre-crossing pieces. “It’s as if I were a medium, with something coming to me from I don’t know where, so I end up thinking that music is part of the metaphysical world.”
Ponty channels that world at the Cabot in Beverly on Aug. 24, part of his Atlantic Years tour that draws from late ’70s albums like Imaginary Voyage, Enigmatic Ocean and A Taste for Passion, recorded for Atlantic Records. Guitarist Jamie Glaser and drummer Rayford Griffin, who played on albums and tours from that era, are part of his band, which also backed the violinist and Yes singer Jon Anderson in a co-led project at the Cabot in 2016.
“I’m the kind of musician who’s always been moving on,” says Ponty, who worked with West African players and in string trios with Return to Forever bassist Stanley Clarke in recent decades. “I’m not too much into nostalgia, but after doing so many different projects since the ’70s and ’80s, I say why not revisit these early albums. [Since] there are sections for improvisation in almost every piece, the music comes back alive in a different way every night.”
The French violinist’s musical wanderlust reflects his background. Born into a family of classical musicians and trained at a conservatory where he earned high honors, Ponty played with orchestras and was enamored with the impressionistic composers Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky. But he also was attracted to jazz and embraced a secondary instrument. “I met these guys who had a jazz band in the Benny Goodman style, and they were looking for a clarinet player,” he says. “I knew nothing about jazz or Benny Goodman but said ‘I play clarinet. I’ll go to parties and meet girls!’ ”
Exposure to the more modern jazz of Miles Davis and John Coltrane sealed his direction as Ponty shifted to tenor sax and then back to violin. “There was a bit of prejudice against the instrument in jazz and rock,” he says, but performances with Stéphane Grappelli and the Modern Jazz Quartet boosted his cache.
Ponty also liked the rhythmic energy of rock. After recording the music of Frank Zappa on King Kong, a 1970 album with the composer/guitarist on board, Ponty joined Zappa’s band and appeared on breakthrough albums such as Over-Nite Sensation and Apostrophe. Ponty remembers Zappa asking if he’d like to plug his electric violin into an effects pedal. “It was basically made for guitar, but I was discovering sounds that had never been heard before, so it was not only exciting but it was also opening my imagination. Some of the sounds would really make my mind travel, like traveling in space. It was a lot more spiritual than physical.”
He also guested on Elton John’s Honky Chateau, then secured another mentorship in McLaughlin’s virtuosic Mahavishnu Orchestra, appearing on Apocalypse and Visions of the Emerald Beyond before refocusing on his solo career. Nonetheless, Ponty says, he appreciated exposure to rock’s more progressive wing.
“When I was playing exclusively with a rock band, I was missing some of the openness that was in jazz and missing the poetic side of classical music,” the violinist says. “So when I started my band in 1975, my goal was to make a synthesis of the elements I loved the most in each style of music.”
But might Ponty soon hang up his sonorous five-string violin and retire from the road, as McLaughlin recently did? “This could be my last tour, but I don’t want to announce it as such,” he says. “As long as I can do it, I will continue.” ◆
Jean-Luc Ponty plays the Cabot on Aug. 24.
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