Jean-Luc Ponty is a pioneer and undisputed master of violin in the arena of jazz and rock. He is widely regarded as an innovator who has applied his unique visionary spin that has expanded the vocabulary of modern music.
Ponty was born in a family of classical musicians on September 29, 1942 in Avranches, France. His father taught violin, his mother taught piano. At sixteen, he was admitted to the Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique de Paris, graduating two years later with the institution’s highest award, Premier Prix. In turn, he was immediately hired by one of the major symphony orchestras, Concerts Lamoureux, where he played for three years.
While still a member of the orchestra in Paris, Ponty picked up a side gig playing clarinet (which his father had taught him) for a college jazz band that regularly performed at local parties. It proved a life-changing jumping-off point. A growing interest in the jazz sounds of Miles Davis and John Coltrane compelled him to take up the tenor saxophone. Fueled by an all-encompassing creative passion, Jean-Luc soon felt the need to express his jazz voice through his main instrument, the violin.
So it was that Ponty found himself leading a dual musical life: rehearsing and performing with the orchestra while also playing jazz until 3 a.m. at clubs throughout Paris. The demands of this doomed schedule eventually brought him to a crossroads. “Naturally, I had to make a choice, so I took a chance with jazz”, says Jean-Luc.
At first, the violin proved to be a handicap; few at the time viewed the instrument as having a legitimate place in the modern jazz vocabulary. With a powerful sound that eschewed vibrato, Jean-Luc distinguished himself with be-bop era phrasings and a punchy style influenced more by horn players than by anything previously tried on the violin; nobody had heard anything quite like it before. Critics said then that he was the first jazz violinist to be as exciting as a saxophonist. Ponty’s notoriety grew with remarkable leaps and by 1964, at age 22, he released his debut solo album for Philips, Jazz Long Playing. A 1966 live album called Violin Summit united Ponty on stage in Basel, Switzerland with such notable string talents as Svend Asmussen, Stephane Grappelli and Stuff Smith.
In 1967, John Lewis of The Modern Jazz Quartet invited Ponty to perform at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Jean-Luc’s first-ever American appearance garnered thunderous applause and led to a U.S. recording contract with the World Pacific label (Electric Connection with the Gerald Wilson Big Band, Jean-Luc Ponty Experience with the George Duke Trio). Through the late-‘60s and early ‘70s, Ponty achieved mounting critical praise and popularity across Europe. In turn, the violinist soon found his signature talents in demand by top recording artists the world over.
In 1969, Frank Zappa composed the music for Jean-Luc’s solo album King Kong (Blue Note). In 1972, Elton John invited Ponty to contribute to his Honky Chateau Number One hit album . Within a year - at the urging of Zappa and the Mothers of Invention who wanted him to join their tour - Ponty emigrated with his wife and two young daughters to America and made his home in Los Angeles. He continued to work on a variety of projects - including a pair of John McLaughlin/Mahavishnu Orchestra albums/tours (Apocalypse, Visions of the Emerald Beyond) until 1975, when he signed on as a solo artist with Atlantic Records.
For the next decade, Jean-Luc toured the world repeatedly and recorded twelve consecutive albums which all reached the Top Five on the Billboard jazz charts and sold millions of copies. Early Atlantic recordings, such as 1976’s Aurora and Imaginary Voyage, firmly established him as a figurehead in America’s growing jazz-rock movement. He went on to crack the Top 40 in 1977 with the Enigmatic Ocean album and again in 1978 with Cosmic Messenger. In 1984, a revolutionary video featuring time lapse images was produced by Louis Schwarzberg for Individual Choice. Along with Herbie Hancock, Ponty became one of the first jazz musicians to have a music video.
Besides recording and touring with his own group, Ponty also performed some of his compositions with the New Music Ensemble of Pittsburgh, the Radio City Orchestra in New York, as well as with symphony orchestras in Montreal, Toronto, Oklahoma City and Tokyo. In the late-‘80s, he recorded a pair of albums, The Gift of Time and Storytelling for Columbia.
On 1991’s Epic-released Tchokola, Ponty combined his acoustic and electric violins, for the first time, with the powerful polyrhythmic sounds of West Africa. He also performed for two months in the U.S. and Canada with a cast of African expatriates he had encountered on the Paris music scene. In 1993, Ponty returned to Atlantic in impressive fashion with No Absolute Time. Working with American and African musicians, Jean-Luc expanded on the explorations of Tchokola with a moving and soulful result.
“There is a whole scene in Paris of top-notch African musicians”, he says. “I was very curious and wanted to educate myself in these rhythms, which were totally new to my ears.
In 1995, Ponty joined guitarist Al Di Meola and bassist Stanley Clarke to record an acoustic album under the name The Rite of Strings. This all-star trio also undertook a six-month tour of North America, South America, and Europe that earned them intercontinental critical praise.
Ponty regrouped his American band in 1996 for live performances following the release of a double CD anthology of Ponty’s productions for Atlantic Records entitled Le Voyage. One of these concerts was recorded in Detroit, Michigan, in front of 6000 fans. It was released in February 1997 by Atlantic Records under the title Live at Chene Park.
In 1997, Jean-Luc Ponty put back together his group of Western and African musicians pursuing this new fusion that he started in 1991. Together they toured for three years from the Hawaiian Islands to Poland and triumphed in North America as well as in Europe. Ponty also performed a highly acclaimed duet with bassist Miroslav Vitous in December 99. In January 2000, he participated to Lalo Schifrin’s recording with a big band, Esperanto. In June 2001, Ponty performed duets with Vadim Repin, the young Russian star of classical violin and also with American jazz violinist Regina Carter at the Film Music Festival in Poland. A universal approach to music has always been the essence of Ponty’s motivation and work.
In August 2001, Jean-Luc Ponty released his new studio CD Life Enigma on his own label (J.L.P. Productions, Inc.), a return to his concept from the ‘70s with a very modern production. Ponty played all the instruments on some tracks and was joined by his band members for superb performances on other tracks: William Lecomte (keyboards), Guy Nsangue Akwa (bass), Thierry Arpino (drums) and Moustapha Cisse (percussion). Ponty gave an extremely successful concert with his band in his native town of Avranches, in the French province of Normandie, on September 21, 2001. He was also honored during a special ceremony at City Hall, finally gaining recognition from his compatriots. He then embarked on a very successful concert tour in the USA in October-November 2001, receiving strong and loyal support from his fans despite the uncertainty that followed the September 11 terrorist attacks. In May 2001, Ponty recorded a memorable concert with the same musicians at the superb opera house in Dresden, Germany. This recording was released in July 2002 on a CD entitled Live at Semper Opera (J.L.P. Productions, Inc. - Navarre Distribution in North America and Le Chant du Monde-Harmonia Mundi in Europe).
In January 2003, Jean-Luc toured in India for the first time, seven shows in six major cities for the Global Music Festival organized by Indian violinist L. Subramaniam. Jean-Luc brought along his bassist Guy Nsangue Akwa, both performed with Subramaniam’s band and drummer Billy Cobham who was also a guest star on that tour. Ponty also did an extensive tour across the U.S.A. in the Fall.
In 2004, the PAL version of Jean-Luc Ponty’s first DVD In Concert was released in Germany (Pirate Records 202756-9), in France-Italy-Spain (Le Chant du Monde/Hamonia Mundi 974 1195). The NTSC version was also released in 2004 in North America (J.L.P. Productions, Inc./Navarre Distribution JLP 004). It contains a live concert with his band filmed in Warsaw in 1999, mixed in 5.1 plus bonus materials, such as an eleven-minute film of travels and backstage scenes. In Concert is also available on CD in some countries.
Jean Luc Ponty & His Group toured in 2004 in France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Lithuania and India, for their first concert as a whole band in Bombay. Ponty also did a reunion tour with Stanley Clarke and Al Di Meola as the Rite of Strings from June to October 2004 in the U.S.A. and Canada.
In 2005, Ponty has been touring with a new project called Trio! in collaboration with Stanley Clarke on double bass and Bela Fleck on banjo.
In 2006 Ponty reunited Jean Luc Ponty & His Band and toured in the USA, Chile, Venezuela, Western and Eastern Europe, Russia, The Middle East and India; they also recorded a new studio album called The Atacama Experience with guitarists Allan Holdsworth and Philip Catherine appearing on a few tracks. This new CD has been released in June 2007 by Koch Records in North America and by Universal in Europe, and received four stars in the U.S. jazz magazine Down Beat as well as raving reviews internationally. Most critics say that it is one his best since Enigmatic Ocean. Concert tours followed the release of this album in the USA, Canada and Europe in 2007 and 2008.
At the end of 2008 Jean Luc Ponty & His Band became a quartet without percussion, a return to the “Ponty sound” of the ‘70s-‘80s in a jazzier version.
In 2009 Ponty started the year with a concert at the prestigious La Fenice theatre in Venice, Italy, followed by more concerts overseas and a first appearance of JLP’s band in Mexico. In September Ponty performed as a guest of the Chick Corea - Stanley Clarke - Lenny White Trio along with Chaka Khan for a special evening at the Hollywood Bowl, with Stevie Wonder showing up by surprise for a jam at the end. Then in November JLP & His Band embarked on U.S. tour that started in San Diego, California, and ended in New York City.
In 2010 Ponty is performing with his band and also as a duet with pianist Wolfgang Dauner in the Caribbean, Europe and Russia.