We spoke with iconic fusion violinist-composer, Jean-Luc Ponty about his latest project with famed Yes singer, Jon Anderson. Their band is appropriately named, The Anderson-Ponty Band and they have released a a most intriguing album of hybrid tunes that combines Yes standards, Ponty Standards as well as some new and highly stylized original compositions. The album, “Better Late Than Never” features outstanding performances by the group from a September 2014 performance at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen, Colorado, as well as some innovative post production.
Ponty has been associated with some of the most important jazz and rock figures of the late 60’s and 70’s including: John McLaughlin, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Svend Asmussen, Frank Zappa, Stéphane Grappelli, Stuff Smith, Al Di Meola, Stanley Clarke,Gerald Wilson, Elton John, Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, Bela Fleck,Return to Forever, to name but a few. His work with these icons have become legendary, but it’s Ponty’s ability to find fresh and relevant outlets that truly sets him apart as one of the great artists of our time.
In our interview, Jean-Luc shared some personal insights about his own creative process and unique approaches to music, performance and living. We hope you find the words of this musical explorer as inspiring as we did. Enjoy!
TM: Congratulations on the success of your new “Better Late than Never” tour. This material is really quite a collage of songs and styles. I understand this collaboration was suggested almost 30 years ago! What finally happened to bring it all together?
JLP: I crossed paths with Jon again 3 years ago and we talked about putting a band together, and a few days later Jon sent me some very spontaneous recording he had done, singing on some of my tunes. I was very impressed, it worked so well with my music, I was immediately convinced that this would be a great project. I told Jon it was too bad we did not do it years ago, he answered “well…..better late than never”…..we had our album title before we even started (laughs) !
TM: I love the way you revisited some of the longer improvisational pieces like, “Infinite Mirage” which is based on “Mirage” from your classic Enigmatic Ocean album. It seems like this piece is as fresh today as when it first came out. What is key to the continuing evolution of your music?
JLP: I am very lucky to have a few pieces like “Mirage” which still sound good today, not outdated at all, but it would not make sense to record it again like the original version, so our concept was to start with the original elements and adding sections for Jon to sing on, a bit like taking a story from a book and giving it a new development and new ending.
TM: As the body of work expands, do you find a sense of nostalgia for specific periods in your own musical history?
JLP: No because I would get bored playing the same music in the same way all the time, routine is not good for creativity, so I really enjoy new experiences, it makes my mind a lot richer. Life is ever changing so I say to myself that there is no reason to be sad and nostalgic and I feel very lucky to have lived all these great moments, what I do now is like bonus years, and once in a while I listen to my early recordings to revisit these periods in my mind.
TM: Was the setting for the album rehearsal at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen a deliberate choice? It seems like a beautiful place to create.
JLP: Jon did a solo show there in 2014 and Gram Slaton, manager of that venue, asked him what he was going to do next, Jon explained that he was putting a band together with me, that we were going to rehearse in Los Angeles and do an album and this manager offered that we come rehearse in his Opera House and also record there because they had just bought new recording equipment, therefore this place is also like a top recording studio….and……would you believe…..we didn’t refuse…..and did not regret (big smile).
TM: Have you used many different violins over the years or do you have one primary instrument?
JLP: Yes…..and yes…..I have used different violins over different periods but always play only one or two primary instruments. I started with a traditional violin through my studies at the Paris Conservatory of Music and when I was a member of a symphony orchestra and also started playing jazz. However I realized very quickly that I needed to amplify the volume of my instrument to play with a drummer and that’s how it all started. When I arrived in California in the late 60s Barcus-Berry gave me their first electric violins, and that opened the door for me to experiment with all type of sound effects in the 70s, then Zeta created great solid body electric violins in the 80s with MIDI capability, so now it depends on the type of concert I do, I use an acoustic or electro-acoustic violin when performing with symphony orchestras for instance, or duets with a pianist, and with an electric band like on this tour I have a Zeta, plus my blue Barcus-Berry from 1978 which still sounds great and an electro-acoustic violin for the acoustic set we do with Jon in the middle of the show.
TM: you have been playing large venues for decades. I saw you at the San Diego University amphitheatre almost 30 years ago! In what ways have live playing & touring changed over the years?
JLP: Well……touring….hmm…..hotels and flights are way more expensive than 30 years ago, (laughs) and it is more of a hassle to travel with all these security checks in airports. So tour buses and driving whenever possible is better…..otherwise the big difference is that thanks to an amazing technological evolution the quality of sound equipment, electric instruments and sound effects all have greatly improved. In the 70s our keyboardist on stage was surrounded by up to 6 or 8 keyboards, it looked like a music store ……because some of these keyboards produced only one type of sound. Now one keyboard is enough because it connects to a laptop computer with hundreds of sounds. I had a big rack almost as high as me on stage in the 70s and 80s with all my sound effects, now I just have a small pedal from Eventide called the H9, which could almost fit in my pocket, big pocket perhaps…..solid also…..ahaha….but seriously it’s no bigger than my hand and has all the sound effects I need.
TM: How would you describe your creative relationship with Jon?
JLP: There is a lot of mutual respect, when we work on a piece it’s the one who composed it who takes the lead, while the other can contribute ideas as well, it goes very smoothly and Jon is so creative that he can come up with a new idea every day.
TM: What inspires you to create?
JLP: Life experiences that affect me deeply whether positive or negative, my emotions, like with metaphysics and spirituality there is no precise explanation, it’s beyond thinking music notes, I let my feelings guide what I am playing.
TM: Can you describe a little how the song writing process begins for you?
JLP: Sometimes a melody pops up in my mind and I grab a blank sheet of music to write it down, otherwise it will be lost, and I have lost many ideas like that, or if I have access to my home studio i will record it immediately. Otherwise I wrote a lot of music by improvising at home on piano or synthesizer, more rarely on violin.
TM: Personally speaking on what levels does the Ponty/Anderson music succeed most on?
JLP: Violin is the most expressive instrument after voice, but voice is pure emotion and especially the way Jon is singing, so when we do a dialog it makes me play like if I was also singing, it’s very inspiring, very musical and stimulating.
TM: Your daughter Clara is a wonderful Pianist and songwriter but her style is very different from yours, though complimentary. Do you find that her musical sensibilities bring different colors to your music when you play together?
JLP: My music stays the same when she plays with me, however we do a mix of my music and hers, and hers is very meditative, romantic, so it brings greater dynamics when we do a show together, I like it.
TM: Are there challenges to being a father, mentor and musical collaborator at the same time?
JLP: It sure is a challenge just to be a father, but I never wanted to impose my musical views, she developed her own concept from the start and I just watched from the side and would come to her help whenever she would ask for it.
TM: Over the years you have collaborated with so many musicians. Some of them are still with us, some are gone. Are there any particularly memorable encounters that stand apart or that you were very fond of?
JLP: Several people around me suggest that I write my memoirs, I should do it soon but did not find the time yet as I am still too active and living fully in the present, and with such a long life and career it takes a lot of concentration to remember events that happened a long time ago, as far back as the 60s for some of them.
TM: Before an interview, we solicit questions from our readers. I have a few questions from your fans that we’ve collected.
Q: What is your favorite music to listen to for pleasure?
JLP: Classical music
Q: What are some of your favorite things to do outside of music?
JLP: Reading books that will help me be less ignorant, whether it’s about quantum physics, metaphysics, history, politics and more. I also practice a bit of yoga, my second daughter is a yoga teacher, and I love walking in nature.
Q: Do you have a strong “vision or sense” of what a piece of music will be like before you write, or do you employ a more “build as you go process”?
JLP: The only time I suddenly heard a complete arrangement in my head with specific instruments was the whole intro of “Renaissance”, while I was on a flight. Then I heard the whole second half, melody and rhythm while I was driving my car the next day. But this was an exception, most pieces I develop bits by bits.
Q: Does nature inspire your music?
JLP: Yes it does sometimes, it’s the way sunlight reflects on mountains, or the ocean, sunsets, it puts me in a sort of dreamy mood and sometimes I will hear music in my mind.
TM: What words of inspiration would you give to musical artists who choose to make careers in music?
JLP: No one has ever been guaranteed to survive with music, success has always been a lottery but it is even more difficult to make a living as a professional musician now because of constant growing competition around the world and the Internet giving access to so much music for free or very little money, so you need to know this to make sure you are ready to perhaps go through hard times to live your passion. So….you still want to dedicate your life to music? My only advice is follow your intuition, be selective about the advice you get from others, if I had followed some of them, I would not have had all these great musical adventures.
TM: What new musical (or non musical) journeys await you,
JLP: Outside of the Anderson-Ponty Band I keep performing with my regular band and with different formats, duo concerts with my French jazz pianist, I also love performing my music with symphony orchestras, big bands, I released an acoustic trio album called D-Stringz with Stanley Clarke and Gypsy-French guitarist Bireli Lagrene, and Jon and I are talking about another possible project together for next year……at my age I just take life as if comes and also want to spend time with my wife, children and grand children as my family life has been somewhat sacrificed when I was younger and touring constantly.
TM: In closing would you like to send some words to your fans?
JLP: I give them my warmest thanks for supporting my music through all these years, it is for them that I keep touring and performing, as long as I am physically able to do it.
End of interview