Legendary violinist Jean Luc Ponty said it’s possible that his current tour — which came to the Newton Theatre on Aug. 23 and and will also be at The Space at Westbury in Long Island on Aug. 26, and Sony Hall in Manhattan, Aug. 30 — will be his last.
“I don’t want to announce it as such, because I’ve seen other artists do that and tour again after that,” said Ponty, 75. “So you never know. But it could be.
“So far, I’m still in good physical shape to play an instrument that is tough to play. As long as I can still do that and as long as there’s a demand … because the last thing that I want to do is just impose myself onstage like people who never want to go away even when there is no audience anymore for them. So if it gets to that I’ll be happy to retire; I’m ready for that now.
“One thing for sure, there are not going be many more tours. Maybe another one, at most.”
On the road with his Atlantic Years Tour, featuring musicians he recorded with when he was on the Atlantic label in the ’70s and ’80s, Ponty embraces his past even though he may not always admit to looking back at it. Had it not been at the urging of some friends and industry insiders, this may never have come to be.
“I’m not the kind of guy that is into nostalgia and looking to the past and being sad that it’s over,” he said. “Not at all. I’m the opposite, I’m always looking forward and happy to do new musical experiences — but they are rooted in the past, though. I’m talking about me developing in the mid-70’s and still keep doing it until now.”
He said concert promoters encouraged him “to revisit the music of my early career and the first albums which I produced on Atlantic that made the audiences aware that there was this crazy Frenchman playing electric violin. I gave a listen to the old albums … and discovered that some of the music … was great and it was worth re-visiting. What I mean by re-visiting is not to rehash the past, it’s not to try to recreate exactly what it was, because the albums are there. They have that sound color of the time and that energy. But what we can do now, so many years later, is that me and the musicians have had so many other musical experiences that we have a different kind of maturity, and coming back to this music we can bring some new improvisations to it.
“Also, the sound technology has improved and some instruments themselves are so much better today, so it’s like feeling lucky to still be alive and being able to make this music live again. Also there is a jazz element — meaning that there are sections in most pieces where we can improvise solos that means that the music comes alive in different ways every night.”
Ponty speaks glowingly about reuniting the musicians with him onstage, once again.
“All of them have either toured or recorded with me or both. (Guitarist) Jamie Glaser is the longest collaborator with me; he started in 1977 fresh out of The Berklee School of Music. He has been on several albums and then he went to do his own thing and he came back again in the late ’80s and ’90s. Then Wally Minko on keyboards joined in the late ’80s. He recorded three albums with me and did many tours worldwide.
“Rayford Griffin on drums joined my band in 1982, was on all of the albums between 1982 and 1986 and even more in the ’90s. There was one tour that he couldn’t do because he was with Michael Jackson then; I remember that because in the 90’s I wanted to do a reunion. (Bassist) Keith Jones toured with my band in the ’80s as well. On top of which, this is the band that I put together when I collaborated with Jon Anderson from Yes. These are exactly the same band; musicians that I’ve worked with since the ’80s. It adds another emotional dimension. Being back onstage makes us really happy, there’s a joy and a different feeling. It’s a pleasure to be back together. It is like old friends that you’ve not seen in a long time and you get together.”
Possibly the most recognizable violinist in rock and jazz music, Ponty admits to feeling some of the pressures of success. Yet he also gained a wealth of experience that allows him to relax as he looks back at his long and illustrious career, a career that has seen him nominated for or winning just about every major award in the music industry.
“It was very natural at first, for many years. I had a very strong inspirational force in me that had to come out,” he said with a chuckle. “I was lucky to sign this contract with Atlantic Records in ’75 that gave me total artistic freedom and gave me a chance to explore, put a band together and play this music.
“I wanted to create my own way of making one see phases of different musical limits. I had the experience, I came from classical music, I was professional in the symphony orchestra when I was 20 years old and then seven years of straight jazz and then the collaboration with Zappa’s band, Mahavishnu (Orchestra), (John) McLaughlin and others less well known before that in Europe, but who were also into rock and progressive rock. I wanted to connect in a way that wasn’t evident and it wasn’t easy at first, but little by little it changed.
“So that was my goal. And I didn’t know if I’d be successful or not. The albums got a lot of success, even beyond my hopes. I mean, it was unbelievable in those days. We got a chance to be picked up by progressive rock radio, jazz radio, different formats and a lot of college and university radio. It was amazing, and thanks to that we got a chance to keep going and doing it.
“It is true, though, that I reached a point in the late ’80s and early ’90s where, yeah, you feel the pressure because when you are presented onstage at big festivals with other bands and they announce you as one of the top or the top violinist in the world, you think, ‘Oh my God, I better behave and play good’ (laughs). I’m joking now, but there was some type of pressure at some time where I was wondering while recording my next album if it would be at least as good as the previous ones. But not anymore. I’ve reached a point now where I’m totally relaxed … It’s not having to be the best or whatever. Music for me is an expression of my subconscious. I feel it’s very metaphysical. It’s almost like I feel it’s not me anymore, physically, onstage. I don’t know where it comes from, like as if I was channeling waves from around the universe. But emotions and feeling is all that counts, that’s the priority.
“You have to reach a point where you let go completely. I was very happy to learn that a great jazz innovator like Charlie Parker said the same thing. He was practicing chord changes up to the point where he didn’t have to think about it. It became subconscious and that’s why you let go completely. Then it becomes totally spiritual or like another vein of communicating with other beings.”
So how does anyone achieve a level of greatness such as his? According to Ponty, you either have it or you don’t, and even if you come from a musical family such as his own, there are no guarantees.
“My parents were music teachers, so I grew up in a musical environment. This doesn’t automatically mean that children have the vocation to be musicians as well, but in my case I did. I developed a love for music immediately from the age of 3 or 4 years old. My father was teaching violin as a main instrument and my mother piano so they started me on both instruments when I was 5 years old. Then when I was 11 they asked me to choose one of the two so that I would become good at one instead of mediocre at both (laughs). I chose the violin, probably because I felt, from what I remember, that it was the most expressive, and it’s an instrument that you hold against your body like a physical extension of you.
“Then maybe it was because my father was a violinist. I’ve never spoken to a psychiatrist about it, but I think it was really because I found it more expressive. So I found myself focusing and spending more time and hours on it every day. But piano was very helpful, and although I stopped practicing technique, it helped me write music. Having access to a piano and, later, on to other types of keyboards and sounds was how I could write all of this music.”
One of the things that The Atlantic Years Tour has done is gently prod him to look back in retrospect at how far the world has come — a world that he feels would be markedly better if the power of music was allowed to rule.
“In the ’80s, I toured mostly in the United States, South America and Western Europe until the Berlin Wall fell down and then the communist world was not so communist anymore and I went all the way to play in Siberia a few years ago. I didn’t know what to expect, but in fact there’s quite an elite of people — scientists who live there, a lot of artistic activity, they have opera and two symphony orchestras. Just to say that I’ve played for people there and there was an old woman who came to me with tears in her eyes with a vinyl album, one of these Atlantic albums, and she said, ‘You know, when I got that album I could’ve gone to jail.’
“What I’m saying is that music is such an incredible way to connect with people anywhere in the world. Music would be a lot better than politics to unite people around the world.”
So what can one expect when attending a Jean Luc Ponty performance?
“A program with pieces from the Atlantic albums starting with Imaginary Voyage from 1975/76 through, Fables, which was the last one in 1985. We play some of the pieces that turned out to be classics like ‘Mirage,’ pieces from Enigmatic Ocean — the two long suites that we play are ‘Enigmatic Ocean’ and ‘The Struggle of the Turtle to the Sea.’ These are really great springboards for improvisation for the band and it sounds really good with this band. Pieces like ‘Mirage,’ it surprises me that there are young musicians today from electronic jazz, hip-hop, dance music who are sampling pieces like ‘Mirage.’ I would not have expected that, but that proves that there’s a link between generations and that makes me very happy that they see something in my music that appeals to them and that they are using it and producing it in their own way. We won’t play it in a hip-hop style (laughs), we stick to the style of the original recording.”
Sampling? Hip-hop? Ponty takes it all in stride whether he approves or not.
“I don’t always agree, and if I don’t agree I refuse unless they steal it and I don’t know about it. But some are honest and ask permission and some are creative and just take bits and pieces and make a puzzle out of it. They don’t take my creative piece as I recorded it. And some are not creative at all. The way they use certain samples and sound effects of my music makes me say, ‘Ah, that’s original.’ But it surprises me that they hear that music from the ’70s that is old for them and it’s something that inspires them. That’s cool.”
For more about the eloquent virtuoso that is Jean Luc Ponty, or to purchase tickets, visit ponty.com.