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Jean-Luc Ponty

Interviewed by Gary Hill
Interview with Jean-Luc Ponty From 2001

MSJ: It has been a long time between solo projects for you. Why the delay and what brought you back now?
There are various reasons. Number one, I was not totally inactive. I was touring. But, I had a major change in life. After living 23 years in California, in Los Angeles, I moved with my wife. We settled in Paris and New York. I spent a lot of time in France and reconnected with my roots, my cultural roots, old friends and so forth. I was just taking time to enjoy life and reflecting on life - still doing quite a few projects. The previous studio album was 1993, but the two following years - 1994 and '95 - I was busy doing this trio with Stanley Clarke and Al Dimeola. '96 I moved. That was a big thing. Then the following years I was mostly touring in Europe with this group, which I had neglected for a very long time. Also playing in front of new audiences for us, like the East European countries which were now open to concert tours - Poland, Czech Republic. We went to Russia for the first time. And, then I was not sure I wanted to or had to record another album because I had so many behind me. Also because the state of the recording industry was not appealing too much to me because I was feeling pushed away more and more from the inner circle. Sure, I never abandoned music. I kept writing down ideas I had during those 4 or 5 years, and I also had the website (, which we started 3 or 4 years ago. Thanks to which a lot of fans who had completely lost track of me reconnected, and I got a lot of requests for a new album. So, since I had plenty of material, I did it for the fans. That was the main reason. Since I wanted to keep complete artistic control and freedom - not having to seek approval of A & R in the recording company, that's why I decided also to start my own label. It's a risk, but if it works I'll be like a king because I won't have to have someone tell me "no, you shouldn't record this. I don't think it will sell".
MSJ: Did you run into that in the past?
No, not really, but I feel it more and more, and when my contract ended with Atlantic, and we talked to other labels, some wanted to push me to smooth jazz or something else. I said, "wait a minute. I have my style and I have an international audience. I'm not going to do just the sort of music for one territory which works maybe here, but doesn't work there. And, it doesn't make sense artistically anyway." Some labels have this whole system of marketing an album, which works well for some artists. They work with radio format, the whole pipeline, and it works. Not for me. I'm not making music or albums at my age, after so many years of career just to be on top of the charts. It's really mostly as an artist to be the best for whatever years remain to be productive at my age. I'm 59, so I don't know how long I'll go on with this. So for the maybe few productions I have to create I might as well be totally free.  

MSJ: How would you describe your music?
I have strong roots in jazz and classical music but with my experience in rock and my interest in world music, what can I say? It's modern instrumental music.
MSJ: How would you compare the new album to your previous work?
I wanted to come back to my personal style of writing without producing an album exactly like it was in the '70's, which would have made no sense to me because they are recorded. They are available for those who want to hear it. Also, I grew up. I'm different somehow. I wanted to come back, though, to my style of writing melodies and the harmonic changes because during the '90's I kind of ventured into other things. I did the African project, the acoustic trio, so I kind of wandered a bit away from my personal concept which I had developed for two decades ('70's and '80's). Maybe because I was reconnected with my country and my cultural roots, it felt like musically I shouldn't always travel and get into new collaborations. So, that's basically what I did. I wanted to reconnect to that use of electronics, but in a modern way. Also because the violin I get now is so big and warm. Little by little the technology has improved so much. That it's time for me to record music that is very personal but with a sonic environment that is so much better than when we recorded in the '70's and '80's. Again, the production style is different from before because there is more accent on the percussion which comes from my experience with the African musicians, which I keep since I still have this percussionist with me. The accent is more on percussion than drums. Also, it's a more acoustic, organic sound, generally speaking. It's more acoustic sounds than I used before. But when I used electronic effects I wanted them to be more up to date. That was my intent. Behind that there was the inspiration, of course, being a collection of ideas over the past 4 or 5 years.
MSJ: Some of the tracks on the album are basically one man shows, with you playing most, and in some cases all of the instruments. That's not something you had done before.
Right. I never went that far before. I never did the percussion or drums, but again, because I have the technology available, I just decided to try what fit well in terms of percussion and very subtle rhythms, and it went well. I'm not against doing something on album that I can not do on stage because that's fine, that's something else. On stage we play it live. Whatever I played is picked up by my drummer and he doesn't have to stick to what I did exactly. So we do more of a live version on the road. In the '80's I started with the synclaviers and the sequencers. In the '70's it was all going in to the studio and playing pretty much live. The '80's already I started to use tools of the studio. Having myself a home studio, I would start improvising layers of keyboards, synthesizers and I would add the violin. However, I would just do maybe mock-ups, demo-style rhythms. So that my rhythm section would get an idea of what I wanted, but then they would do it in the end and come up with their own ideas - if they had some different than mine. So, in a way, it's not totally new for me to work this way, but I went even further because this time, with a computer, recording directly to hard disk, non-destructive, I could experiment so much. I had all this collection of sounds of percussion and drums which are pretty much electronic, but the jungle drums which I kind of like because it's a fast rock rhythm at the base of it. It's similar to what we were doing in jazz-rock in the '70's - just a few accents are different and the sound. So, a few tracks I decided to go all the way and others are more with the band.
MSJ: How is the album being received?
Extremely well I must say, extremely well by critics - in Europe as well as here. I think maybe because I didn't try to prove anything and try to reproduce what I did before. I wanted something simple, straight from the heart. I've seen extremely few people who were disappointed by it.
MSJ: How about the tour. How is it going?
I'm surprised how well the tour is going considering the terrorist attacks. When that happened I was in France, but the last thing I was thinking was playing music going on the road or anything after that. Then, of course, I was in touch with my friends in New York. No one was hurt. Also my booking agent, my concert agency, they are in New York. So, I was just calling to make sure they were safe, and they said, "we have to go on. Life must go on." But yet I didn't know what to expect. Are people going to come out? It has been practically sold out everywhere we went, with maybe a couple of exceptions. I'm happily surprised. We have been as shocked as Americans when this happened. Terrorism is a thing that is in place in Europe already for many years. It was not on that magnitude, but unfortunately it has been a part of European life. 10 years ago there was another group from North Africa placed a bomb in a department store - 200 people were killed. In '96 there was another one in the subway - 20 people killed. Although the magnitude of what happened was not like what happened here, everybody felt closer to the Americans because of that. Myself I am deeply perturbed by that because of what it implies for the future. I sat up til 2 AM and played music as healing. Hopefully that is what it does for audiences, as well. That's probably why they come out. This is the first tour I'm doing entirely on a bus. I did two weeks of touring for promotion - in-store appearances at Borders. For that I had to fly coast to coast - long lines in airports.
MSJ: Will we see any more African or world type records from you?
No. There might be something else, but I don't want to repeat or keep doing just African projects because I'm not African. It would be silly to just do that. However, if people wanted very strongly to see that group happening again - there was just only 1 tour and 1 album - yes, I would do it.
MSJ: Are you doing any of that material on this tour?
We still have one piece, and I have the two guys in my band who are from that project. So, it was a very major thing for me.
MSJ: Are there any musicians with whom you would like to work?
Yeah - there are a few. That's what I would like to do, some collaborations. Not necessarily big names that would mean immediately record companies thinking "how much are we going to sell? How much are we going to make?" I'm talking maybe Subramaniam. He is an Indian violinist; unbelievable violin player and a duet with him would be great. We've been talking about it for 10 years, but it is a project I could never sell to a record company. They wouldn't know what to do with it. There has been such a change in the industry. When I started in the '70's we were free to do whatever we had in mind musically, and artists were leading the industry. Now it's really the other way around. When I started in the '70's it was not really extremely professional yet. It was passionate people - musicians or people who had passion for it who were programming radio - who were in record companies. Very quickly there were some real business people who came in. Who sometimes came from business schools and have no clue about music, but they know about accounting and marketing and that's all that counts. So, all they see are the numbers, and they don't think in the long term of building the careers of young artists.
MSJ: What has been your biggest Spinal Tap moment?
There have been a few, but there is just one that sticks in my mind. We were playing in Venezuela and flying the equipment. We had like 2 or 3 tons of equipment. None of it showed up. Usually people complain about South America that they are not really as together business-wise. This time it was Pan Am. It was the American carrier that was on strike. All the equipment was stuck in Miami. So, when I arrived at the sound check in the afternoon, it was a bare stage. There was nothing - absolutely nothing. The show was saved thanks to the opening act. We didn't need an opening act, but they don't respect contracts. That was to our benefit that night, because we could use their equipment. Except for the violins, which I carry with me all the time. But they had electric guitar, bass, drums - so we did the show. It could have been embarrassing because that a tour we had postponed already. It was on TV on the news nationwide the day of the show. They asked me, "so, this time is everything OK?" I said, "yeah, the show is happening." So, that's one of those stressful moments.
MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2001 Year Book Volume 4 at
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