I never imagined my personal door to jazz exploration would be opened by an electric violin. But that’s precisely what happened. And now whenever I hear the instrument, my thoughts go directly to Jean-Luc Ponty. His became one of the most important building blocks in my early musical vocabulary.
As a 12-year-old, Ponty’s music wasn’t the kind I just stumbled into. The exposure took some doing. And that doing was the subtle work of my father. As I mention in my forthcoming book, he was a very clever man.
In 1978, no music mattered to me more than rock and roll. I had already been exposed to soul music by my parents. My suburban friends had introduced to rock. My father (in his own subtle way) saw my musical path, and set out to augment it.
On Sunday mornings, our house was filled with the sound of jazz courtesy of Dad’s record player, located in the family room. Usually, it was the acoustic (aka “straight-ahead”) sounds of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, or Ahmad Jamal. Dad’s idea of letting his hair down was to unleash a little fusion. While I’m certain he enjoyed the music, I believe Dad played electrified jazz now and then in an attempt to get the attention of his rock-loving son. One particular Sunday, it worked.
The walk from my bedroom to the kitchen required passage through the family room. There was no getting around what Dad was playing. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I simply ignored what was on the record player and continued my trek to the kitchen, or wherever I was going. One particular Sunday, I heard this song, which caused me to stop in my tracks:
My love of rock made recognizing the sound of electric guitars, bass, keyboards, and drums easy. But there was another element to this song. I couldn’t put my finger on it. I don’t know if Dad was watching me try to process the sound (knowing him, he probably was), but it wasn’t long before I felt compelled to ask him about it. “What is this?” I asked. “What’s that sound?”
“It’s an electric violin,” Dad replied with a grin. “It’s being played by a man named Jean-Luc Ponty. Nice, isn’t it?” As he spoke, Dad handed me the cover for an LP called Cosmic Messenger. Before I realized it was happening, I was sitting next to my father, reading the back cover and processing the music. It was fascinating stuff! “Listen to that!” he was exclaiming. “It makes me think of a moon shot or something.” Dad was never one to refer to NASA or science fiction, but I was crazy about them. I took his note to heart.
Just as good as the opening track of the album was the tune that closed it. “Egocentric Molecules” is a study in high-tempo groove and precision. Best of all, it features one of my favorite bass solos of all time, played by Ralphe Armstrong.
Before I knew it, I had gone from ignoring my father’s music to borrowing this album and playing it on my own record player. Dad had me, and he knew it. Cosmic Messenger was released in 1978. For good measure, Dad sent me to my room with his copy of Enigmatic Ocean, which had been released the year before. It was every bit as compelling as the music I’d heard before.
Ponty has been releasing music since 1964. A Frenchman, his big musical break in America came when he collaborated with Frank Zappa in ’69. By ’78, Zappa had not yet become a pillar of my music collection. That wouldn’t happen for another seven years. For the time being, Ponty was the musician and bandleader I came to admire deeply. He continues to release music to this day. But I would come to find my favorite projects of his were released between ’75 and ’85.
I have a real soft spot for Ponty’s 1980 release, Civilized Evil. This tune always stuck in my head, because one of the local television stations was using it as the theme music for their late-night movie program. It’s funny what sticks in my head.
My favorite ’80s release is called Mystical Adventures. The title track takes up Side One of the album! While not a novel concept in music, there could still be no questioning the chops of Ponty and his top-flight band. I can still see myself as a teenager, lying in my bed, headphones on, eyes closed, grooving away and wishing I could play an instrument, so I could join this band.
Like many other great bandleaders, Ponty had a knack for surrounding himself with talented musicians. How cool it was to see players like guitarists Allan Holdsworth and Daryl Stuermer playing in the same band with JLP? In the years to come, I would hear plenty more from Holdsworth as a solo artist and in bands like Bruford and U.K. Stuermer would go on to join the traveling edition of Genesis. Ponty also employed keyboard players like Allan Zavod and George Duke. It can’t be a coincidence that they were both Zappa alums like Ponty. He also had great taste in drummers, as both Steve Smith and Rayford Griffin, among others, made quite an impact in the JLP band over the years.
Ponty discovered sequencing and synthesizers in a BIG way in ’80s. This was both a blessing and a curse. Music that felt organic and free in the ’70s began to seem a little stilted and regimented when Ponty eschewed a band to become a self-contained studio unit. Still, there were some gems to be found, like “Eulogy to Oscar Romero,” from the ’83 album Individual Choice. I had the good fortune of being on a plane while this tune played through my headphones. As if looking out a window while 30,000 feet in the air wasn’t trippy enough, I could add this to the mix. It was breathtaking.
Open Mind, which Ponty released in ’84, doesn’t hold up as well over time, because it takes the sequenced synthesizer programming to the extreme. It took friends to point out to me that many of the songs were mere exercises in repetition. Once I picked up on that, I couldn’t un-hear it. Still, I get a little enjoyment out of “Modern Times Blues,” where Ponty shares the stage with guitarist George Benson.
I imagine somebody finally told Ponty where he was starting to go wrong, because he started to walk things back in ’85, culminating with the release of Fables. Yeah, he was still leaning on the synthesizers. But at least he brought a band along for the ride, in Griffin, Scott Henderson (guitar), and Baron Browne on bass. It was a solid step back in the right direction.
Unfortunately for Ponty, the summer of ’85 is when I was introduced to King Crimson, shaking my musical direction to the core, and causing me to cast aside a lot of music I held dear. I didn’t dump Ponty on purpose. He was, in a manner of speaking, collateral damage. Every now and then in the years following, I would find myself hovering over his title card in a record store, looking to see if there was anything new. Sometimes, there was. Every now and then, I even bought it. There were more sic-fi explorations, and a flirtation with African sounds, a la Paul Simon’s Graceland. They were fine, but I had moved on to other things. And after 30-plus years, I suppose Ponty had reached his limit as well, as his studio releases dried up.
Jean-Luc Ponty and I would cross musical paths again over the years. He recorded an album with bassist Stanley Clarke and guitarist Al DiMeola, called The Rite of Strings, in 1995. He also became a member of Return to Forever, the other great fusion band my dad introduced me to, in 2012. The RTF album The Mothership Returns still gets “airplay” on my CD player now and then. It’s great stuff. But when I’m feeling the need for some JLP, I always default to that ’75-’85 window, which holds the most personal meaning. Those are the albums that remind me of my father, and the music we bonded over. They never fail to make me smile. The music makes his passing — more than eight years past now — a bit more tolerable.
One of these days, I’ll be brave enough to pick up my guitar and try to learn some of the music. But for now, I’ll just tip my cap to the genius of a man and his electric violin, and to the man who brought his music into my life.