Violinist Jean-Luc Ponty Is Still Breaking the Rules

Jean-Luc Ponty rocks the violin.
Jean-Luc Ponty rocks the violin.
Sochi Winter Arts

Jean-Luc Ponty is far from a traditional violinist.

He grew up performing classical music and jazz, then went on to pioneer jazz-rock fusion during stints with Frank Zappa and the Mahavishnu Orchestra in the early 1970s. He perfected the sound after striking out on his own in 1975, forming his own band and signing with Atlantic Records. Over the next decade, he released a dozen albums for the label.

During those ten years, electronic-music technology boomed, and Ponty incorporated synthesizers, effects pedals and sequencers into his sonic arsenal.

“We were discovering new sounds,” he recalls. “That was very exciting in a way. I could try with my electric violin to plug into these sound effects and come up with new sounds never heard before.”

When he liked a fresh sound, he would compose a song that utilized it.

“I had an open mind, and I was open to trying to break barriers,” he says. “I was not stuck by rules and tradition at all.”

While there are echoes of the Mahavishnu Orchestra in some of Ponty’s Atlantic-era output, he came into his own during his decade-long tenure at the label, something that can be easily tracked on Le Voyage: The Jean-Luc Ponty Anthology, a two-disc album that follows his career primarily from his 1975 debut, Upon the Wings of Music, through 1985’s Fables.

In recent years, Ponty heard from fans and friends that they wanted him to explore the music from those years; the result was a just-embarked-upon United States tour dubbed the Atlantic Years, which will stop at the Boulder Theater on June 13. The tour’s sets include material from ’75 to ’85, and Ponty will perform them with musicians he worked with during that decade, including keyboardist Wally Minko, guitarist Jamie Glaser, bassist Baron Browne and drummer Raymond Griffin.

“Once I was convinced — after people around me suggested I do a reunion with my guys from either the ’70s or ’80s and revisit that material — I started listening in more detail to all those early albums,” says Ponty. “And indeed, I was happily surprised to hear that there are still some tunes that stood out through the times — that they are very inspiring to play. There are pieces from each album that are still very exciting to play today, so that’s why it’s fun.”

The band rearranged some of the material, particularly the rhythm section, which Ponty says “ages the most.”
His approach to the Atlantic-era songs is not chronological. Instead, he’s built his sets with dynamics in mind, starting shows on a strong note and keeping the energy upbeat, then diving into a moody or lyrical approach before peaking again.

One album that Ponty is pulling from is 1977’s Enigmatic Ocean, a product born of spontaneous inspiration, as he tells it.

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“For me, I came to the conclusion [after] so many years that music is really metaphysical,” Ponty says of the record. “So there was no intellectual decision to start a song. They all started with the inspiration that came to me like it came from space, like I was a medium and received some information from somewhere.

“I mean, I’m not the only one,” he adds. “Some have written big hits like that, just waking up in the morning and shaving, and suddenly they hear a melody.”

When he is struck by inspiration, whether it be a melody, rhythm or pattern that comes over him, Ponty jots it down on paper or sheet music to reference later. He drew on such ideas when writing Enigmatic Ocean.

“It’s like when you write a book, I guess. I, a writer writing a book, will start with an initial idea and develop the story day by day. Then I use more of my intellect to sometimes see where I can go with this piece, how I develop it with my musical knowledge,” he explains. “You know, harmonically, maybe I can repeat this melody, take it to another key or whatever. Then it might trigger a new idea, like a development from that melody going into something else. And so that’s how the whole album happened for Enigmatic Ocean.”

Ponty says he’s excited to be reunited with the musicians on the Atlantic Years tour.

“We toured together, we recorded and made that music together,” he says, “so, emotionally, it’s a very strong feeling. We are not rehashing the past. All those pieces — there are spots where we improvise, sections where we can improvise. We make this music alive again every night.”

Jean-Luc Ponty, Tuesday, June 13, 8 p.m., $30-$45, Boulder Theater, 2023 14th Street, Boulder, 303-786-7030.

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