It would seem almost demeaning to refer to the career of perhaps the most influential jazz violinist of his generation as accidental. But the word that landmark French instrumentalist Jean-Luc Ponty continually uses to describe the musical paths he has followed for more than 45 years is unplanned.
His switch from a classically reared youth to an adulthood of jazz? That wasn't in the cards. The adventures in amplifying music for rocklike settings on a string of top-selling albums for Atlantic Records in the '70s and '80s? Ponty didn't see that coming, either. A collaborative project with East African musicians and an eventual return to acoustic jazz once his electric popularity was established? Who would have thought?
Such avenues, it turns out, have simply been part of a creative drive that has long fueled the recording and performance careers of Ponty, who plays on Saturday plays in Lexington for the first time, at the Singletary Center for the Arts.
"That's the excitement of being able to create," Ponty, 67, said by telephone recently from Paris. "From the time I got a recording contract with Atlantic in 1975 and was really able to put my composing skills to work, I have considered myself first a bandleader/composer using myself and my violin abilities as simply voices in the band. It was never about putting me in front of the band. Being a voice in that sound was always more important."
A classical youth
Born in Avranches, France, Ponty graduated at age 17 from the esteemed Conservatorie National Supérieur de Musique de Paris with its highest honors before joining the equally championed Parisian symphony Orchestre des Concerts Lamoureux.
"My dream was to become a classical conductor. But I discovered jazz — bebop, specifically — in the early '60s in Paris. People there showed such a passion for this music that I eventually left classical music to become a jazz musician. So, already, one of the first steps in my career was unplanned."
Initially, though, Ponty didn't approach jazz through the violin, but by playing clarinet. His father taught him to play the instrument. His mother instructed him on piano.
"There was a band of non- professional musicians at a university in Paris that played in a swing style like Benny Goodman. It played at parties there at the university and began looking for a clarinetist. I knew nothing about jazz at that point. I had heard of Louis Armstrong and New Orleans music, but that was all. But they hired me because I could improvise immediately at the audition.
"They said, 'OK, you know nothing about jazz, but you have a good ear. So we will hire you.' And they taught me all of the jazz standards of the time. They taught me to shut up when the other guy was soloing and wait for my turn. That's when I started buying records and discovering how jazz has evolved since Benny Goodman. I discovered Miles Davis and John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk
"That's how everything started."
In Grappelli's footsteps
France already had claim to the previous generation's greatest jazz violinist, Stephane Grappelli. But by the mid-'60s, Grappelli's career had quieted. Realizing that a more defining musical voice awaited him on violin rather than clarinet, Ponty switched to strings.
"It came to Stephane's ears that there was the crazy young violinist jamming in clubs and playing what was then modern jazz. So he was intrigued."
Ponty and Grappelli played and recorded together sporadically in the '60s and early '70s. But as Ponty's own jazz voice evolved, so did the need for amplification. Once electricity for his music was discovered, attention came pouring in from outside of jazz circles.
In quick succession came an alliance with composer/guitarist Frank Zappa, a guest role on one of Elton John's finest albums (1972's Honky Chateau), a violin chair in John McLaughlin's second Mahavishnu Orchestra and a move from Paris to Los Angeles.
Lexington violinist Zach Brock, who now lives and works in New York, performs with, among other ensembles, a Mahavishnu tribute band called the Mahavishnu Project. Several times, the group has performed, in its entirety, the 1975 Mahavishnu/Ponty album Visions of the Emerald Beyond.
"That gave me a chance to play Jean-Luc's awesome, unbelievable baritone intro on violin with wah-wah pedal for the first tune (Eternity's Breath)," Brock said. "It's one of the scariest things ever played.
"Jean-Luc is simply the living legend, the pioneer king of jazz violin. Period. So many things on the violin would have just never happened if it wasn't for the path he was forging."
Atlantic, Africa and beyond
With the release of 1975's Upon the Wings of Music, Ponty began a string of albums for the Atlantic label that would come to define his journeys into amplified fusion music. Some efforts were densely layered, rock-ish recordings (1978's Cosmic Messenger). Others were largely one-man-band works with computerized synthesizer arrangements serving as backdrops for the still-organic sound of Ponty's violin melodies (1983's Open Mind). And, in one sublime case, an album (1976's Imaginary Voyage) yielded a hoedown-like hit called New Country. In recent decades, new-generation string stylists Mark O'Connor and Bowling Green native/Kentucky Music Hall of Fame inductee Sam Bush have recorded their own versions of New Country.
Bush's 2006 recording even featured Ponty as a guest instrumentalist.
"I just think Jean-Luc is the most influential jazz-rock violin player ever," Bush said earlier this week after a taping of WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, where he performed New Country. "He's a generous guy, a wonderful musician. His timing is beautiful. His intonation is great. I have only good things to say about Jean-Luc."
Ponty said, "Even though I had more musical adventures after the Atlantic albums, they still form the base of who I am as a composer. I had gone though all these experiences of classical music, jazz and progressive rock. So I wanted to create my own music where I could incorporate all these elements. On these albums, I felt like someone who travels musically.
"Then I moved on to that project with the East African musicians (1992's Tchokola, cut after Ponty jumped labels from Atlantic to Epic) and the Rite of Strings (an acoustic trio featuring fellow fusion stars Stanley Clarke and Al DiMeola that released a self-titled album in 1995). These projects kept me alert as a musician."
Ponty's most recent recording, The Acatama Experience, finds him playing largely acoustically. But his current touring band — a streamlined ensemble featuring keyboardist William Lecomte, drummer Damien Schmitt (both from France) and bassist Baron Browne (a Georgia native) — is versed in Ponty compositions dating back to his 1977 album Enigmatic Ocean.
"I can only be thankful for this musical life I've had," Ponty said. "It went beyond what I could have hoped for.
"You know, I really didn't expect to have this much fun."