“Jazz Monthly Feature Interview” Jean Luc Ponty
Smitty: When you talk about music legends and international musicians that are recognized around the world, you have to include my next guest. He has created a splendid new CD that makes an emphatic statement of what real music is all about. It is called The Acatama Experience. Please welcome the incredible and amazing Mr. Jean Luc Ponty. Jean Luc, how ya doin’, my friend?
Jean Luc Ponty (JLP): Hello, I’m doing very good, thank you.
Smitty: All right. You have covered the world with your music experience and you shared it with us with this great record because it has such international appeal and such great vibes. I just love this new record.
JLP: Thanks a lot, thank you.
Smitty: And what great musicians. Guy Nsangue Akwa…
Smitty: William Lecomte…
JLP: Yeah, they have been with me for quite a while, especially Guy Nsangue, who is from West Africa, and he’s really a unique player. I mean, there are a lot of great players in the world, but he’s definitely one of them. And by playing together for so many years, and there are so many different circumstances, sometimes great ones, sometimes great conditions, sometimes it’s more difficult when you tour around the world for 15 years together, so you achieve a tightness as a band, we communicate so well. The interaction is really, really good and tight, so that’s why it feels good to record with these musicians in the studio.
Smitty: Yes indeed, and you’ve got some very special guests with Allan Holdsworth and Philip Catherine.
Smitty: Wow, what incredible players.
JLP: Yes. Well, Philip Catherine lives in Europe. He’s half British, half Belgian, which means he speaks half English, half French, and he started his career in my band in 1970, my European band, the last European band I had before I moved to America. He was just starting and that was his first gig being in my band. And he became one of the top jazz guitar players in Europe. He has a very strong musical personality, so that’s why it was very special for me because I’ve lived in the States for so long that we were disconnected for a long time, so this is kind of a reunion, so that’s why it was very special and emotional for me to have him on this record.
JLP: And Allan Holdsworth, you know, he’s, for me, a master of the guitar and such a talent. He has collaborated on some of my albums before, but this time, to me, it tops all his past collaborations for me. The solo he’s doing on this album is just unbelievable.
Smitty: Yes, absolutely, man, and speaking of solos, man, “Desert Crossing,” what a solo you did on that tune. Wow!
JLP: (Laughs.) Thanks. Well, you know, it started by touring in acoustic trios with Stanley Clarke and Al DiMeola, and then again two years ago with Bela Fleck, and I was forced to play the acoustic violin, and then these guys are great soloists and they each do a solo, so I had to jump into the water and do a solo myself, and on the violin it was really something I was feeling before because there are so many great classical violinists and if you do a solo it can get to be close to that, so I was reluctant to do that for many years, but finally ideas started to grow in my mind about how to come up with a solo so I did it but it took a lot of courage, you know, almost as crossing a desert for me (both laugh) to dare record a violin solo unaccompanied and acoustically, so this is the first time I do that.
Smitty: Yes, but, man, what a treat. That was just invigorating. And I just want to say this for the fans out there: you’ve got to hear this solo on this record. It’s just unbelievable. Wow!
JLP: (Laughs.) Thank you. I’m glad you like it.
Smitty: Yes indeed. We love to hear that. Well, talk about how you got into this whole Atacama Experience.
JLP: Well, it was not planned to be an album which would be covering or being influenced by so many different places around the world. It’s like if you start writing a story, you start writing a book and you have the seeds of the beginning of the story but you don’t know in advance where it’s going to lead you, and that’s a bit how I started to record this album. As I was starting to write music for the album, I also had a lot of concerts that were planned throughout the year between January 2006 and February 2007, in fact, I signed with Koch Records late in 2005 and we had been hired to do concerts before I knew I would have to deliver an album to Koch. So what happened is I started writing the music and I started recording with my band and then we had to leave on the road and travel to faraway places like India, Venezuela, Chile, Europe, and Russia….so it would really take me away from the recording for a little while and then I would come back to the album with, of course, fresh ears. And that was the good thing about it is that it’s like something that grew very slowly bit by bit and each time, some of the travel experience I just went through would reflect in the music somehow.
Smitty: Yeah, so it’s an album that was built on the live experience.
JLP: Somehow, yes. The music, most of it, I mean, 98% of the music is really totally new and conceived specifically for this new album, but then I had a couple of ideas that were sitting there for many, many years, never exploited, never developed, but that did find their place on this album, and thanks to the travels, like, you know, I have kind of a short piece which is like a musical painting to me, it’s just with electronic sounds and so it’s just sound colors for me that reproduce in my mind the impression I had when I was visiting the desert in Northern Chile, the Acatama, actually called the Atacama Desert, in Chile.
JLP: And so the travels definitely influenced the outcome of the album.
Smitty: So what was the desert like?
JLP: It’s incredible. It’s moonlight. In fact, NASA is going there to experiment with some robots before sending them to Mars. It never rains. Maybe it rains three days a year. So it’s the most arid desert in the world.
JLP: But there are huge canyons, incredible, gigantic, and so it is very spectacular.
Smitty: Sounds very inspirational. Well, I want to thank you for that cool little intro at the beginning of the project. (Laughs.)
JLP: Oh, okay. That’s a little closer to home, at least one of my homes, since I spend some part of the year in Paris, so I just walked in the streets and recorded the ambience there, right? (Both laugh.)
Smitty: Kinda made me feel like I was in Paris, you know?
JLP: Okay. That’s the point. But the idea was really because we recorded a piece by bebop pianist Bud Powell.
JLP: My young keyboardist, William Lecomte, is a big fan of Bud Powell but he’s too young to have ever met or seen Bud Powell play live, however, I did. I’m old enough (both laugh) to have met Bud, although I was very young at the time, but I jammed with him and so Bud Powell lived in Paris in the sixties for quite a long time and while he was here he wrote this piece called “Parisian Thoroughfare,” and William one day brought me this piece that he had rearranged in a modern way with some modern rhythm in the back.
JLP: And I really liked it because you can play bebop on top of it, so we had several reasons to do this piece. In fact, it has been recorded many times by Clifford Brown in the past, Max Roach, and sometimes they inserted some Paris noises, you know, or they would play a little French tune, so I thought I would do something a little different but still, you know, put some Paris ambience in there.
Smitty: Yeah. That was a pretty cool thing to do. I loved that.
Smitty: So, now, I’m thinking about this great experience on the road and having this inspirational experience in the Atacama Desert.
Smitty: But I thought more, too, about what a cool thing it must be to travel internationally doing gigs. I mean, it sounds like a simple thing, but that’s gotta be a wonderful experience and it’s gotta be inspirational, not just the desert, but everywhere you go you meet different people, different languages, different styles, different customs…that’s gotta be a beautiful thing to see so many people around the world and get to play music for them.
JLP: Absolutely, but it started to happen only about 10 years ago because I must say that before that, most of my career was spent in North America and I still do tour in America and I need to keep touring in the States to feel good too. It’s really part of my roots, I’ve been there so long, and it has brought me so much. But in the past 10 years there was a lot more demand. I mean, before I would go to South America and Europe, but that was it, but since the Iron Curtain fell down, all the excommunicated countries started to open and they were crazy about seeing musicians that sometimes they admired and could never see live. So it was a great experience to go to Poland, to Moscow, to places like that, even India is fairly new for us, you know, Western musicians, to start touring in India, and realize that all these years there were people who were listening to your records and know the music. It’s quite a trip. It’s a great feeling.
Smitty: Yeah, I can just imagine.
JLP: But at the same time, of course, it’s worth discovering new cultures like the desert and city, I took a vacation after performing in Santiago, in the capital of Chile, and people are so warm and extroverted, it’s great. It’s great to play for all different audiences like this—same music, same band—and see all these different reactions around the world.
Smitty: Yeah. Talk about maybe one or two of the most fascinating things that you’ve experienced in your travels around the world, you know, with people and the music and the experience.
JLP: There are so many that someday I’ll have to write a book.
JLP: Because it’s tough to remember just one. I would say a big surprise would be Japan, for instance, because the audience can be so quiet during the show. I mean, the first time I played there with my band, I thought they didn’t like us, I thought we were bombing, because they would applaud very politely and the applause would die pretty quickly, so after the show, after the last piece we go backstage and the promoter was like smiling and saying “Wow, that’s a big success.” I said “Oh, was that a big success really?” “Yes, they want you for an encore.” So we went back onstage and suddenly they turned into a rock crowd. Everybody came to the stage and it was like a switch, they went from very polite, very soft, to being totally crazy. (Both laugh.) And, in fact, there was almost a riot when we walked out of the theater because they were all pushing to get autographs. So that was the most surprising reaction I ever saw, honestly. Then in India, for instance, people react like in Africa. They react almost more during the performance, during the piece, while you play, than after. (Laughs.)
JLP: It’s a different culture.
Smitty: Yeah, that’s different, wow. Well, that’s a very cool thing to have such an international experience and get to do what you love, play music, you know?
JLP: Absolutely. I feel very blessed. Absolutely.
Smitty: But when you write that book, I’ll definitely buy one. (Both laugh.)
JLP: I’ll send it to you. (Both laugh.)
Smitty: Very cool.
JLP: But I guess I’ll have to slow down touring to find time to write a book.
Smitty: Yeah, well, keep good notes, man, I’ll tell ya, because you’ve enjoyed some very cool experiences and you’ve touched every corner of the world with your great music, and that’s a beautiful thing.
JLP: Thank you, yes.
Smitty: So you mentioned Koch, you know, you signed with Koch a couple of years ago, and so how’s that going? You enjoying yourself at Koch?
JLP: Yes, I mean, we’re just starting. This is the first album they’re releasing, although they also released the small catalog that I started on my own label five years ago, but this is really the first new album and so far it’s great because I have the impression of people who are really music lovers and knowledgeable about music.
JLP: And so when I visited the company in New York while I was doing the mastering, I had the same feeling as in the sixties when, you know, you would meet people in the music business who were themselves like either musicians or really lovers of music, and so it’s a good feeling.
Smitty: Yes. Did you meet my friend, Dave Wilkes?
JLP: Of course.
Smitty: Yeah, he’s a great guy.
JLP: Because, in fact, he’s responsible for signing me there.
Smitty: Yeah, he’s a great guy and Chuck Mitchell, all those guys. There are some wonderful people over there at Koch.
JLP: Chuck Mitchell is great. He just arrived from Verve.
JLP: And we’ve had a great rapport so far.
Smitty: Yeah, well, you’ve got some great people. You’ve landed in a very cool spot.
JLP: I think so. I agree with you. But I’m glad you confirmed my feelings. (Both laugh.)
Smitty: Yeah. Yeah, I’ve worked with Dave for quite a while and we’ve had some good times, so yeah.
Smitty: I highly recommend them, yes.
JLP: Good, excellent.
Smitty: All right. So, now, the record was released when?
JLP: It was released on May 22nd. I’m really excited about that and we started touring June 1st in the U.S. I started the tour in Detroit. That’s a big city for me, great fans. That’s quite an experience there too. It’s really special. It’s about a month of touring, not a lot of time. We’ll have to come back to the U.S. another time because we already have so many dates.
Smitty: Yes, we certainly hope that you will.
JLP: And we have to be back in Europe in July, but that’s already quite a good number of dates we are going to do. I’m very excited about that.
Smitty: Yes, you are in demand, my friend. (Both laugh.)
JLP: As long as I can play, I will go out.
Smitty: Well, I’m glad to hear you say that because I know I speak for thousands around the world. We love your music, we love what you do, we love what your music stands for, and it’s always great to see a great live Jean Luc performance, you know?
JLP: Oh, that’s very nice of you. It’s great to hear that. Thank you very much.
Smitty: Yes indeed. Well, I want to congratulate you once again on this great record and your relationship with Koch, and for all the wonderful experiences that you have included in your music with this great new project.
JLP: Thank you very much.
Smitty: All right, we’ve been talking with the fantastic and amazing Jean Luc Ponty. He has a great new record out, it’s called The Acatama Experience. You must get this new record because it is fantastic music and I can’t say enough about that great solo on “Desert Crossing.”
Smitty: All right. Jean Luc, thanks once again, my friend.
JLP: You’re welcome.
Smitty: And all the best to you in 2007 on the tour and the release of this great new record.
JLP: Thank you very much.
Baldwin “Smitty” Smith
For More Information Visit www.ponty.com and www.kochrecords.com
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