an unplanned icon

jean-luc ponty.

jean-luc ponty.

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 the landmark French instrumentalist Jean-Luc Ponty continually uses to describe the musical paths he has followed for over 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 rock-like 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 performs his first-ever Lexington concert on Saturday at the Singletary Center for the Arts.

“That’s the excitement of being able to create,” Ponty, 67, said in an early morning phone interview 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.”

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The classical youth: Born in Avranches, France, Ponty graduated at age 17 from the esteemed Conservatorie National Superieur 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. He was taught to play the instrument by his father while Ponty’s 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.”

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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 than clarinet, Ponty switched to strings.

“It came to his 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 aptly titled the Mahavishnu Project. The group has several times 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.”

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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 cut 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 following a taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour earlier this week 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.”

“Even though I had more musical adventures after the Atlantic albums, they still form the base of who I am as a composer,” Ponty said. “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 which 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.”

Jean-Luc Ponty and His Band perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Singletary Center for the Arts. Tickets are $25, $28 and $32. Call (859) 257-4929.

Hybrids not ready for Le Mans.(Auto)

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL) April 16, 2011 Byline: Bloomberg News Audi AG and PSA Peugeot Citroen are vying to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans with a hybrid motor, a feat that might boost the use of the more fuel-efficient cars.

The two teams have won 10 of the last 11 editions of the race, and are working on a part-electric engine that recoups energy from braking to reduce re-fuelling stops. It’s proving difficult: Peugeot said this week it abandoned plans to run a 908 Hybrid4 in an official test at the circuit southwest of Paris, citing reliability problems. Audi won’t be ready until next year’s race at the earliest.

They’re dueling for a landmark moment in motor sports that would boost the image of hybrid cars and their brand, according to former U.K. Science Minister Paul Drayson, who has twice raced at Le Mans. The event, sponsored by Swiss watchmaker Rolex Group and glorified in a 1971 movie starring Steve McQueen, draws as many as 200,000 fans.

“It would be a big deal if a hybrid wins,” Drayson said. It’s “a good platform for convincing people a low-carbon future doesn’t have to be boring,” he said.

The 24 Hours of Le Mans was first staged in 1923 near the French town of the same name as a durability test for carmakers, including Bugatti, said Quentin Spurring, who’s writing a history of the event. Drivers take turns to cover the most distance in 24 hours on an 8.5-mile circuit. Audi won with a podium sweep last year, 12 months after Peugeot snapped its five-year winning streak.

Organizer Automobile Club de l’Ouest will start allowing hybrids in the top class at this year’s June 11-12 race after consulting Audi, Peugeot and other carmakers who might enter in the future, including Toyota Motor Corp., two people familiar with the situation said.

Cars can reuse braking energy from the front or back wheels.

Peugeot, whose 908 Hybrid4 stores the recaptured energy in batteries, won’t trial it in the April 24 test, having already ruled out entering it in this year’s race. “The car wasn’t sufficiently mature to run” reliably, Bruno Famin, Peugeot Sport’s technical director, said. this web site 2007 porsche 911 gt3

Making a hybrid engine for a 24-hour race poses more problems than for other series because there’s more risk of overheating and parts breaking, Paul Andrews, founder of Lancaster, England-based Oaktec, which develops Honda Motor Co. hybrids for rallying. website 2007 porsche 911 gt3

“It’s doable but it’s going to be a long process” of research and development, Andrews said.

‘Performance-Killing’ Audi is grappling with issues after 18 months of designing and testing hybrid parts, Wolfgang Ullrich, head of Audi’s motor sport unit, said. “Weight is so intensely performance-killing that it makes it really difficult,” Ullrich said.

Gruyere, Switzerland-based Hope Racing is risking a hybrid in the top class. Its 40-kilo system that reuses energy from braking will cut gasoline consumption by 3 to 5 percent, allowing it to make “two or three” fewer pit stops, team director Benoit Morand said.

It’s unlikely to win the race because the team has fewer resources, Morand said, adding its $6.5 million budget may be about six times less than the biggest teams. Audi and Peugeot officials declined to disclose costs.

Carmakers are speeding up development of electric and hybrid systems as governments crack down on greenhouse gases. Peugeot unveiled the first diesel-electric car, a version of its 3008 crossover hatchback, last year. Audi is putting a hybrid Q5 SUV on sale this year. Toyota makes the Prius, the best-selling vehicle in the class.

Dan Akerson, General Motors Co. chief executive officer, told reporters at a briefing in Washington last December that the Prius is a “geek mobile,” and that he “wouldn’t be caught dead” in one, according to The Associated Press.

‘Mainstream, Cool’ “The image of hybrids is that they are niche,” Mike Tyndall, an automotive analyst at Barclays Capital in London. “The efforts of both Peugeot and Audi at Le Mans are to demonstrate that they are becoming mainstream, or even cool.” In 2006, Audi became the first winner with a diesel-powered car, helping to change its perception as “dirty and noisy” to “quiet, efficient and fast,” according to Drayson.

“The next big thing is electric hybrids” at Le Mans, Spurring said. “All the carmakers are looking at it,” adding Toyota won a 24-hour race in Tokachi, Japan using a hybrid sports car in 2007. Porsche AG followed in another endurance event at Nurburg, Germany last year.

Sports Car Flop A hybrid has flopped in the Le Mans sports car category before. In 1998, James Weaver failed to qualify a Panoz Q9 after batteries stacked on the passenger’s seat were rendered useless by a broken shaft, Weaver said.

“I was lumbering around with this huge battery and no extra power,” Weaver said, adding the car missed the cutoff to qualify by 10 seconds.

Peugeot is likely to be extra cautious about introducing a hybrid after last year’s event, Spurring said: all three of its diesel cars suffered engine or mechanical failure. Television pictures showed team officials with tears in their eyes as they watched on video monitors.

–Editors: Christopher Elser, Peter-Joseph Hegarty To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Duff in Madrid at To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Elser at VOW GR CN 7203 JP CN UG FP CN

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