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Jean-Luc Ponty takes a bow

Published Sep. 3, 2005

Jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty is a pioneer in his field. Who else in the 1970s had the bright idea of attaching electronic effects and a wah-wah pedal to that hoity-toity instrument, producing delay, distortion and echoes like we've never heard.

Classically trained at the Paris Conservatory, Ponty, 59, was supposed to go the highbrow route. That changed after the Frenchman heard American jazz giants John Coltrane and Miles Davis and went on to play with innovators Frank Zappa and John McLaughlin. Ponty's Imaginary Voyage (1976) is a jazz-rock classic.

From his home in Paris, Ponty answers 10 Pressing Questions about how American jazz changed his life, technology in music, and wife Claudia's delicious homemade jellies.

(1) You recently moved back to France after two decades away. Did it have an impact on your music?

It had a big impact. Well, I haven't moved back here totally. I have one foot in Paris and one in the United States. It was a half-step. (Laughs.) I had not been present in France for 25 years. I had almost forgotten I was French.

The impact is that I found again my cultural roots, and my friends from childhood, going back to the small town where I was born. It's been wonderful.

France vs. the United States: Which wins?

Well, the United States is a beautiful country. The West is amazing to me. When you travel the world, you see so many beautiful spots. Then you can go home and compare. France is a beautiful country as well. It's gorgeous, the architecture, and the food, of course. But, you don't find all that you need anywhere, in any one place, I think.

(2) How important is technology's a role in your music?

Technology is really not important to me anymore. It was when I was younger. I never felt I had to prove anything with technology; there were just so many tools being developed then, and the temptation was too great for a personality like mine.

There are always new toys to try. A lot of younger musicians keep urging me to try this and try that.

But, frankly, after playing in an acoustic trio with Stanley Clarke, I began again to enjoy the acoustic instrument, the violin, with all its simplicity.

(3) You're using ProTools and Macintosh in your recording. Are you a computer geek?

Not really. I do have top-class equipment. My home studio has all the best equipment you can buy.

I love working in the studio. You approach music as a painter or a sculptor approaches a piece of art, bit by bit, building every day.

(4) Comment on or rate these famous contemporary violinists:

Nigel Kennedy: A great player. I know him. We met a few times. He has great ideas. I first heard him play a Brahms concerto. It was beautiful.

Regina Carter: Very talented. We played a duet. She's got it. Especially on stage.

Hilary Hahn: Impressive. I was driving in the U.S., listening to a classical music station, and I picked up a piece in the middle. It was very impressive. They said it was Hilary Hahn and I went and bought an album.

Laurie Anderson: She plays violin, it's true. But, I don't think of her exclusively as a violinist, as someone who has devoted her life to the instrument. She's so creative, and she uses the violin as one of her tools to create.

Alison Krauss: I don't know her.

She's an American bluegrass fiddler. Your song New Country is a twist on bluegrass and country music, like a futuristic square dance.

Yes, I like all of that music. I would be interested to hear her.

Is fiddle playing as challenging as violin playing?

Well, the most challenging music in the world is classical music. It's not that it's so difficult, really, it's just that some people do it so well, they bring it to a different level.

(5) Tell me your favorite composers.

I like the Impressionists, Ravel, Debussy. Of course, Stravinsky had quite an impact on me. Bartok. I also like the classics.

American jazz artists John Coltrane and Miles Davis played a crucial role in your development. Oh, yes. That's what made me deviate from a classical career. It was that important to me. I discovered all these great jazz performers who were innovators. It was very exciting.

Are the jazz composers as important as the classical composers?

Rarely, but sometimes, yes, not so much for composition as for improvisation. With classical, everything must be precise. That's not the case with jazz.

(6) What historical period most interests you?

I am very curious about the Middle Ages. I've read a lot about it recently. But, I'm quite happy to live in the present even though these are difficult times. I don't complain. (Laughs).

(7) You have so many fancy 5-string and electric violins. How many do you own?

I must have a dozen. I really only play three. I have many electric violins, but I do have an excellent classic from the 18th century. It's Italian.

Violins like that are very expensive. How much is it worth?

Oh, it's very expensive. It's worth as much as a house.

Tell me a figure.

These violins can cost anywhere from $100,000 to $1-million.

So how much? Come on.

You really want me to answer this! (Laughs).

It's interesting to people. Are you worried someone will try to steal it from your house? I'll protect you.

You'll protect me? (Laughs). Promise? Okay, it's about $100,000.

(8) What do you eat for breakfast?

Typical French continental breakfast. Some whole wheat bread with butter and homemade jelly that my wife Claudia makes. And coffee. We have a house in the country with berry trees. She makes wonderful jelly.

(9) Your third live album Live at Semper Opera was just released. I understand you were playing in Germany to an audience of fans, mixed with a crowd of classical music types unfamiliar with your work.

It's true. I could tell the most expensive seats were filled with all these well-dressed people, real lovers of classical music, who knew nothing of my work. I was perplexed. I was not anxious, but a big question mark was in my head.

By the middle of the concert, I could tell they were into the music. That's very rewarding. That's happened a few times. There is nothing like it.

(10) What inspires you?

The countryside. I love nature. That puts me in a positive mood.

Do you write better when you're positive? Can you create when you're depressed?

I like to be happy. But, music _ I hate to call it a therapy, but throughout my life, writing music has helped me get out of a depression with tragic events. It triggers in my head these things and so I write.

I try to avoid music that is too sad. People have enough of that in their lives. I am very careful not to create music that brings people down. I hear a lot in the states that my music is very uplifting. That's quite a compliment, really.

To reach Gina Vivinetto, e-mail