Veteran violinist Jean-Luc Ponty won’t soon forget playing the first-ever jazz festival at Saratoga Performing Arts Center in 1978.
“It was Tony Williams, drums; Michael Brecker, sax; Larry Coryell, guitar; and either Herbie [Hancock] or Chick Corea on piano — and Stanley [Clarke] played the bass,” said Ponty on Monday from a Chicago tour stop, naming the all-stars festival founder George Wein hand-picked for the gig.
“I loved it because at the time I was reconnecting with the old jazz tradition after a few years evolving into the rock world,” he said. “I had started with classical music and then discovered jazz, and played mainstream jazz for seven years before I came to America and played with [Frank] Zappa. In the states, before the public, I was more known in the rock world.”
Admitted at 16 to Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris, he graduated in two years with its highest award, Premier Prix. He discovered jazz as he played with the orchestra Concerts Lamoureux.
In 1969, Ponty came to LA. “The founder of my label, Pacific Jazz, had the idea of hooking me up with Frank Zappa and he asked Frank to produce my next solo album,” said Ponty. Zappa wrote the music and chose the musicians, though Ponty demanded that keyboardist George Duke play on it. “George was young, I was young, he was unknown and I was unknown, and we started our careers together.”
Called “King Kong,” the concept album “worked great,” and soon Duke and Ponty joined Zappa’s band.
“We were mostly musicians with jazz backgrounds — this was 1973,” Ponty recalled. “But most of us also had classical backgrounds, and we could all read music as good as classical musicians,” Ponty said proudly, “This was the first time Frank was able to take out compositions he’d left in the drawer, pieces influenced by his love of classical music by people like Stravinsky.”
Zappa’s shows mixed rigorous composing with freelance soloing, as Ponty’s have ever since.
“Frank’s writing was really great, even though he hadn’t made an academic study of classical composers, because he was extremely creative,” Ponty explained. “We also had room to improvise, especially on our solos, because even in complex instrumental pieces, Frank left us spots to improvise.”
It worked everywhere but the box office.
“After six months of touring, Frank found he was losing audiences, playing too much of those complex instrumental pieces,” Ponty lamented. “People were coming for the satiric lyrics and those [vocal] songs, so he reduced the amount of instrumental pieces in his show.”
When Zappa launched his last-ever tour at Albany’s Palace Theatre with a 14-piece band, something similarly disheartening happened.
At the last rehearsal before the first show, Zappa told me he’d spent more than $1 million auditioning and rehearsing the band, and designing the sound and lights, before selling the first ticket. He’d planned multiple dates in each city, but promoters wouldn’t buy it.
Once Zappa hit the road from the Palace, promoters had changed their minds and besieged him for more dates, but transportation and lodging was already set.
Ponty said demand also convinced him to reunite his ’70s and ’80s fusion band, which plays SPAC on Saturday. And he recalled leading a band of French and African musicians there in the late ’90s, a terrific outfit.
“When we started, it had the atmosphere of a picnic, with people wandering around and not so focused on the stage,” Ponty acknowledged. “But when we started playing, people started to gather and listen, and from there we had a great connection.”
Reconnecting his ’70s and ’80s band started with a South American tour. “I’ve done many different projects since the ’80s and evolved different things,” said Ponty, who’s made 37 albums as a leader: eight with Zappa; two each with Mahavishnu Orchestra and Chick Corea; a trio with Stanley Clarke and Al DiMeola; four with French jazz violin inspiration Stephane Grappelli; and too many one-offs to list here.
“Suddenly there was a big demand among promoters and fans to somehow see the sort of original music from those years [’80s] and with that band,” he said.
After scheduling conflicts scuttled plans for a U.S. tour, Ponty met Jon Anderson, singer of prog-rock giants Yes. “We ended up playing with my band, featuring Jon Anderson, because we were both the leaders,” said Ponty. They played The Egg this May, then launched the tour that brings them to SPAC on Saturday.
“The reunion, that was from the desire that built up even more for another tour to focus on the music we all did together in the ’70s and ’80s,” said Ponty. “The fun is to take the best of that, that we feel is still the most exciting today, and when we play it, it really hasn’t aged much.”
Ponty said, “We have the freedom to be as creative as we want, though it’s all based on one subject, on the composition and on the spirit of the composition, and everyone is featured in the show.”