Though Jean-Luc Ponty has played acoustic violin for most of his lengthy career, in recent years he has become deeply involved with two electronic instruments--the Zeta violin, on which he performs, and the Synclavier keyboard, on which he composes.
But Ponty--whose acoustic violin has long been equipped with a Barcus Berry-brand pickup that allows for amplification--is quick to point out that he doesn't see these or any other state-of-the-art, plugged-in products as the pot at the end of the rainbow.
"New technology is not what makes me jump up and down," the 45-year-old artist said. "I take a cool approach--experiment, see if the instrument can bring me anything, make my life maybe easier, or help me create my music, which the Synclavier did."
The Synclavier, made by New England Digital Corp., is an electronic keyboard that interfaces with a computer. It allows for a number of possibilities, from creating hundreds of musical sounds to recording, storing, orchestrating--the way instruments are selected and combined in a composition--and playing back (through a speaker system) those sounds. It even prints single parts or complete scores.
Ponty first employed the instrument for his 1985 "Fables" (Atlantic) LP. "But two years ago, I was just getting into it," he pointed out, casually supporting his head with his right hand as he talked. "I hadn't explored its potential for sounds. And since then, I have."
A number of events aided his involvement with the keyboard instrument. In late 1985, Ponty, who plays with his quintet tonight at the Laguna Beach Irvine Bowl and Saturday at the Greek Theater, terminated his 11-year association with Atlantic Records, which produced such LPs as "Cosmic Messenger" and "Open Mind."
"I felt that I had gotten the best of my years with Atlantic, and they had stopped giving me the attention I deserved," Ponty said. But "rather than look for a deal right away," the French-born Los Angeles resident spent time learning the ins-and-outs of his new keyboard device. "I must say I took advantage of my contract ending," he added, smiling softly.
He also made appearances with some symphony and chamber orchestras, returning to the environment where he had spent his formative years. Though Ponty has been playing varieties of jazz on his violin since 1964, he was trained as a classical violinist. He graduated from the Conservatoire de Paris in 1960 with its highest honor, the Premier Prix, and worked three years with the Concerts Lamoureux, a Paris-based symphony.
These concerts have not been classical affairs, however. Rather, when Ponty stepped on stage with the Toronto Symphony in July, 1986, with the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble in September, 1986 and with the New Japan Philharmonic in Tokyo in January, 1987, he performed original compositions that he had orchestrated for the particular event.
On each occasion, he was the soloist, working without a supporting band, with only the orchestra as a background. "It was very stimulating, having no guitar player to play a solo so I can relax, no rhythm section taking care of swing of time," he said. "I didn't know if I'd like that, but it turns out that I did. It was fun and it kept me on my toes. And I would like to write more for that format."
The performances in Pittsburgh and elsewhere paid extra dividends for Ponty, who feels that "because I got so involved with orchestration and using new sound colors (with the orchestras), I came back with a fresh approach for my (band) music as well. And that affected my new album ("The Gift of Time" CBS), where I have sounds from rich sustained chords to percussive sounds like kalimba, clave and hand drums, some of which I've never used before."
The LP also spotlights the Zeta, a solid-body instrument with a pick-up for each string, "that sounds great," Ponty says. "On the ballad, 'Introspective Perceptions,' it's a pure, electronic sound"--he laughed at his oxymoronic remark--"which is not very pure, for some people."
Ponty adds that he owns a 1746 violin on which "I play pieces such as Bach Sonatos at home for my own pleasure."
The musician's enthusiasm for variety of sounds goes way back. "I was always trying to explore new sounds," he said, "from day I plugged my violin into an amplifier, it has been a constant experiment. I haven't stopped. I really enjoy it."
But, Ponty makes it clear, that "even though today most of the sounds I use are electronic, it's not the Synclavier (or the Zeta) that produced the ideas, it's me. I'm in total control."