Jean-Luc Ponty - violin
At the time of this stirring solo performance at the 1974 Newport Jazz Festival, French violinist and jazz-rock pioneer Ponty was a newly initiated member of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, having recorded Apocalypse with the band and the London Symphony Orchestra in March of that year. His appearance at this July 4th Avery Fisher Hall concert was, as impresario George Wein put it, "an extra added attraction." By this time, Ponty had already recorded several straight ahead albums as a leader, including 1967's Sunday Walk (with European stars Niels Henning Orsted Pedersen on bass, Wolfgang Dauner on piano, and Daniel Humair on drums, and reissued Stateside on Prestige as Critic's Choice), 1969's Electric Connection, Canteloupe Island and Live at Donte's, and 1970's King Kong: Jean-Luc Ponty Plays The Music of Frank Zappa (all featuring George Duke on keyboards), and 1973's modernist gem, Open Strings, his last studio recording in Europe before moving to the United States to join Zappa's band.
For this show, Ponty played unaccompanied, alternating between three violins, one an electric instrument that was fed through wah-wah and delay pedals. And while his three lengthy improvisations were unnamed, some of the soaring, swooping motifs and striking echo lines heard here would later manifest on his recordings as a leader. Shortly after this performance, Ponty would embark on a career as a bandleader in his own right, which kicked off with the January, 1975 release of Upon the Wings of Music, the first of several hard-hitting fusion offerings for the Atlantic label.
Born to a family of classical musicians on September 29, 1942, in Avranches, France, Ponty was admitted to a prestigious conservatory in Paris at age 16 and two years later was hired by one of the major symphony orchestras, Concerts Lamoureux, where he remained for three years. While still a member of the orchestra, he played clarinet on the side with a college jazz band that regularly performed at local parties. This fueled his interest in jazz, and particularly the sounds of Miles Davis and John. After playing tenor saxophone for a while, Ponty began channeling his jazz impulses through his main instrument, the violin. He began playing violin in jazz clubs around Paris, emulating his favorite jazz saxophonists. By 1964, he released his solo debut, Jazz Long Playing, for the Philips label, and followed up in 1966 with Violin Summit, on which he played alongside elders Stuff Smith and former Ellington violinist Svend Asmussen. Ponty's first stateside appearance came in 1967, when he performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Two years later, Frank Zappa composed the music for Ponty's solo album King Kong, and Ponty returned the favor later that year by performing on Zappa's Hot Rats. In 1972, he appeared on Elton John's hit album Honky Chateau. In 1973, he joined Zappa's band and appeared on Overnite Sensation. The following year, he joined the Mahavishnu Orchestra and also appeared on Zappa's Apostrophe. After recording Apocalypse and Visions of the Emerald Beyond with Mahavishnu, Ponty was signed as a solo artist by Atlantic. For the next decade, he toured the world frequently and recorded 12 consecutive albums for albums, including 1976's Aurora and Imaginary Voyage, 1977's Enigmatic Ocean, 1978's Cosmic Messenger, 1980's Civilized Evil, 1983's Individual Choice, and 1984's Open Mind.
On 1991's Tchokola, on the Epic label, Ponty collaborated with a West Africa percussion ensemble, then in 1995 joined guitarist Al Di Meola and bassist Stanley Clarke for a record and international tour as the Rite of Strings. He continued to tour and record as a leader through the 1990s and 2000s, forming his own J.L.P. Productions label in 2001, subsequently releasing Live at Semper Opera in 2002. In 2005, Pony launched a new project called Trio! in collaboration with Stanley Clarke on double bass and Bela Fleck on banjo. His 2007 studio album, The Atacama Experience, featured guitarists and former collaborators Allan Holdsworth and Philip Catherine. In 2010, Ponty performed duets with pianist Wolfgang Dauner (who had appeared on one of his earliest albums as a leader back in 1967). In 2011, Ponty embarked on a worldwide tour with Return to Forever IV, featuring Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, Lenny White, and Frank Gambale. (Milkowski)