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Interview: Return to Forever's Jean-Luc Ponty

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The violin was brought into the modern era of jazz via the innovative ideas and technique of the Frenchman Jean-Luc Ponty, a member of the groundbreaking jazz-rock fusion band Return To Forever. Led, then as now, by pianist-composer Chick Corea, Return to Forever will stop by the Murat Theatre Sunday as part of a worldwide reunion tour titled RTF, IV.

I caught up with Ponty by phone at his home in Paris, France, for this interview and found him to be both outgoing and erudite. He's certainly passionate about his work, but he's unassuming about his role in making violin into a viable jazz instrument

NUVO: Has Return to Forever adjusted its approach to reach new younger listeners?

Ponty: I don't think there is so much focus on changing the music. What changes is the rhythm. Some types of rhythms might sound outdated. But basically, the essence of the music is the same.

NUVO: What inspired to you to join Chick Corea and Return to Forever back in the day?

Ponty: Going back in time to the early seventies, there were three major groups that were innovative in jazz-rock fusion: Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and RTF. I was with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. I had already collaborated with Stanley Clarke and Chick. Chick was friends with John McLaughlin and he invited me on his album. We had known each other for a very long time, and there was a mutual respect, and we had a lot of affinity since we were trying to do the same thing. We were trying to break away from tradition, to incorporate rhythms from all generations — which at the time were some rock rhythms, Latin rhythms — and to use the new electronic instruments that were being invented as we were creating this music. Chick asked me to join in 1976. At the time I had started my own group. It was a tough decision, and I was right since I was successful. I am a really lucky guy to have lived long enough that the offer would come back thirty-five years later.

NUVO: How would you define your playing today? Have you mellowed out?

Ponty: Somehow, yes. We still have a lot of energy, [but] it's not quite the same as when we were thirty years old. There was a focus on energy more than maturity. The way I handle chord changes is more mature — I can tell when I listen to my old recordings. We were wondering how the violin would work into RTF, which was initially a quartet. I bring a lyrical side to the music, although I enjoy the energy side on rock music.

NUVO: Have technological advances in the music world had an effect on how you are playing the violin today?

Ponty: It did, not on the total repertoire of what music I play, [but] it definitely inspired me. Yes, it has influenced a lot of pieces, but not exclusively.

NUVO: Is there anything you haven't done recording-wise that you would like to do?

Ponty: Yes, I have some projects in mind. I am looking more and more to collaborations. There is a demand around the world for the music I created in the seventies and eighties. In November, I am going to South America with my American Band for a series of concerts, and we may record them live for an album. Outside of that, I am really looking forward to playing with Chick and Stanley in a different format, mostly intimate acoustic. I really love that as a violinist. It is really challenging for me.

NUVO: After your career of four decades of performing various styles of jazz, what is your opinion of the status of jazz being played today?

Ponty: I am very encouraged. There is a whole new generation of very young people who have absorbed music — from mainstream jazz through fusion through everything — who do their own thing. They have a strong link with tradition and acoustic music. I like that because some of these young people don't have as much room to improvise as we had.So much has been created already that there is not a lot left to still explore. Those who have talent still manage to do something original by using some styles from the past. I see a tendency to treat jazz as or like classical music. It is becoming too academic. See, the difference is that in classical music everything is written down and meant to be performed by interpreters. The reason I left classical music is because, in jazz, you have room to innovate, and it would be wrong to really copy and sound like past musicians. What I saw in jazz was the opportunity to create your own sound, even if it's only a little different.

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