It’s a warm but lovely Aug. 23, 2018 evening here in Newton, NJ. After enjoying some hand-dipped Cliff’s ice cream from the window at Hayek Market, we march up Spring Street looking forward to hearing some world-class jazz at one of the Garden State’s favorite concert venues, The Newton Theatre.
And just who is tonight’s artist in question?
The virtuoso French electric fusion violinist — Jean-Luc Ponty!
Jean-Luc Ponty was born on September 29, 1942 into a family of classical musicians in Avranches, France. His father was a violin teacher; his mother taught piano. In addition to learning the violin, as a child, Jean-Luc’s father also taught him how to play the clarinet. At sixteen, Jean-Luc was admitted to the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris as a violinist, graduating two years later with the institution’s highest award. He was soon hired by one of Paris’ major symphony orchestras, Concerts Lamoureux, a group in which he played for three years.
While still a member of this orchestra, Ponty picked up a side job playing clarinet for a college jazz band that performed at local parties — an experience which proved to be a life-changing event for him. Hearing the jazz sounds of Miles Davis and John Coltrane compelled him to take up the tenor saxophone, but he soon felt the need to express his jazz voice through his main instrument, the violin.
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As such, Ponty found himself leading a dual musical life rehearsing and performing with the symphony orchestra while also playing jazz until 3 in the morning at clubs throughout Paris. The demands of this schedule eventually brought him to a crossroads.
“Naturally, I had to make a choice, so I took a chance with jazz”, said Jean-Luc.
With his powerful violin sound, Ponty distinguished himself with be-bop era phrasings and a style influenced more by horn players than by anything previously heard on the violin. After playing with some of the best European musicians, in 1964 — at the age of 22 — Ponty released his debut album for Phillips. A 1966 live album followed which united Ponty on a stage in Switzerland with jazz violin master Stéphane Grappelli and others.
By 1972, Elton John had invited Ponty to perform on his Honky Chateaualbum. At the urging of Frank Zappa — with whom Jean-Luc recorded over a half dozen albums — Ponty moved to the United States and soon began touring and recording with John McLaughlin and The Mahavishnu Orchestra. For the next decade, Ponty toured the world as a solo artist while recording a string of a dozen consecutive albums which reached the Top 5 on the Billboard Jazz charts. A pair of these recordings on the Atlantic label even went on to enter the American Top 40 charts in the late 1970s — Enigmatic Ocean and Cosmic Messenger.
After we arrive at our Spring Street destination and enter “The Newt’s” inviting lobby, we make our way into the cozy auditorium where we get a chance to chat with several Ponty fans of all ages waiting for tonight’s show to begin.
First, we chat with Julian, 16, from Bernardsville who tells us, “I like jazz — the music is different.” A saxophonist who attended Rutgers Jazz Camp this summer, Julian exclaims, “It’ll be really nice to be able to hear an electricfied jazz violin!”
Julian’s father, Chris, concurs revealing, “I started listening to Jean-Luc Ponty in the late ’70s — he was really popular at that time and well into the ’80s” before adding, “but it was really my son, Julian, who approached me to take him to tonight’s concert.”
Like Chris, Don from Denville is a long-time Ponty fan, having followed him since the 1970s. Remarks Don, “I’ve seen many of the individual members of The Mahavishnu Orchestra over the years, but Jean-Luc Ponty was definitely on my list of people to see.”
Noting, “It’s great getting a chance to see him here at the Newton Theatre,” Don explains, “There’s something really special about this theater — it doesn’t have a huge amount of seats, but they always manage to get a lot of really good acts to perform here.”
Don’s son, Sean, 26, is a professional musician who confesses, “I’m skipping band practice to be here tonight!” A guitarist by trade, Sean discloses, “I like jazz fusion and I’m familiar with Jean-Luc Ponty’s music, but I’ve never seen him before,” adding, “and since this is such a great theater, I thought it would be fun to come see Jean-Luc Ponty here with my dad.”
As a guitar tech tunes a guitar on stage, the seats in the Newton auditorium rapidly begin to fill. Blue and red lights rain over the stage — which contains a drum set with double bass drum, stacks of amps, in addition to a modern keyboard, an electric guitar, and an electric bass — just as fog starts to drift out onto the stage.
The audience cheers as the lights dim and several in the crowd begin to shout, “Jean-Luc! Jean-Luc!”
As soon as the audience catches a first glimpse of Jean-Luc, they stand and cheer as Ponty takes the stage — smiling with his violin in hand — accompanied by band members Jamie Glaser on guitar, Wally Minko on keyboards, Keith Jones on bass, and Rayford Griffin on drums.
Opening with a medley of “Overture/The Trans-Love Express” from 1977’s Enigmatic Ocean, Ponty stands poised as he performs on his instrument — an amplified acoustic violin.'
Moving as he plays — slowly at first and then with rocking riffs that punctuate this bubbly composition — Ponty trades lightning-quick runs and riffs with the members of his rhythm section, his tone and technique sounding robust and crystal clear in this high-quality listening environment.
As the piece morphs and flows, the musicians fuse the sounds of their individual instruments, the audience cheering for Ponty after his violin solo as well as for guitarist Jamie Glaser following his rockin’ solo.'
Next up is a medley of the first movement of the title tune from Ponty’s 1976 Atlantic recording, Imaginary Voyage, which segues into the title number from Ponty’s 1978 album, Cosmic Messenger.
At first, the musicians follow Ponty’s lead as he begins to conduct them with his bow. Then, the band syncs into a complicated sequenced-sounding rhythm which they perform with precision and ease while the computer-esqe medley comes to life via the artistry of these world-class players.
As the music travels into a more ethereal vein, the driving rhythm section takes over and provides a rock-solid foundation for Ponty’s otherworldly-sounding violin to soar above, resting at times before taking flight again on this magical journey of a piece which fuses the genres of jazz and rock. By the piece’s conclusion, the crowd explodes with applause and squeals of approval!
Taking a moment to welcome the crowd, Ponty steps to the microphone and announces in his French accent, “I usually say, ‘I’m happy to be back,’ but this is my first time here so, instead, I say, ‘It’s about time!’”
Slowing down the tempo but not the intensity of the musical experience, Ponty and the band perform a number from his 1979 Atlantic release, A Taste for Passion, entitled “Stay with Me.”
With its rhythmic arpeggiated accompaniment and its interconnected melody, enjoying this new-age-sounding piece performed live is the ultimate sonic experience, the sound enveloping and embracing the listening audience as it transports them to another dimension. There is so much to listen to here, and to be able to watch the musicians create their rhythmic and melodic sonic landscape is a unique treat for this Jersey audience!
Drums roll and the band is off in a new direction on a number from 1984’s Atlantic offering, Open Mind, entitled “Modern Times Blues.” On this tune, Jean-Luc adds his signature violin sounds to the hip-hop beat grooving below him. Jamie Glaser’s guitar solo speaks to the audience and it is followed by a bluesy Ponty violin solo before the two musicians trade licks for a crowd captivated by their rhythmically riveting performance.
Keyboardist Wally Minko solos up, down, and around his keyboard creating a tapestry of complex harmonies and chords before Ponty’s bow sizzles while accompanied by rhythmic guitar playing by Glaser.
The audience cheers and whistles for the entire group of musicians when they finally reenter the song before coming to a full and complete stop together!
Ponty returns to the microphone to reveal which of his albums the previous piece, “Modern Times Blues,” comes from and briefly pauses before a fan yells out “Open Mind!” At this point, Jean-Luc smiles and says, “You’re right — maybe I should think about retirement!” to which the fans in the house respond with an emphatic “NO!”
Ponty and Co. conclude Act I of tonight’s program with an extended piece from Enigmatic Ocean, “The Struggle of the Turtle to the Sea.” On this inspirational fusion number, keyboard, bass, and drums are featured. As Ponty conducts the fantastic and complex changes of time signature and tempo, Minko’s impressive keyboard playing punctuates the song.
Ponty follows up with a violin solo which is so fast the notes melt together into a waterfall of cascading sounds, the layers of melody and harmony juxtaposed into this creative piece of art. The crowd cheers as the group morphs into a funk beat, the spontaneous interplay between instruments and musicians exciting this audience of jazz fusion lovers.
Eventually, all of the musicians leave the stage except for percussionist Rayford Griffin, who becomes a one-man music machine and takes over the stage rocketing his energy into a stellar drum solo.
With each stroke, Griffin creates his percussive version of the piece, the lights above the stage dancing to the ever-changing heartbeat of his extended drum solo.
Taking things down to single beats, one fan yells, “It ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings,” whereas another screams, “He’s singin’, man!”
Building back from single beats into an amalgamation of blinding fury, Griffin ends his percussive display with a single crash to a standing ovation before the band reenters and resumes this piece filled with life and subdivided beats. Bright and joyous like an electric symphony, Ponty and his band end the number to radiant cheers!
Before leaving the stage, Ponty addresses the avid crowd and introduces his musicians. He also takes a moment to explain that the concept of tonight’s show — entitled The Atlantic Years — is to revisit his albums from 1976 to 1985, which were all recorded on the Atlantic label. Warning that the point is “not to rehash the past,” Ponty explains that “through improvisation, the music is new again.”
Act II opens with a piece from 1982’s Mystical Adventures entitled “Jig.” Drummer Griffin sets the countrified-fusion beat while guitarist Glaser and keyboardist Minko invite the audience to clap along as performers and audience set off on a new adventure together.
Soon, Jean-Luc enters with his violin soaring, bouncing and lifting the crowd to new heights. Minko plays his keyboards with his two hands as close together as possible as if he needs to depress as many keys as he can to get his message across through his music!
Also, on this space-aged country escapade, bassist Keith Jones takes a turn in the spotlight.
Playing high on his bass, his fingers fly around his fingerboard before he and Ponty play together in brilliant harmony to excited cheers and applause!
Changing the mood, acoustic guitar, keyboard, and violin are featured on “Once a Blue Planet,” a number from 1980’s Civilized Evil. Before the trio begins, Ponty takes his time to tune his instrument joking, “Thank you for your patience — it sounds better in tune.”
The piece opens with a lyrical Wally Minko piano intro but is soon joined by Jamie Glaser’s emotional acoustic guitar playing. The audience applauds once they recognize the tune and Ponty soon joins in on the music making — first with his ostinato countermelody and, then, with an introspective solo.
A piano/violin duet, “In the Kingdom of Peace” — from 1985’s Fables — is up next. On this stately number, various sounds fill the air — some harmonic, some dissonant and experimental-sounding — but all masterfully played by Ponty, his posture, hand position and technique shining throughout his masterful performance.
Following cheers and applause, the entire band returns for another classic piece from Enigmatic Ocean entitled “Mirage.” On this upbeat disco-influenced number, the band shines as they accompany Jean-Luc who sparkles as plays the piece’s melodic and lively tune.
Jamie Glaser’s acoustic guitar is featured yet again on Imaginary Voyage’s “The Gardens of Babylon.” On this romantic yet funky composition, Glaser and Ponty’s tuneful playing brings a feeling of hope and beauty to the Newton Theatre crowd.
Then, Ponty and the band follow up with another piece from Fables — the world music-inspired, “Elephants in Love.” Clapping along to the beat, keyboardist’s Wally Minko’s kalimba-sounding keyboard riff sounds like it’s being played by a sequencer, but it’s actually being played live!
On this number, Ponty first initiates a creative interplay between his instrument and Glaser’s guitar and, then, between his violin and Keith Jones’ six-string electric bass while Minko accompanies on keys.
The audience cheers when Ponty announces that — for their final number — he and the band will perform one more extended piece tonight: all four movements of the title track from his classic album, Enigmatic Ocean.
Switching over from amplified acoustic violin to a fully electric model, at times, Ponty conducts this difficult and innovative piece. Featuring swirling keyboard sounds from Wally Minko, wailing guitar work from Glaser — not to mention killer bass and drum playing from Jones and Griffin — Ponty and his musicians take turns impressing the audience with their finely-honed fusion chops, all setting sail together inspiring the cheering crowd to rise to its feet!
“Thank you all!” exclaims Ponty, as audience members continue to stand and cheer even though the concert has come to a close. Not willing to stop until the band returns to play one more song, a fan screams, “You rock!”
Eventually, Ponty and the group return to perform an encore of A Taste for Passion’s “Sunset Drive.” As lights dance across the walls, bassist Keith Jones rocks up and down his bass — Jaco Pastorius-style — to applause and cheers on this modern shuffle. Jamie Glaser’s soulful electric guitar playing leads the audience on a path to Jean-Luc Ponty whose bow skips around his violin’s strings as he performs to the crowd’s delight. A single figure — a woman — dances in the aisle, her movements becoming one with the music, before the band ends with cheers and another well-earned standing ovation.
At this point, all of the musicians come to the edge of the stage to take a bow but — for laughs — continuously change places with one another before they graciously consent to bow again!
As the happy audience exits the theater, we chat with several members of the crowd who share their opinions of tonight’s concert with us.
Remarks Glen from Dingmans Ferry, PA — a fan who reveals he first saw Ponty perform at the height of his fame in the late-1970s — “Jean-Luc Ponty put on a fantastic show back in ’78 and he’s still in top-notch form tonight!”
Glen’s friend, George, also from Dingmans Ferry, agrees stating, “This was one amazing concert!” before acknowledging, “In fact, this one was way better than the show we saw in ’78 — the acoustics here are much better,” and noting, “This was my tenth time seeing Jean-Luc Ponty.”
Next, we chat with Daniel from Rockaway who says, “I really enjoyed this concert — Jean-Luc Ponty and his band were unbelievable,” before exclaiming, “and that was the best drum solo I’ve ever heard in my whole life!”
We also get a chance to catch up with Julian and his dad, Chris, with whom we spoke earlier before the show.
Remarks Chris, “I really enjoyed this performance! Jean-Luc Ponty played all the great music from the ’70s and the ’80s I was hoping to hear, and that made it a lot of fun!”
Chris’ son, Julian, concurs, before adding, “It was amazing — it was something really different for me, and I loved it!”'
To learn more about Jean-Luc Ponty, please go to ponty.com. For further information about upcoming concerts at The Newton Theatre — including Robbie Krieger of The Doors on Sept. 29, Los Lobos on Oct. 11, Sha Na Na on Oct. 19, Renaissance on Nov. 16, and The Roseanne Cash Band on Dec. 1 — please click on thenewtontheatre.com.Photos by Love Imagery
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