Jean-Luc Ponty discusses collaboration, tour with ex-Yes singer Jon Anderson (2016)


There’s a character from David Lynch and Mark Frost’s 1990 cult series “Twin Peaks” known as The Man From Another Place. He exists only in visions and speaks in a language unheard of by anyone within the earthly realm. His style and demeanor provide more questions than answers yet his mere presence automatically makes him the most interesting person on screen.

I’ve always considered French violinist/composer Jean-Luc Ponty to be The Musician From Another Place given how complex and otherworldly so much of his work has proven to be through the years. Albums such as “Cosmic Messenger” and “Mystical Adventures” are ambitious statements that suggest a towering intellect refusing to be bound by standard time or space, which become even more unreal when you watch how he performs them in a live setting. He’s an undisputed master of his instrument in both the jazz and rock arenas, but it’s when he decides to fuse everything together that the listener gets to join him in that other place.

His long-awaited collaboration with progressive rock luminary Jon Anderson is yet another example of his greatness, because the blending of musical personalities pushes each to elevate their game on every track. Rather than get too verbose about how life-affirming “Better Late Than Never” is as an album, I’ll just advise anyone interested to seek it out for themselves and absorb its majesty.

Or, better yet, snag a ticket on the secondary market to see the AndersonPonty Band perform at The Riviera Theatre on May 17 and experience them in the flesh. I had the pleasure of checking in with Ponty recently to discuss the project and why working with Jon was such a fruitful endeavor, so consider the following transcript a primer for what to expect when they play North Tonawanda.

MNOD: How did the prospect of working with Jon Anderson initially come about?

Jean Luc Ponty: We met a couple of times in the 70s and 80s and Jon suggested then that we do a project together some day, thirty years later I crossed paths with Jon again and we talked about putting a band together, and a few days later Jon sent me some very spontaneous recording he had done, singing on some of my tunes.  I was very impressed, it worked so well with my music that I was immediately convinced that this would be a great project. I told Jon it was too bad we did not do it years ago, he answered “well…..better late than never.”  We had our album title before we even started.

MNOD: What is it about your collaboration that enables both of you to elevate your artistry to a higher level? 

JLP: We share some musical roots, which is necessary to achieve a successful collaboration, but each of us also had different musical experiences, so each brings his vision which stimulates the other to push his limits.  Jon is very good with arrangements, suggesting sound colors, rhythms, getting the right emotions our the band for a particular song, and part of my approach is to live room for improvisation, therefore each show can be different and very alive.  

MNOD: How did Kickstarter become the manner in which the project would come to fruition?

JLP: Our manager suggested it. I had never dealt with it before and was surprised by the concept at first, but then I liked the idea of being in such direct contact with our fans who really care about our music, it also ensured that we would have complete artistic freedom, and it worked, we collected more than we asked for, even though Jon and I also contributed a lot of personal funds.

MNOD: How does the recording of Better Late Than Never compare to other projects you’ve worked on in the past?

JLP: This was a fantastic opportunity to revisit my music of the 70s-80s with an incredible dimension added by Jon’s vocals, and to also come up with new arrangements for Jon’s and Yes songs as we did not want to rehash the past but come up with a fusion of Jon’s progressive rock style with the jazz-rock elements of my music.  I have been extremely lucky throughout my life to collaborate with some of the greatest musical talents, and this project is among the best I have done.  

MNOD: Because you have so many musical things going on at once, how easy is it to transition between projects?

JLP: It is a lot easier now than when I was younger, the more my mind absorbs the better I can deal with challenging projects of different sorts, routine kills creativity, so I am a happy man! 

MNOD: What does the live setting add to the material that the listener can’t quite experience on the record?

JLP: We perform almost all the songs from our new album, with one or two more classics by Jon and a few of my instrumentals which are not on the album and give a chance to band members to take solos and stretch out, and bring spontaneity and lots of dynamics to the show. 

MNOD: You’ve collaborated with Stanley Clarke, John McLaughlin, and Al Di Meola in the past, all of whom are considered masters of their craft.  Because you’re a virtuoso in your own right, what would you say are the central characteristics you all share that defines your greatness?

JLP: Virtuosity can be acquired with intense practice, for me it’s not a goal in itself but must be at the service of a creative force, an ability to play in a way that has not been done before, however originality must be natural, a gift you’re born with, perhaps it’s your brain developing differently from most other musicians, like with metaphysics and spirituality there is no precise explanation, it’s beyond thinking music notes, you let your feelings guide your playing. 

MNOD: How did the rest of the band that plays on Better Late Than Never come together?

JLP: The concept was to have a mix of musicians who worked with Jon before and others who had played with me, but for various reasons Jamie Dunlap was the only musician who had previously collaborated with Jon and could join, but soon after the Aspen performance Jamie Dunlap realized that his involvement as music composer for TV series such as South Park did not allow him to finish this project with us, although he was very excited to be part of it.  There were additional guitar parts to be recorded and we hired Jamie Glazer who has played in my band before.  So now on tour all band members we have have recorded and toured with me before, however they all are Yes fans as well and very versatile musicians, which is why it works so well. 

MNOD: Who are some of the artists you’d still like to work with in the future?

JLP: I have no one in mind at this time, and curiously until now I have never initiated a collaboration, they all came to me.  

MNOD: What are your plans once the Anderson Ponty Band tour wraps up? 

JLP: I keep performing with my band and also in other formats, as a duet with my French jazz pianist, with symphony orchestras or big bands, and with Jon we are talking about perhaps doing another project together next year or in the future. At this stage in my life, I do not make long term plans, I just want to enjoy life as it comes and before it’s too late.

The Anderson Ponty Band plays The Riviera Theatre on May 17.  Showtime is 8:00 p.m.

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