Jean-Luc Ponty

November 27, 2017, 3:11 PM · I know very little about the violin, but I like Ponty a lot. How does he compare with guys like Jascha Heifetz? As good as Jean-Luc is, I have a feeling that Heifetz could have played his music as a warm-up, and with no effort.

Are they in different leagues?

Replies (41)

Edited: November 27, 2017, 3:58 PM · I liked Ponty's stuff in the 1960's on the World Pacific Jazz label if I'm not mistaken. I don't know whether I'd still like it today. (I mean, I liked Peter Stampfel's playing in the 60s too!) The fusion stuff Ponty did later was unlistenable. I doubt that his technical skill was/is even in the same league with Heifetz. Also I think I read somewhere that Heifetz didn't need to warm up. He just went at it, such was his talent.

November 27, 2017, 4:13 PM · Completely different styles and not worth comparing at all. Jazz violinists don't need most of the techniques that classical violinists use therefore rarely (if ever) train to be able to do many of those techniques; and classical violinists rarely develop the skills to learn how to improvise in a coherent way.

The way of practicing both styles , both physically and mentally, is also completely different.

That is because classical music and improvised music have completely different practice methods (both mentally and physically).

I teach a jazz improv class for classical string players, and it's just a completely different world for them, getting them to stop using vibrato, to use the bow in very strange ways, to use the left hand in very strange ways, etc...

Edited: November 27, 2017, 5:16 PM · Thanks for the explanation, Denis. I appreciate it.

I understand that JLP is trained in classical music, if that matters at all...

His music is unlistenable, John? Are you kidding? You might not like it, but what you or I like or don't like only matters to us.

November 27, 2017, 4:33 PM · Many, many violinists are trained in classical music; vanishingly few can play like Heifetz.
November 27, 2017, 4:35 PM · Many great jazz violinists start with classical because that is usually how violin is generally taught around the world. That's the case for Stéphane Grappelli as well. By the time , they discover jazz and focus on it though, they have to sacrifice a huge chunk of their classical education compared to their colleagues.

Like I said, two completely different styles. Nonetheless, there are some jazz violinists with strong classical foundations, such as Florin Niculescu from Romania

Here's a video of Florin

Edited: November 27, 2017, 5:29 PM · Wow - that was incredible. I never heard of that guitarist, but I just saw him in a video with John McLaughlin. Very impressive!
November 27, 2017, 4:54 PM · As a musician, I could argue that Jean-luc is better. Not only are his technical skills quite good, his creativity in performing jazz/jazz fusion is pioneering. He was the first (at least commercially successful) to integrate an electric violin with all its effects, and jazz/jazz fusion. Which has a significant improvise/compose aspect. What did Heifetz compose?
Edited: November 27, 2017, 9:49 PM · Arnie, come on. Heifetz created many interpretations of modern pieces, Gershwin works for example. He was most certainly a complete musician.

Thank you Denis for the intro to Florin Niculescu. He's great, and I confess that until now I'd never heard of him.

I'll point out that Japan currently has a vital jazz violin tradition. Look up Naoko Terai, Toshihiro Nakanishi and "maiko." If you watch them its apparent that their technique has classical roots.

Edited: November 27, 2017, 6:39 PM · Jean-Luc Ponty is a conservatory-trained classical violinist who was considered a hot prospect in his day (late 1950s). His early work in jazz was pioneering in the sense that he demonstrated a much wider context for the violin than Grappelli ever envisioned. Apart from his injection of the violin into jazz, his influence on jazz as a musical genre is overshadowed by the contributions of others of that era, in my opinion.

I admired JLP as a youngster (and I still do), and I even wrote to him (ca. 40 years ago) to ask for his autographed picture, which he graciously sent bearing the inscription "All my best to Paul." That picture is hanging framed in my studio.

Ponty rightly found the (amplified) violin's edgy sound well-suited to edgy jazz, and his album "Sunday Walk" is a good example of that genre. Ponty's pedigree includes collaborations with Frank Zappa, Elton John, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

In the mid-1970s Ponty realized there was more money to be made in the world of jazz-rock and fusion. Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Miles Davis, and other jazz legends did the same (so did another notable violinist, Noel Pointer). Much of that 70s material is rather thin on musical content but certainly still entertaining. "Aurora," "Enigmatic Ocean," and "Cosmic Messenger" are the best albums of that period.

In addition to Florin Niculescu, I suggest you check out the German violinist Didier Lockwood. Lockwood's strongest influence is undoubtedly Ponty, but his Grappelli tribute albums (plural) are among his best.

If you asked Ponty (or Lockwood) whether he could play the violin as well as Heifetz, he would probably die laughing. In terms of raw skill there's no comparison to be made.

November 27, 2017, 7:16 PM · Paul, that's terrific response. Thanks.
November 27, 2017, 8:21 PM · Unlistenable for me - specifically the "Cosmic Messenger" album which I have on vinyl and some more recent stuff I looked at on Youtube. It is so processed it doesn't even sound like a violin. It may as well have been played on a keyboard synth. What am I missing? Now for jazz violin, I'd recommend Stephen Grappelli, Joe Venuti, even Eddie South, Sugarcane Harris, Stuff Smith.
November 27, 2017, 8:43 PM · Could Heifetz improvise as well as Ponty?
Edited: November 27, 2017, 9:04 PM · From:

"Heifetz could also improvise beautifully. One time while teaching he asked the class pianist to play the accompaniment to the Mendelssohn concerto. He then proceeded to make up an entirely new violin part on the spot. His original compositions were limited to popular songs written under the pseudonym Jim Hoyl. One, “When You Make Love to Me (Don’t Make Believe),” became a hit in 1946. Among those who recorded it were Bing Crosby, Helen Ward, and Margaret Whiting. Once the song had made it on its own, Heifetz confessed to writing it."

November 27, 2017, 9:00 PM · John I was trying to be generous toward Ponty's 70s opus. I thought those albums were cool when I was in junior high school, but then I also listened to BTO and the Doobie Brothers back then! Like you, I can no longer tolerate "Cosmic Messenger."
November 27, 2017, 9:21 PM · The expression "classically trained" is very misleading if you consider that unless you are self-taught or are learning from a community that had never been in touch with the classical world, you 're quite likely to be "classically trained" because for the longest time, that was the only kind of violin education there was. Certain pedagogical principles even cross over to other styles.

You can be classically trained until you finish learning Bach's Double Concerto, or you can be classically trained until you master a few Paganini caprices, there's a world of difference between those two levels.

I deal with jazz violinists all the time because that's part of my job. For some the classical education ended quite early, for others, they pursued until graduating from college, and even while they were in college, they were focused more on repertoire that would serve them better as improvising musicians (such as Bach solo pieces).

BTW Didier Lockwood is French , not German ;-) . He comes from the Jean-Luc Ponty school and sort of made an entire system out of it.

Jazz musicians do not have to do many of the techniques that classical musicians usually have to learn. Their use of the bow is often quite different from what classical musicians are used to. It's all mainly détaché. No fancy bowing, unless for very specific arrangements or tricks, if ever.

Lots of 1st position playing and only venturing to higher positions occasionally and briefly.

For advanced classical musicians, all this is extremely technically easy for them. But then when it comes to groove, interpretation, rhythm, timing, improvisation, etc... It's extremely difficult for classical musicians because they rarely learn the skills to do all this.

It's a trade off. Like I said, the two approaches are completely different both physically and mentally.

Without wanting to spam, here's a video lesson series I produced that briefly explains some of the differences between classical violin and jazz violin

Edited: November 28, 2017, 4:31 PM · For those who don't like the electric violin of the earlier JLP recordings, try the acoustic recording, "The Rite of Strings" with Stanley Clarke,bass and Al Di Meola, guitar.

For me personally, this is his most satisfying recording. I find it very hard to listen to the tone of electric violin of his earlier work, no matter how good the player.

Edited: November 28, 2017, 4:57 PM · Denis, I appreciate your comments, especially having been corrected on Lockwood's nationality. He's a great violinist and I'm happy to learn more about him. I would note, however, that the phrase "classically trained" has, thus far, only appeared in your post on this thread. My post used the phrase "conservatory trained" to describe Ponty since he did attend and graduate from the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris, according to his Wikipedia entry. Not knowing anything about French music schools, I don't know whether that's considered anywhere close to a US conservatory degree or whether it's more like prep school level, but his bio also says he played in pro orchestras for a few years.

I now play some jazz violin myself and I don't find myself venturing much beyond third position -- at least not yet. But, I would also say that there is very little need for that. The violin's low G to the D on the E string (fourth finger in third position) is almost exactly the same range as the alto saxophone (Bb to F, so a minor third higher, not including altissimo). Obviously, a great deal can be accomplished within those meager boundaries.

November 28, 2017, 5:17 PM · Conservatory trained is quite close to classically trained, at least until recent years (and then I don't want to go on a rant about jazz education in a conservatory). I am not saying that Ponty or Grappelli have bad technique or anything like that, but by modern classical standards, they are definitely leagues away from their classical counterparts.

Jason Anick, who teaches jazz violin at the Berklee College of Music also majored in classical violin in college, but his teachers knew that he was aiming to play jazz professionally so they cut him some slack and made him focus on the aspects of classical music that would help him with general technique.

Actually Mary Ellen summed it up quite nicely above:

"Many, many violinists are trained in classical music; vanishingly few can play like Heifetz."

As I said so already, classically trained or conservatory trained does not mean much in terms of how far one can get on the violin from a technical perspective.

At any rate, the OP's question has been answered, there is no point in comparing two completely different ways of approaching music.

November 28, 2017, 7:32 PM · So you're not "classically trained" unless you can play like Heifetz!!!
Edited: November 28, 2017, 8:00 PM · Lyndon, I don't think anyone said that. Once again you're dramatizing. I think the point was that the comparison of even pro orchestral violinists to Heifetz is fruitless. Just because they can't play like Heifetz doesn't mean they can't still play awfully darn well.

The flip side is that if you don't actually know how well Jean-Luc Ponty or Didier Lockwood can (or could at one time) play classical violin, then maybe it's best not to make assumptions or claims about that. The fact that Ponty played in pro orchstras suggests to me, at least, that he probably reached an admirable level -- possibly even "romantic concertos and a few Paganini caprices". All we can say for sure is that he gets around pretty damned well in first to third position with good intonation and a decent detache stroke, which is all his career has demanded of him technically.

November 28, 2017, 9:24 PM · Indeed, I would say that Ponty reached an admirable level but because of life choices, he focused on other things that his career demanded. As such, it's not fair to make the comparison to Jascha Heifetz. Vice Versa, it would not be fair to compare Jascha Heifetz' improvisation and jazz skills to Ponty's!!

It's like comparing marathon runners to sprinters!

November 29, 2017, 6:41 AM · Le Conservatoire National Superieur de Paris is basically where every world known French musicians; composer or instrumentalist would have had a connection with (Faure was its director at one point). This is historically a classical music world institution, and any one having received a first prize in violin from this conservatory would find a place in any of the world top orchestra. As a matter of fact I read that Ponty played for 3 years for les Concerts Lamoureux: another historical orchestra which has given première of some of the master work from French composeur ( la Mer from Debussy was premiere by the orchestra). So to resume I wouldn't question Ponty classic technical ability.
November 30, 2017, 10:13 AM · The original question was "How do they compare?"
It wasn't specific to technical skill which is where many people gravitates to. Simple answer is they are both great musicians in their own right. Break it down to various attributes would show the differences we are talking about.
November 30, 2017, 11:10 AM · The OP said he thought Heifetz could have played Ponty's music as a warm-up, and whether Ponty is "as good." Those kinds of expressions imply to me that the comparison in question is one of technique. And since the point of reference is invariably Heifetz, that means classical technique.

Of course Heifetz could probably play Ponty's music without breaking a sweat. But first someone would have to write it all down for him.

November 30, 2017, 1:16 PM · "Of course Heifetz could probably play Ponty's music without breaking a sweat. But first someone would have to write it all down for him."

Yes, I think that's the case. Although, if it was written down I think a lot of people here could practice and then play Ponty's music. But you'd have to write down all of the other musicians parts as well to keep the violin part valid...

November 30, 2017, 3:30 PM · Correct. Jean luc earns points for creativity/composition. In this regard I would assert he sets a reference standard.
November 30, 2017, 4:09 PM · Yes, If someone could write it down, a Heifetz could probably play the correct notes Ponty's music. I think it would be like an opera singer singing Cole Porter. The elasticity, phrasing would be stiff and essence and swing would be missing. Heifetz was the God of his own domain.
I agree with Arnie, JLP is a creative musician playing his own music that he brought from his own body.
Sometimes composers are not the best performers.
Even Chopin was jealous of the way Liszt played Chopin's music.
November 30, 2017, 5:12 PM · IF someone were to write down JLP's lines for Heifetz to play, I have a strong feeling that he wouldn't be able to play it the way it's meant to be played without some proper guidance and reconditioning of interpretation.

I teach classical musicians how to play jazz, and like I said, it's a completely different approach both mentally and physically. It's actually not difficult technique wise compared to what classical musicians have to play, but the approach is so different that there's a psychological block due to years of training to do things a specific way.

For instance, the timing: it's a very subtle issue, and it's related to the use of the bow. JLP pioneered the French school of jazz that Didier Lockwood then popularized. It involves using the bow in a very rhythmic fashion with heavy use of ghost notes, accented notes on offbeats , all while keeping the bow legato and using détaché.

There's the subtle use of vibrato that's very different from the classical idea of vibrato, etc....

December 1, 2017, 7:50 AM · Questions like this reveal a common assumption: work until you have consummate technique a la Heifetz and you can play anything. Not only is it untrue, I would go as far as to say that certain types of training preclude certain aspects of music making and close those doors.
Firstly, style and groove are not notes. Secondly, improvisation is not going to spring out of thin air if you have the best technique. Years of conditioning your brain to extract notes from a page means that you will be good at extracting notes from a page. That will be your go to neural pathway and notions of improvisation and playing by ear will be foreign.
I have no idea if Heifetz could improvise over advanced jazz chord changes but if he could it would not have been an afterthought in terms of his training. Typically, classical violinists don't feel they have the time to work on anything outside of the repetoire other than scales or studies.
December 1, 2017, 11:52 AM · "Come on" Mark Bouquet, did you learn something from the others?
December 1, 2017, 1:21 PM · I guess you're right Arnie. Ponty is better than Heifetz, and I'll just tuck my tail between my legs and slink away to hide my wounded pride. Thanks for setting me straight!
December 1, 2017, 3:50 PM · I think different is a better distinction. This discussion was educational for me as well.
Edited: December 1, 2017, 4:14 PM · The flip side of all this is that Heifetz would probably have been the first to admit that he could not acclimate easily to jazz. Classical pianists often listen to their jazz counterparts with great admiration. I read somewhere that Rubinstein described Art Tatum's playing with words like "amazing" and "impossible." But not publicly. Tatum had chops, but not Rubinstein-level chops. Lots of people have transcribed Tatum's solo playing (and the solos of Oscar Peterson, etc.) and learned them with surprising stylistic accuracy. I had a piano teacher in high school who did this. I heard him play Oscar along with the recording. My current violin teacher has transcribed Grappelli/Menuhin duets, for his high-schoolers to perform (let's say Mozart-level kids). The fact that Peterson and Tatum and Grappelli were improvising such material is obviously the impressive bit, and doing it on the fly means you can't figure out your fingerings in advance, which means more chops are needed. But the notes they played can be played by individuals with well shy of pro-level technique. The reason people don't post those transcriptions online is very simple -- they'd be sued for copyright infringement.
December 1, 2017, 5:03 PM · Ooooo...Oscar is legendary. Reportedly he worked very hard. Would do scales in one hand, chords in the other, then he switched hands. When he was only able to play with one hand, it still sounded like 2.
Edited: December 2, 2017, 8:55 AM · Arnie another interesting case is the reclusive jazz pianist Dwike Mitchell. Legend has it that he could play most of the Chopin Etudes from memory -- in all 12 keys. One would have to be kind of a savant to do that.

Jazz pianists who play solo have to have very strong left hands. Fred Hersch even composed for left hand alone:

Now you have to admit that's a beautiful piece.

December 5, 2017, 11:03 AM · Paul, that is quite nice....

we are getting off topic here, but who else did this.......:
(jump to 00:30 if you like)

December 12, 2017, 8:40 PM · Arnie you're not seriously putting that in the same league.
December 13, 2017, 10:35 AM · Yes, absolutely. But let me clarify.
It's a silly stunt that i posted, but that is Keith Emerson who gained most prominence in the group Emerson Lake and Palmer.
Besides being a monster on the keyboard from a technical perspective. He worked extensively with Bob Moog on keyboard synthesizer development. His group mostly did adaptations/variations of classical music, and he later went on to do some composition. From a Piano/Keyboard perspective, he is in the elite, next to Oscar.
December 14, 2017, 8:26 PM · Don't worry I know who Keith Emerson was. "Welcome back my friends." I had that album as a youngster. I studied the piano in addition to the violin, and I always dreamed of being surrounded by dozens of keyboard in a semicircle. My dream came about 5% true when I got my first keyboard, a 73-key Fender Rhodes, and a Korg MS-20 synth.

But that floating piano thing is just a physical stunt.

December 15, 2017, 2:16 PM · correct, I just posted for some amusement value. I played piano/keyboards as well years ago. In fact when I'm playing arpeggios, I picture a piano keyboard in my head to figure out major/minor 3rds, 5ths, etc. Can't decide if that's good or bad.
December 15, 2017, 2:40 PM · That's called being a "visual learner." LOL

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