Something Else! Featured Artist: Jean Luc Ponty

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by S. Victor Aaron

LIFE ENIGMA (2001): Born in Avranches, France, in 1942, classically-trained violinist Jean Luc Ponty discovered Miles and ‘Trane in his twenties and became a pioneer in the fusion movement of the late-sixties and throughout the seventies.

He was — and still is — arguably the finest electric violinist in the world. Oops, did I say “arguably”? My bad, there is no argument there.

Ponty has put out a string of consistent records that can be classified as a rock-jazz fusion that leans a bit toward new age, but with just enough world class musicianship and interestingly tricky melodies to avoid being lumped in with the likes of Yanni.

Throughout the eighties and early nineties, JLP stayed within his own path while other fusion masters either went back to straight ahead jazz or morphed their music into “smooth” jazz. Then, after an acoustic record with Al diMeola and Stanley Clarke in 1994, Ponty stopped making studio records altogether – until this 2001 record.

Released by himself (apparently had enough with record companies), Life Enigma is not the usual gradual progression of his music, but rather, a look back at it. His web site states that Life Enigma “is a return to the musical style he perfected during his decade-long stint with Atlantic Records, including his two most commercially popular albums, 1977’s Enigmatic Ocean and 1978’s Cosmic Messenger.”

Aside from lifting the chord changes in Signals From Planet Earth from Don’t Let the World Pass You By off of 1978’s Cosmic Messenger, there isn’t anything “seventies” about it. Instead, the album combines the meticulously programmed textures of the eighties with the West African rhythms of the early nineties.

Disappointingly, while the CD sleeve shows pictures of his touring band, they only play together on a single track of the entire record. Jean Luc prefers here to record all the pieces himself, except where he needs help. A shame, because it’s a very talented group, particularly Guy Nsangue Akwa on fretless electric bass.

His solo on “And Life Goes On” provides just a brief showcase of what he is capable of doing. It would have also been nice to have JLP trade licks with a crack session guitarist like Daryl Stuerner, but there’s no axe this go around.

However, these recordings still showcase Ponty’s unparalelled electric 5-string violin, the crisp engineering and arrangements and the recognizable classically-influenced jazz-rock original compositions. For those reasons alone, it is a required purchase for anyone who considers himself a fan of his music.

For those starting out, consider:

KING KONG (1969): Frank Zappa both arranged and composed this brilliant early-fusion masterpiece, but Ponty’s “sheets of sound on strings” provides the icing on the cake. If you like Zappa, here is your bridge to Ponty.

ENIGMATIC OCEAN (1977): JLP’s 1970’s fusion records for the Atlantic label introduced a whole generation of rockers to jazz back then (this reviewer included). All of his records then were consistently good, but this one gets the nod for guitarist Alan Holdsworth’s contributions. No guitar player’s style was a better fit for Ponty than Holdsworth.

MYSTICAL ADVENTURES (1982): The last in a long string of band-based records, and the best recorded of that string.

STORYTELLING (1989): Probably his most accessible record and the most energetic in a while. Includes guest spots by Grover Washington, Jr. and Patrice Rushen.

NO ABSOLUTE TIME (1983): Ponty’s last studio record under his name (until Life Enigma) is his best since King Kong, perhaps his best fusion record ever. Deftly combines his brand of fusion he had done for twenty years with the world beat sounds of Tchokola (1991). I didn’t think much of this record at first but it grew on me over time; the percussion and Guy’s bass playing is undeniably first class.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on,, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at
S. Victor Aaron
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