Jon Anderson has always loved the sound of the violin. “I think it was when I first heard Sibelius’ Violin Concerto… In fact, I wanted a violin when I was 10 years old! Unfortunately, we couldn’t afford one. So I think my dad got me a mouth organ, if I remember rightly. What can you do?
“The idea of the violin always seemed to inspire me. That Sibelius is an extraordinary piece of music. I’ve written a lot of violin pieces actually, with my friend Bill Kilpatrick – they’re online under the title Violin Stories. It’s a magical instrument. And, of course, Jean-Luc is an absolute master…”
Anderson has been involved in a variety of collaborative projects since leaving Yes in 2008, many with ‘unknown’ musicians. This time it’s different. Famed jazz-fusion violinist Jean-Luc Ponty joins him in the AndersonPonty Band for a creative endeavour that both call an “adventure”. It began with Anderson spontaneously recording vocals over Ponty’s instrumentals. Impressed by the results, Ponty threw himself in and the pair have formed a six-piece ensemble that will play both new material and reworkings of old Ponty and Yes numbers. A live show and an album are promised, the latter funded through a Kickstarter campaign.
Ponty takes up the tale of how the pair, who’ve known each other since the 70s, brought to fruition an idea long mooted. “When I was with John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra in the mid-70s, we did a show in the US with Yes. We got friendly; I was pretty close to Patrick Moraz at the time. A few years later I crossed paths with Jon again in Los Angeles and told him I was a fan of his singing and his songwriting, and he replied that he loved my playing. I remember he suggested we should do a project together back then, so I guess we should have done this sooner! But, you know, each of us went on with our lives.
“Then I was contacted about a year ago and asked if I’d consider doing a violin solo on a Jon song. One thing led to another and we decided to do that project together now. So momentum started to build…
“Jon is so spontaneous. He must have immediately put my music on at home and started singing over my albums, a few bars here and there. He sang it to me and I thought, ‘This sounds really good!’ So my reaction now is: this was really unexpected, coming now, but I’m thrilled even more because of the surprise!”
“I did a couple of vocals on some of his classic music,” says Anderson. “From there, we wrote a couple of new tracks together. And now we’re starting to navigate some of the Yes and Jon And Vangelis songs, and to put two shows together in Aspen, Colorado. I’d like to release a live album with this band. So, let’s see what we can do!”
What Jean-Luc Ponty can do is impressive, as he’s shown throughout an illustrious career wherein he’s released million-selling albums like Imaginary Voyage, Enigmatic Ocean and Cosmic Messenger. He’s also proven himself an in-demand collaborator. Over the years, as well as his part in the Mahavishnus, he’s worked with everyone from Elton John (Honky Château) to Frank Zappa (Hot Rats, among many others); from Stephane Grappelli to Lalo Schifrin, to Stanley Clarke and Chick Corea.
He’s well practised, then, in digging into common ground with another artist, finding where his and their musical instincts can cross-fertilise. “Yes – Jon and I respect each other and what we’ve done in the past, but then once you start building material together, you understand each other’s voices to a deeper degree. So we learn what each of us can bring to this, find our meeting point…
“Of course, sometimes when you put musical personalities together, it doesn’t necessarily gel! I’ve collaborated with many great artist – it doesn’t automatically result in great accomplishments. I think the artists have to feel an affinity with each other. You have to leave the egos at the door and be a real team to achieve the best results possible. To push each other to the limits to come up with something extraordinary that you couldn’t achieve on your own. To reach a summit that isn’t easy to attain otherwise.
“It’s so unpredictable,” he adds. “The experience isn’t foreign to my ears, of course, but this is the first time in my life I’ve collaborated with a singer, a vocalist. With Elton John I was added to his band in the studio. Elton would play a new song a day and we’d build it up, find our way, find a part to do. With Frank Zappa it was completely different. He had his music ready and it was very rare we’d get to contribute a new part. With Jon I’m involved much more on that level.”
Anderson is full of his enduring enthusiasm. Recalling the pair’s first meetings, his sing-song speaking voice eulogises the Mahavishnu Orchestra, a crucial band for him. “Oh, that band was so bizarre and wild! I loved them when we were touring with Yes. I always thought I’d love to sing with that kind of band – and lo and behold, that’s what I’m doing! What a band we have. Rayford Griffin the drummer is on the level of Billy Cobham, a very intense and beautiful player. Great bass player, Baron Browne, and keyboard player Wally Minko. Plus my gifted friend Jamie Dunlap on guitars. So the combination of all these energies…
“It’s taken me 40 years to get to the point of being able to sing with something like this. It’s a fusion of jazz, rock; it’s progressive and symphonic at times. You could say it’s a fusion of everything. To be able to sing on top of it in my voice is just a trip! “We only met two or three times in the 70s, but late last year when Jean-Luc played on a track I was working on with a friend, I exclaimed, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s so good!’ I emailed him in Paris and suggested maybe it was time to do what we’d talked about before. I sang the lyrics that I’d written to a couple of his classic pieces to him and he heard a cool synchronicity to them.
“We’ll all be together with the band through September working hard, sketching it out. Stretching things out to see where they might go. Here a bit more, there a bit more, find how it all pulls together. Then there are two shows in Aspen, so it’ll be fresh musically. I printed out all the lyrics the other day – 400 pages of them! I’d better start studying. At the moment we know what we’re trying to do, we know the goal ahead of us: now we’ve just got to go and do it!”
Both play coy when asked exactly which old tracks they’re revisiting, though elsewhere Anderson’s revealed that radical versions of And You And I and _Owner Of A Lonely Heart _might feature. Pressed for his favourite Yes moments, Ponty sighs, “But that’s like when people ask me for my favourites among my own music – it’s like asking which are my favourite children!
“There is something personal, which only I know, about each of them. In truth it’s certain songs which stick with me over the years, more than albums. I’m also very fond of what Jon did with Vangelis. Anyway, the titles are changing as the pieces become so different and Jon writes new lyrics!
“I can talk about my material. We will do some pieces from my most successful albums, like Cosmic Messenger and _Enigmatic Ocean _– like Mirage, which was kind of a ‘worldwide hit’ for me!” Ponty chuckles. “But the aim is to use timeless pieces that still sound good today, that aren’t outdated.
“This isn’t just a nostalgia trip. Both Jon and I have evolved since those original recordings; we’ve had new experiences. I guess we have a wider, richer musical vocabulary now, and new rhythmic concepts, which make it more exciting.
“It’s not about the past,” Ponty continues. “It’s about… creating. The arrangements transform the elements into something totally new. At the same time, importantly, our personalities are intact. You can still recognise Jon’s style immediately, and my music too.”
“The sound of it,” summarises Anderson, who’s chased quite a few remarkable sounds in his time, “is really very cool.” There’s another facet to this project’s backstory, which places these energised veterans firmly in the present. The AndersonPonty Band – the album, the DVD of the concert and sundries – have been launched via a Kickstarter campaign online, which has comfortably met its target. Anderson posted a video in which he appealed for people to get involved. This embracing of modern mores has clearly worked.
“It means we’re more in touch with the fans,” reckons Anderson. “Because in some ways, when you go to a record company, you’re going to a bank. And they give you money to make the record, but then they’ll start to tell you what to play. And that’s when I feel I don’t want to work with those kind of people. Back in the late 70s, and a couple of other times, I just got out of that system.”
In fact, Anderson may have thought of a Kickstarter-type strategy even before it was invented. “15 years ago, it must have been, I said to the band Yes while we were touring: ‘Why don’t we set up our own record company? And our own management company? Because we’re not being treated well. Let’s leave it up to the fans: if they can come up with a few dollars, then they have a connection with the band, they can be a special part of the family, help us make the music they like, put on shows they like. Let’s be adventurous.’ And the guys looked at me and said… nothing.
“But I was thinking like that back then. So obviously Kickstarter is that kind of energy. If you’re committed enough to be this interested in the band then it’s up to us to make sure you have a good time. You’ll become part of the team, and I like that.”
Unable (like most people) to match Anderson for enthusiasm, Ponty at first gives more of a Gallic shrug on this aspect of the adventure. “I don’t follow it too closely,” he says, “but I’m told it’s so far so good… It’s the first time I’ve been involved in such a situation, personally. I’m not very business-oriented so I’d never have thought of it!”
He then warms to the theme. “I do think it’s good to use today’s possibilities on the internet, and to foster closeness between artists and fans. There was no problem getting a record company interested in this, but I like the idea of being able to control our recordings for the future.
“Because I was lucky to be on big record labels, that was good, but on the other hand, they still own the albums and there’s nothing I can do about that now. They’re the ones who decide whether or when to distribute them. Sometimes I would have loved to remix or do something with those albums, but it’s out of my hands. So owning our own production seems a good concept to me.”
After the launch dates in Aspen (Anderson has performed there annually for the last three years), a world tour is planned to follow the early-2015 album release. Anderson suggests, “Europe, America, the Far East… maybe March to July”. “I’m ready to grab the intensity of it,” reveals Ponty. “That sounds like a good idea to me!” adds Anderson.
The AndersonPonty Band’s debut is due for release in early 2015. For details, see www.andersonponty.com