John Jorgenson’s Eclectic Taste: From Django Reinhardt to the Who
John Jorgenson’s guitar playing was impressive when I saw him perform with the Desert Rose band at Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun Casino in 2010 and at the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival in Framingham, Massachusetts, four years later. But those performances were nothing like last summer when he brought his quintet to the CHIRP concert series in Ridgefield, Connecticut.
Jorgenson’s dexterity, speed, and beauty on acoustic guitar were astonishing, and one could only watch in awe throughout the evening. He also pulled out a clarinet and showed he was no slouch on that instrument as well. Gypsy jazz dominated the evening, but there were beautiful touches of swing, folk, classical, world music, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern rhythms, and other genres.
With that show in mind, I mention to Jorgenson that I struggle to think of a more accomplished acoustic guitarist I have seen on stage. He replies humbly and emphatically: “That’s very kind, but, certainly, there are many!”
Jorgenson rattles off the names of numerous favorite guitarists, starting with the father of gypsy jazz, legendary Belgium-born guitarist Django Reinhardt. He praises Reinhardt for his tone, phrasing, and virtuosity on acoustic guitar “and the excitement he creates.” And he applauds Charlie Christian who “took Django’s lead and expanded it with a killer electric tone and a unique swing.”
Other favorites include Clarence White and Tony Rice. “Both have beautiful tone, clarity, and unexpected phrases,” says Jorgenson, who was born in Wisconsin but has lived most of his life in California. “Tony Rice also has such a wonderful vocal style. You get 2-for-1 listening to him.”
Tonino Baliardo of the Gypsy Kings plays in “a strong, yet melodic, flamenco style,” and Tony McManus “is an amazing Celtic guitarist with an elegant touch and incredible ornaments in his playing,” Jorgenson says. “There are so many more whom I have learned from like Michael Hedges, my friend Tommy Emmanuel, pioneers like Eddie Lang and Dick McDonough, and others. I really could go on and on. For electric guitarists, I would say Jeff Beck, who is always inventive and interesting, and really knows how to wring emotion from each note.”
Jorgenson praises the Beatles for creating “a tonal pallet with guitar parts and hooks that were memorable and lifted the songs up to a new level”; Eddie Cochran, Scotty Moore and Carl Perkins for defining “a cool rockabilly style,” and Steve Howe for “amazing playing and orchestrating Yes’s best work with his creative use of tone and color instruments.”
Jorgenson also tips his hat to James Burton and Albert Lee “for their work with Emmylou Harris and others, and salutes the guitar playing of Jimi Hendrix, Roger McGuinn, Barney Kessel, Eric Johnson, Danny Gatton, and Roy Buchanan.
The Desert Rose Band and the Hellecasters were Jorgenson’s most well-known bands. In the Desert Rose Band, he twice won the Academy of Country Music’s “Guitarist of the Year” award. Jorgenson, who also plays mandolin, mandocello, dobro, pedal steel, piano, upright bass, bouzouki, bassoon, and saxophone, has collaborated with Earl Scruggs, Bonnie Raitt, Elton John, Luciano Pavarotti, Bob Seger, Sting, Billy Joel and Bob Dylan.
I mention to Jorgenson that the country-rock Desert Rose Band, which had several big hits on the country charts, doesn’t appear a logical fit for him and his resume. The Desert Rose Band also included Chris Hillman, Herb Pedersen, Jay Dee Maness, Bill Bryson, and Steve Duncan.
“It’s interesting that you would think that, because the Desert Rose Band was actually my idea,” Jorgenson responds. “At the time, I was playing a lot of bluegrass and rockabilly, and I’ve always had a fondness for classic British rock. So I thought that maybe there could be a band that combined the vocal trio harmonies of bluegrass with some of the classic guitar tones from the ‘60s and country music. Country music naturally has a bit of rockabilly feel in it, and, altogether, it seemed to work out.
“I was playing in a string quartet with Chris Hillman, and the new songs he was writing at the time seemed to lend themselves to the sound I was hearing in my head. He was reticent at first, but I made a few demos of the songs to show him my idea, and he liked it. Plus, there has been a strong tradition of a California country sound, and all the members of Desert Rose Band were either already part of that legacy or heavily influenced by it. At the end of the day, I was very happy that my concept was not only embraced, but the band was quite successful. ‘Fresh’ was a word often used to describe us.”
I tell Jorgenson that ex-Byrds, ex-Flying Burrito Brothers musician Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen are two of the most underrated musicians on the planet.
“Well, I was a fan of both for years before meeting or playing with them,” Jorgenson says. “The Byrds were a massively influential band, and we could spend a whole other interview talking about that. Chris certainly brought out the county element there and fostered the talents of Gram Parsons, Clarence White, Emmylou Harris and others. The Flying Burrito Brothers have also proven to be highly influential over the years. Chris has a unique vocal style as a lead singer, was a creative and string bassist, plays very good traditional-style bluegrass mandolin, and has written a large catalog of really good songs.
“I was first aware of Herb when he was a harmony singer with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. Then later, I learned of his time with the Dillards and that he even filled in for Earl Scruggs for a week of Flatt and Scruggs’ shows. He has written two absolute bluegrass classics, ‘Old Train’ and ‘Wait a Minute.’ He was friends with Jerry Garcia and David Grisman early on and collaborated with them over the years. Herb also worked on countless TV and movie scores. He is the singer everyone wants to sing with and a great banjo player, and he has a beautiful rhythm guitar style that many try to emulate.
“Herb and Chris have been at ground zero for bluegrass and country rock and have created a long and rich legacy.”
Jorgenson, who lives in Ventura, California, began shaping his own musical legacy at a young age.
“I first started playing piano at age 4 or 5, when my older sister started getting piano lessons from my mom. Not wanting to be left out, I listened to my sister practice, then figured out her songs by ear. Smartly, my mom then started me on lessons, but with a different book, so I’d learn also how to read music.”
Each of his bands — the John Jorgenson Quintet, the John Jorgenson Electric Band, and the John Jorgenson Bluegrass Band (J2B2) — is unique and a joy to listen to.
“Each member of my quintet is an amazing musician,” Jorgenson says. “I’m lucky to have all of them. Rick Reed on percussion has been with me the longest, over 10 years. Rick played jazz in New York for many years before relocating to Nashville and is especially skilled with brushes. Jason Anick has been playing with us nearly 10 years and has become one of the leading lights of jazz violin in the U.S. He teaches jazz violin at Berklee. Simon Planting is a Dutch bassist who played with some of the best European gypsy jazz guitarists and is considered the top bassist in the style. He joined us seven years ago. Rhythm guitarist Max O’Roarke is quite young and has played with us on and off over the last couple years. Max is gifted beyond his years and is in demand, playing in many other groups aside from my quintet.
“In regards to rehearsal, we actually don’t rehearse. We’ve played together such a long time that we know our music really well. If we need to learn some new material or add in a song we haven’t played in a long time, we go over the songs at soundcheck before our shows. We all live in different parts of the country, so rehearsal is not logistically possible.”
Jorgenson says he first thought about forming J2B2 after Earl Scruggs passed away in March 2012. “I had played with him over the last eight years of his life and enjoyed that immensely, as well as the backstage picking that would often happen while waiting to perform.
“After he passed, I didn’t get to play much bluegrass and figured, if I wanted to I better form a band. Jon Randall was also playing with Earl, so I asked him to play guitar; Herb Pedersen loved to play banjo but wasn’t playing it much, so I asked him to join, and Mark Fain had just left Ricky Skaggs’ band and was available, so I asked him, too. We gelled really well musically and personally, and our vocal blend was especially magical. We recorded an album of mostly original songs called From The Crow’s Nest at Sheryl Crow’s studio in Nashville and started playing occasionally. Jon Randall ended up having too many commitments at home to be able to tour often, so we recruited guitarist Patrick Sauber from California who had played a lot with Herb over the years.
“Our sound and material selection seem to be unique in the bluegrass world — a lot of traditional musical elements mixed with more varied lyrical content and, of course, the California sound element that we naturally bring. So the idea is to just keep expanding that band’s personality, keep performing around the country and get back in the studio to record some of the new material that we do live.”
Jorgenson says it’s difficult to say which bands he has played in have the most special place in his musical soul.
“Each band I’ve been in has been a significant part of my journey, and they’ve all given special moments. They include being an American headlining the Django Festival in France with my quintet and getting an incredible reception; having my first No. 1 record with the Desert Rose Band; my first performance on the Grand Old Opry under my own name with J2B2; the Hellecasters winning album of the year from the readers of Guitar Player magazine, and playing at the Hollywood Bowl with Elton John. I love them all and am proud of the high standards musically that they have achieved.”
I ask Jorgenson which albums are his proudest achievements.
“For the Desert Rose Band, I’d say Running, our second album. I felt it was the strongest in terms of my playing and tones and the group’s material and vocal performances. Plus, it has three No. 1 singles!
“For the Hellecasters, I’d say Escape From Hollywood, the group’s second album. The band had developed a very strong style and personality, and the material is strong and consistent.
“For the John Jorgenson Quintet, I’d say One Stolen Night. It was mostly live in-studio and has a very good feel, again with good material. Ultraspontane, with a string section, is pretty strong, too.
“Then there is Istiqbal Gathering which is with full orchestra (the Nashville Chamber Orchestra) and contains the only concerto specifically written for gypsy jazz guitar and orchestra.”
Jorgenson’s 2010 album, One Stolen Night, was named by Acoustic Guitar magazine and the Los Angeles Times as one of the year’s top 10. He describes his most recent album, Divertuoso, as “an epic project.” It’s a limited-edition three-CD box set — one CD of gypsy jazz from the John Jorgenson Quintet, one CD of J2B2 bluegrass and one CD of electric guitar instrumental music. The latter CD was written and recorded on “revived, flood-damaged guitars and amps from the huge 2010 flood in Nashville” that, Jorgenson says, submerged “most of my instrument collection under water for a week or more.”
The aim of the three-CD project “was to get the broadest view of my whole musical life to date, which I guess it is!” he exclaims.
With such a diverse palette, I can’t wait to hear Jorgenson’s all-time favorite albums by other artists.
“There’s a double album of the Hot Club of France Quintet’s classic sides that came out around 1979,” he says. “it was my bible for quite awhile.”
Jorgenson cites the Beatles’ Rubber Soul and A Hard Day’s Night for their “great energy, cool tones and a perfect reflection of that time.”
The original Tommy double album by the Who, he says, is “full of powerful drumming, rocking vocals, and muscular acoustic and electric guitar playing.”
Elite Hotel by Emmylou Harris and her Hot Band has “killer live and studio tracks,” and Tony Rice’s Manzanita is “full of fantastic songs, killer playing and warm singing.”
Another favorite recording is the St. Louis Symphony, conducted by Leonard Slatkin, performing Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and other compositions of Ralph Vaughn Williams. “It’s an incredibly full piece of music that pulls more colors out of a string orchestra than seems possible,” Jorgenson says.
A final favorite that he mentions is Gili Garabdi — Ancient Secrets of Gypsy Brass, an album released by Romanian 12-piece Roma brass band Fanfare Ciocărlia. The album, Jorgenson says, is “full of energy and incredible brass playing.”
Jorgenson’s choice of best concert he has attended is a bit of a surprise. It was performed on May 3, 2009, by a poet-turned-musician who died recently and was not known for playing an instrument.
“At the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis, Leonard Cohen surrounded himself with virtuoso musicians, delivered his lyrics with so much feeling and vibe and connected to his audience’s hearts like no one I’ve ever seen,” Jorgenson recalls. “It raised the bar very high for me to try to reach that level of emotional connection with an audience. Plus, his material is the highest quality, as were the sound, lights, arrangements, musicians, and singers. It was an absolutely sublime evening I’ll never forget.”
Two concerts he attended influenced him most as a musician.
“The Who on their Quadrophenia tour (1973-1974) with the original lineup showed the full power of a rock and roll band playing at the top of their game,” Jorgenson says. “I wanted to do what they were doing with all my heart!
“The other show was seeing Rick Nelson and the Stone Canyon Band at Knott’s Berry Farm (in Buena Park, California) in July 1974. Pedal steel player Tom Brumley was in the band. His playing was so beautiful and cool that I got very interested in country music, so I could hear more pedal steel. I learned how to play pedal steel after that, and I played some with Elton John. Strangely enough, Tom Brumley was in the Desert Rose Band with me for a short time.”
What’s the next musical challenge for John Jorgenson?
“There are still so many things I’d like to do musically, both with my current bands and collaborating with others. I have old friends who are currently very successful in the rockabilly scene and the R&B/funk scene that I’d like to reconnect musically with. I’ve got some new material in different styles ready to record, too.”
Jorgenson says he and Rodney Crowell have discussed doing some shows together, and he wants to collaborate more with the Webb Sisters of the United Kingdom and the Dutch trio Zazi.
In addition, he’d “love to record” with European gypsy jazz guitarists and maybe do a whole album of clarinet with guest clarinet players.
“Who knows? Jorgenson says. “I find that life brings me totally unexpected gifts musically, so I’m open and ready for more. If history is any clue, it’ll be eclectic for sure!”