Guitarist John Jorgenson brings Gypsy jazz to the Big Room
It is generally agreed that Nashville-based musician John Jorgenson plays the daylights out of a guitar. He toured for six years with none other than Elton John, and Sir Elton himself described Jorgenson’s guitar playing as “brilliant, fucking brilliant!”
In addition to being one of the hottest guitarists around, Jorgenson also plays clarinet, bassoon, mandolin, pedal steel guitar and saxophone as well as sings. “What instruments don’t you play?” I asked him during a recent telephone interview. “I don’t play the violin … because I’m kind to people,” Jorgenson chuckled, explaining that because the violin is so small and the notes are physically so close together, the violin is a hard instrument to play with really good intonation, and there’s “the bow thing,” which we both agreed, me being a bass player, was a difficult piece of equipment to master.
Before his time with Elton John, Jorgenson was for 10 years a member, along with Will Ray and Jerry Donahue, of the popular trio of wild Fender Telecaster players, The Hellecasters, also dubbed “The Tenors of the Electric Guitar.” And before The Hellecasters, there was Jorgenson’s very successful six-year stint in the Grammy-nominated Desert Rose Band with ex-Byrds bassist Chris Hillman.
During the Desert Rose days, the band’s producer heard his enormous talent and hired Jorgenson for session work, resulting in his becoming an in-demand session musician, recording with a variety of widely known artists including Bonnie Raitt, Ricky Nelson, Willie Nelson, Barbra Streisand, Luciano Pavarotti and Baby Spice. Jorgenson has also performed on stage with the likes of Roy Orbison, Little Richard, George Michael, Sheryl Crow, k. d. lang, Bob Dylan, Sting, Buck Owens and Rose Maddox ("She was Dolly Parton’s idol,” Jorgenson told me).
“Even though I play so many different styles [of music],” Jorgenson explained, “[Gypsy jazz] is my favorite. It’s what I play when I’m at home.”
“You mean, you don’t just sit around and wail on your Telecaster?” I asked, jokingly.
“No,” Jorgenson laughed, “This style of music [Gypsy jazz] is so challenging. It’s got a lot of feeling. It’s romantic. It’s very evocative…”
In fact, Jorgenson and Gypsy jazz (a.k.a. “Manouche swing” or “'30s-style Django music,” à la famous French Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt) are such good friends—and he is so good at it—that he played the part of Reinhardt in the recently released film, Head in the Clouds. “Did you actually play the part of Django?” I asked, “Or did you just play the guitar parts?”
“I played Django. They cut my hair short,” the formerly long-maned Jorgenson shared. “They dyed it black. I grew a little Gypsy mustache. They dyed my mustache and my eyebrows black. They dressed me up like Django from 1936.”
Jorgenson said he hardly recognized himself. “When I watched the film, it was kind of shocking. I thought, ‘Yeah, I remember doing that, but…'”
Jorgenson was invited to perform this summer for the first time at the world-famous Django Reinhardt Festival in Samois, France. Previous big-name acts include French Gypsy jazz guitarist Bireli Lagrene, whom Jorgenson described as “probably my favorite player in that style,” adding “It is unusual for an American to be invited. I feel honored.”
Gypsy jazz is what Jorgenson is bringing to Sierra Nevada’s Big Room, accompanied by Stephan Dudash on violin, Brad Davis on rhythm guitar and Charlie Chadwick on bass, in support of his recent album, Franco-American Swing. Jorgenson described the show as “a full-on acoustic show,” but added, “I do play one of the Hellecasters’ songs, acoustic.”
Jorgenson hopes that the word “jazz” doesn’t scare anyone. “[Gypsy jazz] is very accessible music,” he explained, “and I try to present it with a little bit of historical context, … [Gypsy jazz] is very melodic, a lot of fun!”
Jorgenson summed up, "I just love to play music. … I even like setting up!"