Today’s Feature, November 1st & 2nd: John Jorgenson

November 2, 2007 at 3:01 pm (Today's Feature)

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It’s no simple task to carve out an introduction for an artist like John Jorgenson. “He’s been everywhere and seen it all” sounds cliche, but Jorgenson has made a career out of grounding this statement in fact. Building an unrivaled resume since he was 14 years old, this vocalist, guitarist and clarinet player of the John Jorgenson Quintet is also a founding member of the Desert Rose Band, The Hellecasters, and a six-year member of Elton John’s band.

Jorgenson’s laundry list of accomplishments includes:

– Winning ACM’s “Guitarist of the Year” award three consecutive times.

– Winning “Album of the Year” and “Country Album of the Year” from the readers of Guitar Player Magazine for the debut effort from The Hellecasters, “Return of the Hellecasters.”

– Appearances on numerous platinum-selling and Grammy-winning CDs.

– Articles and lessons on gypsy jazz that have appeared in prominent guitar magazines, as well providing master classes around the country.

Jorgenson has developed a reputation within the realms of pop, country and rock music, but he is truly known as “one of the pioneers of the American gypsy jazz movement.” It’s during these performances that Jorgenson excels, producing melodies that are “equally romantic and ecstatic, played with virtuosity and soul.” He’s shared such skill with some of the best known artists in the world, including Elton John, Luciano Pavarotti, Bonnie Raitt, Benny Goodman, Sting and Billy Joel.

If you want to catch some of Jorgenson’s latest work, he released “Franco-American Swing” in 2004, a record that includes The Nashville Chamber Orchestra (NCO). Additionally, he has released two gypsy jazz guitar instruction books and DVDs, with a third instruction book due out later this year. His current release “Ultraspontane” which heavily features his work with NCO on five tracks, is once again allowing us to see just exactly where Jorgenson is headed with his music. You can even catch Jorgenson on the big screen, as he was recently chosen to portray Django Reinhardt in the feature film, “Head in the Clouds.” To learn more, read on for the answers to his XXQ’s.

XXQs: John Jorgenson

PEV: How and when did you first start playing music?

John Jorgenson: I first started playing the piano at age 5. My mother is a piano teacher, and taught at our home so I saw lots of kids playing the piano and thought that I probably could do it too.

PEV: Growing up in Southern California, what was the music scene like growing up and what were you listening to?

JJ: I grew up in a college town, so there was lots of culture available at the University, and there was also a fair amount of rock bands playing in the area too. Of course the Beach Boys and surf music was popular, but so were the British bands. A lot of popular bands came out of LA like the Byrds, the Doors, the Association, the Buffalo Springfield-all of whom I listened to, along with a lot of Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Animals, Creedence and Santana.

PEV: What was the first live John Jorgenson performance like? Was it uphill from there?

JJ: Other than piano recitals and concert band performances, my first “gig” was for a dance at my church when I was 14. My band was called “Aftermath” and we had a singer that was an exchange student from Africa. We had to borrow a PA system made up of Fender gear, and I’m sure we sounded pretty bad. I had a $50 Hofner bass copy that didn’t fret too well in tune.

My pivotal gig though was about 18 months later, when I was playing with some college students in a band called “Rockin’ Pneumonia” for a college dance, and at the end of the gig people were on top of the tables screaming for more. I liked that and have been searching for that feeling ever since!

PEV: You have been in several bands throughout your career, most notably Desert Rose Band and the Hellecasters, John Jorgenson Quintet and John Jorgenson & Friends. What were your days like in those groups? How is each one different from the other?

JJ: Yes, I have been in a lot of bands over the years, many more that no one ever heard of! There are common elements in all bands, in that it is most exciting when the music is first coming together and the members realize that there is something special going on with the band. The next exciting step is when an audience starts to find out about the music, and to see the excitement spread out and grow. The Desert Rose Band was special for me because it was the first band I was in that received national attention, and we appeared a lot on TV and got a lot of radio play. The Hellecasters started out as just an excuse for 3 guitar playing friends to do one show together, and the response was so great that we ended up playing together for 10 years on and off. John Jorgenson and Friends is my electric band that I first toured as a solo artist with after leaving Elton John’s band, and it has allowed me to play music from a broad spectrum of my past, as well as new songs I have written. That ensemble plays more in Europe than the US. The John Jorgenson Quintet is my main focus, and has been for the last 4 years or so. I am thrilled to get to play gypsy jazz full time, as it has been my favorite music for many years and it encompasses so many of my personal musical elements. I love to be able to introduce new people to this music, and audiences seem to really love it as much as I do.

PEV: Having played in group and solo settings, do you prefer one over the other? How does each affect your development of music/sound?

JJ: I much prefer playing in group settings over playing solo. I love the comraderie, both musically and socially that happens in a band or ensemble. I really never learned to play instruments so that I could play alone, I always wanted to play with other musicians and feel the energy and inspiration that invariably happens. I do very much respect musicians that play solo a lot, it takes a very concentrated effort and the player must be very focused and prepared. The need to play some numbers solo over the years has definitely stretched me as a musician and strengthened me as a performer too.

PEV: What is your take on the current music industry and how has it changed since you first started out?

JJ: The music industry was much smaller and more regional when I started out, allowing for the development of regional acts and styles, some of which became national acts. Now big business owns nearly all the radio stations and rarely do DJs get to pick their own playlists as they could in the past. This tends to make all the popular music much more homogenized, in the same way that the fast food industry does to food. The good news is that with the internet there is a world forum for people to put their music out, and it has a chance to attract listeners more on merit than on marketing. I am really happy that this situation has come about right at the time when I am playing non-mainstream music, it has been very good timing for me!

PEV: Along with several bands you headlined, you had a six year gig with Elton John, who has played some of the largest arenas in the world. How was life with Elton John, different than that of the Desert Rose Band and the Hellecasters?

JJ: The main difference playing with Elton was that the only thing I had to do was play and sing-literally everything else was done for me, such as travel plans, stage clothes, meals, instrument tuning and setup, setlists, etc. We also never needed to worry about an audience, all the shows would be packed every night. Musically the difference was that in the Desert Rose Band and the Hellecasters, I was playing music that I helped to create which was more challenging and ultimately more rewarding. They were all great experiences though, and I am proud of the musical quality of all 3 of those acts.

PEV: In all your touring, which city, US or international do you think offers the best environment for music? Why?

JJ: For a big rock show nothing can compare with the feeling in Madison Square Garden in NYC, it is big and intimate at the same time. I do find that the audiences in Germany and Scotland are especially good at listening and enjoying music that is more complex and dynamic. For festivals the French and Canadians are fantastic, we have had amazing shows in Montreal, Quebec and Samois which is south of Paris.

PEV: How is “life on the road” for you? Best and worst parts?

JJ: I really like traveling and being on the road for the most part. The best part is getting to share the music and create a bond with audiences all over the world, as well as getting to meet different people, experience different cultures, food, art, etc. The worst is when the music is not going as well as you like, and you get run down from lack of sleep and quality food, or when you are on stage in a situation where it is nearly impossible to do a good performance due to weather conditions, poor sound systems, failing equipment, and the like. I really hate to miss an opportunity to have a great show because of things beyond our control.

PEV: Along with music, acting has been a profession for you as well. Chosen to portray Django Reinhardt in the feature film Head in the Clouds. Has acting always been something you were interested in?

JJ: Yes, I have done a little acting all throughout my career and do enjoy it. When I was 10 years old I played a small part in a local production of Camelot, I guess that was my first role. I also played a small part in River Phoenix’s last film, and did some stage roles where I had to dance and sing too! Getting to play Django was the most fun role so far, and I hope to have more opportunities to act in the future.

PEV: You have been called one of the “pioneers of the American gypsy jazz movement.” What attracted you to this style versus any other?

JJ: This style of music is very challenging technically for the guitar for one, so I like that challenge. It combines elements that I like from other styles, like the energy of rock, the improvisation from jazz, the string band sound of bluegrass, the dynamics of classical music, the romanticism of classic melodies, the virtuosity and emotion of gypsy music, plus it swings!!!

PEV: What can people expect from a live John Jorgenson performance?

JJ: Energy, accessible melodies, interesting combinations of musical styles, tight arrangements, individual and ensemble improvisation, hopefully virtuosic playing and lots of fun!!

PEV: Is there an up and coming artist today that you think we should all be listening to?

JJ: I like the Shins, they are a really good sounding rock band and Ashton Sheppard is a new country singer that is very talented.

PEV: Who do you currently have in your CD player right now?

JJ: Louis Armstrong, from the 40s.

PEV: When you sit down to write music, what kind of atmosphere do you surround yourself in?

JJ: I don’t have any sort of ritual for it, it mainly happens if I get some time to myself with a guitar, piano, or other instrument. I find a lot of the time if I get a new guitar or other instrument the enjoyment of playing it will lead to a new composition.

PEV: Is there an artist that you have not had a chance to collaborate with that you would like to?

JJ: Oh ,there are many! Peter Gabriel, Wynton Marcellis, Paul McCartney, Stochelo Rosenberg, Diana Krall, Jeff Beck, Taraf de Haidouks, and so many more!!

PEV: Tell us about your role with The Nashville Chamber Orchestra, the “Uncovered” project and your collection of original compositions and gypsy jazz classics.

JJ: My role on this particular project is “artist in residence” meaning that I am the soloist, composer and co-composer, and artistic producer ( with Paul Gambill ), helping to choose the shape of the CD, guest artists, material, etc. The pieces that I have co-written (with Don Hart and Carl Marsh ) especially for this project so far are “Tarantella and Reverie” which is very cinematic sounding and has touches of Gershwin and Beethoven, and “Istiqbal Gathering” which has a lot of different gypsy and world music influences, and features cimbalom along with the guitar and orchestra.

PEV: Has your work with The Nashville Chamber Orchestra impacted your work outside of the classical genre?

JJ: Yes, it has. Whenever I am writing a new melody or piece of music, I do consider how it might work for a larger ensemble like the NCO.

PEV: How is what The Nashville Chamber Orchestra doing, different than other companies today?

JJ: The NCO is very actively creating new literature and combining seemingly disparate styles of music with artists like myself, and is always breaking new ground with at least one piece in every concert. They think very differently than any other Orchestra or classical ensemble that I know of, and this is what makes the collaboration so exciting.

PEV: So, what is next for John Jorgenson?

JJ: The first thing up is to get this project with the NCO in the can, it is already in progress but there is a lot of work still to do. Second is I have already written enough material for a new CD with the John Jorgenson Quintet, even though Ultraspontane has just been released! I need to start getting these new pieces down in the studio as soon as possible while they are fresh. The third thing is that I am feeling the need to do an electric guitar CD, as I have not done anything new in the studio on the electric guitar for quite awhile now, and I have been thinking about doing a project with quite a few different guest artists, friends of mine from over the years of my career.

For more information on John Jorgenson, check out www.JohnJorgenson.com

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