Friday, January 09, 2009

Gypsy Jazz (nothing to fear)

The John Jorgenson Quintet at Jefferson Center


John Jorgenson

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Afraid of a genre that includes the word "jazz"?

Don't be, says John Jorgenson, who will bring his quintet to Jefferson Center on Friday.

"We call it Gypsy jazz," Jorgenson said. "That scares people sometimes. ... [But] a lot of people come up to us and say, you know, I don't like jazz, but I like your music. So don't be afraid of the Gypsy jazz title. Just come to hear some very energetic and expressive and melodic music, with not only great solo playing but great ensemble playing, too."

That's not an empty promise. Jorgenson is one of the world's best at playing a style pioneered by Belgian guitarist Django Reinhardt, violinist Stephane Grappelli and their Quintette du Hot Club de France (Hot Club Quintet of France). In a setting where many guitarists hew to the classic sound, feel and songs of Reinhardt and Grappelli, Jorgenson writes original tunes and brings a perspective that includes his decades of playing in a deep variety of styles.

He has been a classical bassoonist and clarinetist, but he made his bones on guitar. He's been a country music star (with The Desert Rose Band), a multigenre shredder (The Hellecasters), a renowned studio musician and a sideman for six years to Elton John. Jorgenson said that everything he has heard and played finds its place somewhere in his Gypsy jazz compositions.

In a phone conversation from London last week, he said he realized that his versatility could be a strength as he began to learn Reinhardt's music in the late 1970s.

"Within the whole process, I realized, too, that what I can bring to this genre is going to be really different than somebody who grew up playing it or grew up in that culture," he said. "And that's what I really need to do, I think, is bring all my influences. No matter how much I try to tone them down, they're going to come through in what I write and how I present the music.

"At the end of the day, what comes out is a hybrid, really. I'm not trying to compare myself to the Beatles, but in the same way that they emulated the rock 'n' rollers of America from the late '50s, they came out with something unique because of it. They couldn't sound exactly like those people, but what they came out with was this great hybrid, and something new.

"There's no way that I can sound exactly like Django, so it's best I think to come out with new things."

Maybe he can't sound exactly like the master. Still, his tone, vibrato, pick attack and instrumentation are often so faithful that they got him a role playing Reinhardt in the Charlize Theron/Penelope Cruz movie, "Head in the Clouds." Director John Duigan first hired him to record the Hot Club songs "Minor Swing" and "Blue Drag."

Jorgenson remembered that Duigan said, "Django makes a particular racket with his guitar, and you're one of the only guitarists I've heard that makes that same sort of racket."

By the time filming began, Jorgenson had cut his hair, dyed it black, grown a pencil-thin mustache and was fitted with a prosthesis to replicate Reinhardt's burned left hand. Despite his lightning speed and facility around a fretboard, Reinhardt's style centered on the first two fingers and thumb of that hand.

Duigan had worried that Jorgenson wouldn't be able to play with the prosthetic hand, but it was no problem. He had long ago learned to play that way.

"Django's handicap caused him to play differently, and I like that difference. It ends up that his hand has to travel up and down the neck a lot more. And because of that, the tonality of the guitar changes a lot more, and is more expressive and colorful, I think. So I wanted to get that element in my playing, so I did learn a lot of his licks with just two fingers, just to see how it could've been done, and where it would've been done on the fingerboard," Jorgenson said.

That sort of puzzle-solving began with a job at Disneyland, in California. Jorgenson said he talked his way into a gig there in the late 1970s, doing a half-day of bluegrass and a half-day of Dixieland -- he didn't know much about either style, but he was a quick study.

A virtuoso banjo player named Doug Mattocks turned Jorgenson on to Reinhardt, and once he found a collection of the classic Hot Club songs, he was hooked.

"When I heard that, it just freaked me out, just blew my mind," he said "The tone of his guitar, and the expressiveness in his playing, and the way he got around on the guitar. I'd never heard anything like it. ...

"So I started learning back at that time, and I still feel like I'm somewhat of a student. And that's one of the things that keeps me coming back to it. It's such a challenging style of music that I never feel like I have a hundred-percent handle on what I want to do, how well I would like to play in that style."