I wrote this article on John Jorgenson many years ago, as a feature for the News & Star – the award-winning newspaper of my home city , Carlisle, in the dark north of England, where there be dragons.
John is genuinely one of the greatest guitarists in the world, but mid-set, he can put down the guitar and pick up a bassoon - or ten other instruments - and play them to a world-class level, too… which is a bit annoying, as I can only play three chords on my acoustic and I have the finger dexterity of Stephen Hawking.
Check out the videos at the end… just wow!
The following was written to coincide with him playing at the Basement nightclub, in Carlisle, which is sadly now closed. I had some of the best times of my life in that club! *sigh*
Check out John’s Site – if you get a chance to see him, it will enrich your life and your heart all the more!
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Blues Legend is Back
By Les Floyd
He’s played in front of 100,000 people in Rio, accompanied Elton John on stage at Wembley Stadium and acted alongside Oscar-winning Hollywood beauty Charlize Theron, and now he’s returning to play The Basement, in Carlisle, on Saturday.
The name John Jorgenson may not be on the tip of most people’s tongues up here in the musical outlands of Cumbria, but just scanning the list of names he’s worked with is like reading a Who’s Who of rock’n’roll: Roy Orbison, Little Richard, George Michael, Sheryl Crow, Bob Dylan, Sting, Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt, Ricky Nelson, The Byrds, Bob Seger, Michael Nesmith and Elton John... to name only a few.
As well as having scored five number ones in the US, with his Grammy-nominated The Desert Rose Band (co-founded with Chris Hillman of The Byrds), and later touring with award-winning guitar instrumentalist trio, The Helecasters, John is also a critically acclaimed session musician of the highest order – the ‘artist the artists call’ when they need a real expert on the job.
Though best known for his guitar work he is a virtuoso of a dozen different instruments, including the bassoon, saxophone and piano.
After finishing a notable six year stint in Elton John’s band, in 2000, John has given greater focus to developing the music closest to his heart, Franco-American swing, which was pioneered in the 1930s by his late musical hero, Django Reinhardt, a Belgian-born-but-French-raised gypsy jazz guitarist who took influences from the ‘hot jazz’ of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington in the US, to create a fusion sound for continental Europe – that still thrives more than 70 years on.
|John as Django Reindardt in 'Head in the Clouds'|
“I first heard Django in 1979 and I was captivated immediately,” says John. “A revelation is the only way to describe it. When I heard him playing I loved it right off – his unique tone and fiery phrasing, swinging rhythm and imaginative improvisation.”
He explains: “There are lots of guitar techniques that are unique to Django’s style and are difficult to master, plus it combines the emotion of blues, the passion of gypsy music, the energy of rock, and the harmonies of jazz.”
He says public awareness of gypsy jazz has grown significantly over the past six years or so. During that time, with the Francophobic backlash following September 11 and France’s refusal to join George Bush’s “war on terror”, did anyone seriously suggest he change the name of his music to freedom-American swing?
“No, and pity the person who might!” warns John. “I didn’t experience any discernible effect from that whole affair, but I did use the stage at the time to promote the idea of countries needing to get along with each other. I also stopped frequenting a few restaurants that had stopped carrying French products, in protest.”
John also had the honour of playing his hero, Django, in the 2004 film Head in the Clouds, in which he starred alongside Oscar-winner Charlize Theron, Penélope Cruz and Stephen Berkoff.
“It was fantastic!” he says. “Getting to not only play his music, but to dress up and be made up to look like him, on a beautiful Thirties film set filled with actors and extras all dressed up to the nines. It was almost like going back in time.
“I sat down for my haircut in the makeup trailer with Penélope Cruz on one side of me and Charlize Theron on the other.”
After releasing the album Franco-American Swing in 2004, John went on to form his current band, the Gypsy Jazz Quintet, and is once again on an international tour (Nashville, Italy, Croatia, California... Carlisle), this time swapping the stadia of his Elton John days for more intimate venues where he can connect directly with his audience as he educates them on the musical genius of Django Reinhardt.
“The largest audience I can remember playing in front of would be close to 100,000, at a concert in Rio de Janeiro with Elton John,” says John. “Intimate venues are so much more personal, and the flow of energy between the performers and the audience is almost palpable. I think both the music and performance are enhanced by this interchange.”
This is the second time John will play at The Basement, on Fisher Street, after bringing The Helecasters to the (then) Front Page in the mid-Nineties.
He says: “Last time we played at the club the audience was very warm, and gave us a lot of encouragement for our music, though one of the strange things I seem to remember most was that there was a guy at the back of the crowd who kept shouting that one of the band members looked like Billy Connolly.
“It wasn’t until after the gig that we realised just how striking the resemblance was, so we were all thankful for the observation – well, except for our Billy lookalike.”
Don't watch the dancers!
With Tommy Emmanuel