Onstage at Nashville’s City Winery, Jorgenson entrances the audience with his fiery Gypsy jazz licks. “I was asked to recreate two tracks for a film featuring Django Reinhardt called Head in the Clouds,” he says. “It was great to actually get paid for something I would have done anyway, to transcribe and learn exactly what Django played.” Photo by Andy Ellis
How did you come to work with Brad Paisley on “Sunburst Tele 2” and what was it like?
“Sunburst Tele 2” is probably the most country cut on there. That guitar wasn’t under water but the amp, a 1964 Vox AC30, was submerged. Before the flood, Brad had told me that particular combo of guitar and amp—which I’d used on the Desert Rose Band’s version of “Hello Trouble” from 1988—was his favorite guitar tone ever. It was unbelievable that the amp came through. All the screws and bolts were rusted, and even the speakers had gotten soaked.
I tried to write something that would incorporate that same tone, and on the album I left the solo spot open for Brad. I thought it would be cool to have Brad come and play on it because the track was inspired by the fact that he liked the tone so much. He has such an unpredictable style: a lot of technique and a lot of humor at the same time. When he plays, you never know what’s going to come out.
Do you store your guitars differently now, having experienced the flood, even though you’re based in Southern California?
Well, I never leave them on the floor, I keep them up on something. I do have a sump pump in the backyard, just in case. And I left that storage facility in Nashville and moved to a different one, which is far away from the river.
On The Returning, the Gypsy jazz outing, you use everything from clarinet to bouzouki. How’d you get into playing such a range of instruments?
My first instrument was piano. I started when I was 5 years old, then started playing clarinet and then fretted instruments. I had my first ukulele when I was 10 and my first guitar at 12. So I was used to practicing different instruments from an early age, and the skills I picked up on one instrument transferred to another. I took what I learned on the clarinet and applied it to saxophone, took what I learned on guitar and transferred it to the mandolin and the Dobro, and what I learned on piano to keyboard and organ. So, I basically look at it as three different groups of skills.
How do you determine what instruments to use?
If I’m going to record a part on one of my records, it’s got to stand up to my skills on guitar, or else it will sound bad.
What instruments can’t you play?
There are some instruments I’m not as confident on. I can play the bassoon, but only for a short time. If I have enough time, I can play a satisfactory Dobro part, but I wouldn’t hire myself out to play for someone else. Flute, I can get a little something out of. And it kind of depends on the parts, too. Some can be technically challenging.
On another note, how have you found your own voice within the Gypsy tradition?
I would have been happy just to lead a Django tribute band, but it seems like music often has its own journey—it sort of chooses what it wants to do. It was a very natural process for me. I’ve loved the style since I first heard it back in 1979. And back then there was really no scene. It was kind of underground. I realized at the time it couldn’t be a career music for me, so I pursued it for enjoyment and did other music for a living.
Over the years, more people became interested in Gypsy jazz, and in the late 1980s, beginning with my album After You’ve Gone, I began writing in the style. The next Gypsy jazz album I did, in 2003, was called Franco-American Swing. By that time there was more of an established scene for the music, and I was asked to recreate two tracks for a film featuring Django Reinhardt called Head in the Clouds. It was great to actually get paid for something I would have done anyway—to transcribe and learn exactly what Django played.
In any case, when I finished Franco-American Swing and started touring in support of it, I needed more material than what was on the album, and so I started bringing in some of my other compositions from other styles—for example, a piece from the Hellecasters called “Le Journée des Tziganes,” which was influenced by Eastern European folk music. And when I brought in flamenco, classical, and other influences from outside of the Gypsy jazz tradition, things got really interesting.
It seems like you’ve repurposed some non-Gypsy material in a cool way on the disc
There’s one called “Istiqbal Gathering.” That’s a piece I originally composed for full orchestra, with cimbalom [a large Hungarian dulcimer], violin, and guitar as soloists. I don’t get the chance to perform with a full orchestra that often, so I adapted it for quintet, and it worked really well. And strangely enough there’s one song I recorded in two different styles—“Sand Away the Years” and “It Only Takes a Secret.” This might seem counterintuitive or strange, but I heard the melody played two different ways, with different keys, grooves, and tempos.
You recorded From the Crow’s Nest, your bluegrass disc, in Sheryl Crow’s barn. What was that like?
It was a really cool barn, a functioning one. The studio was on the second level and horses were underneath. There was this very cool Western décor and theme. Being up there felt isolated, in a good way—a creative cocoon. We were really able to put out the rest of the world for the three days we were there. We got all those tracks done, and there was a very minimal amount of overdubbing and re-singing.
How much 6-string did you play on the record and what guitar did you use?
I’m mostly the mandolin player on this, but I did play guitar on a few cuts, and I used a Blueridge BR-260A, which is a great dreadnought with an Adirondack top and rosewood back and sides. For mandolins, I used a Gibson F-5L, which I bought new in 1980—I’ve been the only owner—and a Kentucky KM-1000. On that one, to get a little more of a ringing sound when crosspicking, I dropped in an aluminum bridge saddle.
Who are your benchmarks when playing bluegrass guitar?
Definitely Clarence White and, through him, of course, Tony Rice. And then there’s Doc Watson. Those are probably my three favorite players. They’re on the same continuum to me. I also think Bryan Sutton is fantastic. He’s probably my favorite current player.
How does it feel to travel between different styles like you do on Divertuoso?
When I look back over 40 or so years so far, it feels natural because of the way in which the styles dovetail. But the logistics can be challenging—figuring out how to get the right gear to the right place at the right time. Last summer I had to make a chart to determine what I could fly with and who might be able to loan me something for a given gig. When I play bluegrass I need a mandolin and a flattop guitar. When I play Gypsy jazz I need a guitar, a bouzouki, and a clarinet. And at an electric show, I need at least two electric guitars and a pedalboard. You can only travel with so many pieces at a time.
How do you tie everything together?
Probably the first thing is melody. No matter what style of music I do, I’m always attracted to a more melodic composition. And on all three recordings, I set out to make music you don’t necessarily have to be a guitar player or musician to enjoy. Instrumental music might be more attractive to musicians, but hopefully the melodies are strong enough to hold anyone’s attention, even if they don’t know the first thing about music.
Here’s a high-quality video of John Jorgenson playing the Django Reinhardt standard “Nuages” with his Gypsy jazz unit. Jorgen plays solo until the 2:30 mark, when the ensemble steps up—only to fall back again to let Jorgen fly at 6:30.