AS EVERYONE KNOWS, JOHN JORGENSON WAS REVERSE engineered from alien artistic technology (AAT). How else can you explain his preternatural abilities on acoustic and electric guitar, double bass, mandolin, mandocello, Dobro, pedal-steel, clarinet, saxophone, bassoon, and lately bouzouki, coupled with sufficient stylistic mastery to perform Elton John’s entire repertoire, twang it up with the Hellecasters, top the country charts alongside Chris Hillman in the Desert Rose Band, and push Django Reinhardt’s Gypsy jazz into the 21st Century? And that’s not to mention his live and recorded work with a pantheon of top-tier artists ranging from Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash to Barbara Streisand and Luciano Pavarotti.
Jorgenson has already released two albums this year: the John Jorgenson Quintet’s One Stolen Night, and Istiqbal Gathering by John Jorgenson and Orchestra Nashville (both on J2 Records). The former was recorded “live in the studio,” and features Jorgenson on guitar, bouzouki, clarinet, and soprano saxophone, accompanied by violinist Jason Anick, bassist Simon Planting, percussionist Rick Reed, and rhythm guitarist Kevin Nolan (with cameos by Gonzalo Bergara on bandoneon and twin trombonists Tania and Sandra Differding). The latter comprises six collaborative compositions arranged for Gypsy jazz guitar and orchestra, including the stunning “Concerto Glasso.”
Looking ahead, in addition to touring Europe, South America, and Australia with his Quintet in the coming months, Jorgenson will play a handful of gigs with the Desert Rose Band, as well as collaborate on a “straight ahead rock album” with Peter Frampton and a “Tele album” with Albert Lee (who will join him onstage at the Guitar Town festival this summer). In his spare time, Jorgenson’s been working on a new amp with Mark Sampson of Matchless, Bad Cat, and now Star Amplifiers fame.
What are your thoughts on the current lineup of the Quintet?
Jason Anick is definitely a great foil for me. Not to take away from any past members, but he and I have a really good chemistry onstage and he has a lot of energy that I can play off of. And if there’s anyone who is a star bass player in Gypsy jazz, it has to be Simon Planting. He played with Fapy Lafertin—one of my favorite traditional Gypsy jazz guitarists— for many years, so he naturally plays the music the way I like to hear it. And Kevin Noland is a fine rhythm guitarist. The rhythm section as a whole just has a beautiful sound. In the past I had to create the drive a little more with the lead guitar, and now I’m able to sit on top of the rhythm section and let them drive it, which allows Jason and me to be really free. And One Stolen Night has more swing on it than some of my other records, because I like the way this band swings.
What’s going on with those super-fast runs on the intro to “Norwegian Dance”?
That’s more of a right-hand technique than a left-hand one. It’s a picking pattern that’s two downs and an up across two strings, and I’m playing it pretty fast. The funny thing about that intro is about a year ago I got to sit in with Les Paul at his weekly gig in New York, and that’s one of the pieces we played. When I got to the end of that intro he just laughed and said, “Ok, do that again!” It was such a compliment, but it was also like, “Alright Mr. Hot Shot.” He was very influenced by Django, which you hear in his early recordings. There’s an old film clip of Les playing “Dark Eyes” in which he does a lot of Django’s runs and other things.
Switching to the orchestral album—was there an overarching theme going into the composition of Istiqbal Gathering, or did it just come together over time?
The overarching theme was to present the Gypsy style of guitar, technique, tonality, and music in a legitimate orchestral format, as opposed to simply playing “Nuages” with strings or orchestrating a Django song. The Spanish, Gypsy, Russian, and Eastern European elements, and the technical virtuosity of it all really go well with orchestral music. My hope was to create some compositions that might be performed for years to come.
Are you still playing your signature Saga guitars?
For the orchestral album I brought my prototype VG-300 oval-hole signature Saga, the companion VG-320 D-hole model, a Dupont, and a vintage Selmer. I recorded the same phrases on all four guitars, listened back without knowing which was which, and preferred the sound of the VG-300. I don’t know if I should be surprised, but it was up against some pretty expensive and well-crafted instruments. I’ve found over the years that certain instruments work better than others with microphones, even though they may not sound the best acoustically.
On One Stolen Night, I used my VG-320 on “Dark Romance” and a David Hodson custom guitar on “Istiqbal Solo,” but otherwise I mostly used an Altamira guitar made by a Chinese luthier named Hanson Yao, who went to Spain to study flamenco and classical guitar building and did an apprenticeship at Ramirez. Someone asked him to copy a Selmer, and when I saw the instrument he created I fell in love with it. Lately I’ve been going back and forth between the Altamira and the VG-300. I’m just a typical guitar player that always wants something different, but then when I have it I miss what I don’t have.
What is your current live rig?
I use an Audio-Technica Pro 70 microphone mounted right on the face of the guitar in a block of foam, face down behind the treble side of the bridge. That goes into a Radial Tonebone PZ-Pre, which is a great little 2-channel acoustic preamp with some bass roll-off, a notch to filter out body resonance, a phase-reversal switch to cut feedback, and a sweet midrange. The Radial feeds a Phil Jones Bass CUB AG100 amplifier, which is about the size of a briefcase and weighs only 11 pounds, making it ideal for travel given the current restrictions on luggage. I patch a Zoom A2.1u—which I use as a volume pedal, reverb, and tuner—into the amp’s effects loop.
What about picks?
I alternate between two picks, a 5mm Wegen Fatone, and a tortoiseshell pick modeled on the Wegen, but with a different bevel so there’s less of a point. The tortoiseshell pick has a very warm and beautiful sound that is simultaneously full and bright, but with no harshness to the brightness. I have two of them that I bought for $100 each. Those are the picks that I use about 90 percent of the time, and then if I want a little more articulation or a brighter sound I’ll switch to the Wegen
How did you record your guitars on the two albums?
On the studio album I mainly used my vintage RCA 77 Ribbon mic, along with a Sony C38 large diaphragm condenser, and sometimes just a touch of the Audio-Technica Pro 70 to add a little edge or body sound. On the orchestral album I wasn’t the engineer, but they used a Neumann of some sort combined with the RCA and Royer ribbon mics and a little of the A-T. In both cases the main mics were positioned about six inches away, down the treble side of the bridge, because on these guitars if you get too close to the body or the sound hole you get too much low end.
These days it seems as if there is a Hot Club in nearly every city, most of which pay tribute to the original music. Do you feel that Gypsy jazz is still a living, evolving art form?
I sure hope that it’s a living form. While there’s a part of me that would be completely happy to be in a Django tribute band, unfortunately, that doesn’t keep the music alive. My intention has always been to evolve the music away from the ’30s and ’40s nostalgia vibe by bringing in other influences, such as pushing it with different grooves or putting it in a classical orchestral setting, which also inspires new people to check out the original style. Gypsy jazz was largely unknown in the U.S. until relatively recently, but this year we are celebrating Django’s 100th birthday, and also the tenth anniversary of Django Fest Northwest, the first Django festival in America. And there are now about ten across the country, so it is definitely alive and well.
Who are some artists that you feel are truly evolving the music?
Stochelo Rosenberg recently released an album called Ready’N Able that pushed the envelope by including arrangements of songs by Stevie Wonder and Charlie Parker, Bireli Lagrene did some really nice work with a big band, and there’s a French quartet called Hùrlak that blends Gypsy jazz with Romanian music. One of the things I’m happiest about is that I have been able to introduce so many people to this music. In a French book I’m called “the U.S. ambassador to Gypsy jazz.”
That’s a fair assessment.
I’m really proud of that because the French don’t give it up for Americans very easily, especially when it comes to something they consider their own, even though I consider it quite American as well.
What are the most important things that guitarists new to playing Gypsy jazz need to bear in mind?
First they need to listen—to whatever they can find, but particularly to Django. Then they need to get a heavy pick and pick back by the bridge with attitude, because it’s all about energy. The main thing I find when I give workshops is that people don’t commit to playing the notes. When you hear Django, or any great guitarist, they are committed. Jimi Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughan or Charlie Christian or Doc Watson or whomever it is—boom! They’re hitting the guitar.