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Wednesday, July 14,2010

Taken by Gypsies

Virtuoso guitarist digs a Django groove

by Lawrence Cosentino

After years of axe-for-hire adventure in far-flung guitar camps, John Jorgenson has settled down — as a Gypsy.


Jorgenson, 54, has backed a lot of heavyweight artists, from Sting and Streisand to Luciano Pavarotti, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. He scored critically and commercially in the country-jazz Desert Rose Band and the three-guitar supergroup The Hellecasters.


This Monday, he brings a crack quintet to Lansing’s Creole Gallery to play the style he loves most — the Gypsy jazz of guitar legend Django Reinhardt.


To Jorgenson’s amazement, he’s been touring full time, playing Gypsy jazz since 2004, spearheading the Django revival in America.


“I never expected to be able to play this style of music as a main job,” he said.


The basic ingredients of Gypsy jazz are a two-guitar beat, saucy violin lilts and triple-espresso-buzzed lead guitar solos the ear can barely follow.


At mid-tempo, Gypsy jazz feels like a jaunty stroll down a Parisian street. Bonjour, Clarisse! At full bore, it sounds Virtuoso guitarist digs more like five men frantically feeding an a Django groove Italian aria into a meat grinder while being chased by Bulgarian border guards.


“You can scratch a lot of musical itches with it,” Jorgenson said. “It has the power of rock — it’s really aggressive and powerful music — but it has the virtuosity and subtlety of classical music, the acoustic sound of bluegrass, and the improvisation and swing of jazz.”


Reinhardt didn’t live in a house until he was 20, but the style he originated in the 1930s with fiddler Stephane Grappelli and the Hot Club of France set the first stone of a musical castle that’s still growing.


“He influenced every guitar player we know,” Jorgenson said.


Top guitarists in folk, jazz, rock and country considered Reinhardt their favorite; Jorgenson named Chet Atkins, Les Paul, Charlie Christian, George Benson, Jeff Beck and Mark Knopfler.


The first American Django Reinhardt festival was held in 2000 in New York. Now dozens of cities — Detroit and Lansing included — have Hot Clubs of their own. Gypsy-style players once had to search for rare vintage French guitars, but Jorgenson said guitar companies now make affordable axes that get the Django jangle just right.


Jorgenson marvels at the swing and virtuosity of the Hot Club of France records, “made with five guys around a microphone,” but said there’s no substitute for a live performance.


“People love to watch it the same way they love to watch the Olympics,” Jorgenson said. “It takes a really high level of technical skill.”


A surprising variety of moods criss-crosses through Jorgenson’s caravan. The title track of his new CD, “One Stolen Night,” has the languorous, life-savoring soul of Greek folk music.


There are flamenco
(Spain’s Gypsy music), Hungarian, Romanian and Bulgarian spices in the
mix. Jorgenson also comes up with way-out hybrids like “Kentucky
Kastrinos,” which sounds like a collaboration between Earl Scruggs and
Philip Glass.


“My
favorite thing is when people tell me that their young kids, 4 or 5
years old, love it,” he said. “That shows the energy and accessibility
of the music.”


Jorgenson
was 4 years old when his dad got him a record player and set of Disney
records for Christmas. He remembers picking up the soundtrack from
“Fantasia” and obsessing over the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from
“The Nutcracker.”


He started playing piano at 5, clarinet at 8 and guitar at 10. At 14, he was playing professionally in Hollywood.


Jorgenson
had big ears, and so did his first musical employer. At Disneyland, he
played bluegrass, Gypsy jazz and Dixieland seven hours a day, changing
outfits in between. The on-and-off gig lasted 13 years, but it wasn’t
as grim as it sounds. Playing rock in smoky Hollywood clubs like the
Whiskey and the Starwood, he felt lucky to split $70 with his band at
the end of the night; the Magic Kingdom meant security.


In
the early 1980s, bluegrass mandolinist David Grisman brought
Reinhardt’s old partner, violinist Grappelli, to the United States.
When Jorgenson heard Grisman and Grappelli play, he fell hard for Gypsy
jazz.


But there
were detours ahead. Chris Hilman, a founding member of the Byrds, saw
Jorgenson jamming Django-style with Grisman. In 1987, Hilman and
Jorgenson formed the nucleus of Desert Rose Band, which lasted until
1993 and racked up a long string of country hits and awards.


Meanwhile,
Jorgenson was in relentless demand as a sideman, playing with dozens of
musical titans from Willie Nelson to Bob Seger. In the ‘90s, he did a
six-year stint touring with Elton John.


“Some
I warmed up to more than others,” he said. Pavarotti and Benny Goodman
were cold. “Roy Orbison was really sweet. I was kind of expecting
Barbra Streisand to be a bitch because of everything I’d heard, but she
couldn’t have been nicer.”


It’s
the perfect career for a man with big ears. Jorgenson is reading
neuroscientistmusician Daniel Levitin’s “The World in Six Songs,” which
explores music’s hold on the human brain by tracing common threads in
diverse musical styles.


Jorgenson has been doing that research on the ground for decades.


“It blows my mind sometimes that I get to play with both Earl Scruggs and Sting,” he said.


John Jorgenson Quintet


7
p.m. Monday, July 21 Creole Gallery 1218 Turner St., Lansing $23
Tickets available at Archives Book Shop, Elderly Instruments or www.stpconcerts.com

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