Thursday, January 27, 2005
John Jorgenson has lived the rock and roll life, touring as Elton John’s lead guitarist for six years, leading the Desert Rose Band, and sharing front line duties in the Hellecasters. But when it comes to the music he really loves to play, Jorgenson admits that there’s a Gypsy in his soul named Django Reinhardt.
For the past few years, Jorgenson has turned in his Stratocaster for a Gitane DG-300, focusing on the Gypsy jazz sound created in the mid-1930s by Reinhardt and violinst Stephane Grappelli in the Hot Club of France. He brings his blazing quintet to the Hidden Valley Music Theater on Friday, Jan 28.
“My career has taken me different places, from country rock with the Desert Rose band and to the guitar instrumental stuff with the Hellecasters, pop music with Elton John, and just all different kind of sessions,” Jorgenson said in a phone interview from his home in Nashville. “But for my own enjoyment I’d always work on that music.”
Reinhardt, who died in 1953 at the age of 43, has long been a source of inspiration for Jorgenson. Back in 1987 he recorded After You’ve Gone, a record that featured Gypsy jazz on one side—with fiddler Darol Anger and mandolin master David Grisman—and Charlie Christian-influenced guitar work on the other side. He’s made regular pilgrimages to France to perform at the Django Reinhardt Festival in Samois, south of Paris, where he’s swapped stories with guitarist Bireli Lagrene and Reinhardt’s son, Bebick.
“Every time I went over there for the festival it would re-inspire me and I’d work that much harder on it,” Jorgenson said. “This music has been my passion for 25 years now and I’ve collected every book and recording.”
Even by jazz’s expansive standard, Reinhardt was a larger-than-life figure. Born to a Gypsy family traveling in a horse-drawn caravan through Belgium in 1910, Reinhardt sojourned throughout France, Italy and North Africa as part of a family of performers. By the time a fire swept through the caravan in 1928, maiming Reinhardt’s left hand, he was already a gifted guitarist. He taught himself to play using a revolutionary two-finger technique, transforming his physical limitation into the basis of a spellbinding style that was as witty and soulful as it was expressive and urbane.
Between 1934 and the outbreak of World War II, Reinhardt and Grappelli’s Hot Club of France recorded more than 200 sides, including sessions with the great American jazzmen Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Rex Stewart and Barney Bigard. During the Nazi occupation, Reinhardt played all over Europe, avoiding the Nazi’s roundup and genocide of his kinfolk. He and Grappelli teamed up again after the war, but the highlight and great disappointment of his late career was his American tour with the Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1946 as a featured soloist.
Though the music was glorious, he was disillusioned with his reception in the US. He returned to Paris, eventually dropping out of the music scene and retiring to the village of Samois sur Seine near Fontainebleau, where he spent his time fishing and painting. His last recording, made just a month before he died of a brain hemorrhage on May 16, 1953, included elements of bebop, a style he helped inspire.
“Like any music that’s timeless, Reinhardt still sounds so fresh today,” Jorgenson said. “The Hot Club is the perfect combination of spontaneity of improvisation and arrangement. Django and Stephane each got to play as free as they wanted, but then they always came back together.”