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conducted by Robert Silverstein for  


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Lucky Sevens

interview written and conducted by Robert Silverstein

The vintage Gypsy Jazz sound continues on a roll in 2007. One artist keeping the Django Reinhardt style acoustic jazz sound alive right here in the USA is guitarist John Jorgenson. The original guitarist in The Hellecasters and a main player in the ‘80s with Chris Hillman’s Desert Rose band, the ‘90s Elton John band—and with so many sessions in his resume—John Jorgenson’s first love is the fretboard friendly realm of instrumental Gypsy Jazz and he keeps the sound alive on his 2007 CD Ultraspontane. The twelve track Ultraspontane features Jorgenson on solo guitars, clarinet and tambourine with support from his quintet, including rhythm guitarist Gonzalo Bergara, Stephan Dudash on five string viola, Charlie Chadwick (bass), several fine percussionists, the Nashville Chamber Orchestra String Quintet, with the CD’s sole vocal cut featuring singing legend Beryl Davis and more. The uptempo title track is a joy to hear with viola and guitar spiraling out of sight. A modern guitar master who still revels in the vintage era of swing jazz, John Jorgenson’s guitar craft honors the timeless musical spirit of Gypsy Jazz guitar icon Django Reinhardt.

{The following interview with John Jorgenson from August 2007 first appeared in the September 2007 issue of 20th Century Guitar magazine. In that issue of the magazine, John was featured on the cover along with another interview with fellow Gypsy Jazz guitar great Bireli Lagrene, making that issue quite a find for fans of the Gypsy Jazz guitar sound! This interview was written and conducted by 20th Century Guitar magazine music editor Robert Silverstein. now presents the interview with John Jorgenson in it’s entirety—editor, August 2009}

MWE3: How did Ultraspontane come about?

JJ: I have been out performing for the last 3 years about 100 shows each year all across America, and throughout Europe, Canada and even Singapore with my quintet, which was formed to promote my last CD Franco-American Swing. In the course of assembling the musicians for the Quintet and playing so many live shows, a style emerged that builds on the more traditional Gypsy Jazz of Franco-American Swing and adds more diverse musical elements and influences from other Gypsy styles, world music, classical, contemporary pop and flamenco music. Audiences seemed to respond more to my original compositions, and didn't mind the mixing of musical styles, in fact demanded more of it. As my Quintet has been with me throughout this process, this CD is much more of a band sound and dynamic, and I have pushed the boundaries of my collaboration with the Nashville Chamber Orchestra, especially on Django's Debussy and Ravel influenced "Improvisation #1 and #2".

MWE3: How does Ultraspontane reflect your love of the gypsy jazz guitar sound you’re so well known for?

JJ: My chops were a little stronger from all the live playing, so I pushed myself technically as a guitarist quite a bit on this project. I also went for more different tones in casting the various guitars for the songs, as described in the piece later. I still of course love the traditional Django tone and go for that on some tracks, but it has been exciting to me to stretch the stylistic boundaries that this type of guitar is usually confined to, and to see how well it speaks in other contexts. Recording these guitars is always a challenge, and I keep learning more every time I do it.

MWE3: How and when did you become interested in the Gypsy Jazz guitar style?

JJ: In 1979, after I graduated from college with a Bachelor of Music degree in woodwind performance and had been playing mostly rock and some jazz guitar for a dozen years or so I got interested in the acoustic side of things, and starting playing the mandolin. This led to a part-time job at Disneyland playing Dixieland clarinet and bluegrass mandolin. On the guitar side of things I was listening to Tony Rice, Doc Watson, and especially Clarence White, who sited Django as a big influence. At the same time one of my fellow musicians who knew a lot about 20’s and 30’s jazz told me to check out Django, so I did, and as soon as I heard his tone and fiery style I was hooked. I started trying to learn from Django's recordings immediately on the Epiphone Spartan arch top I owned, and also started looking out for a Selmer guitar, which took about 2 years to find. In those days there was not much information about Django or his guitar, so it was kind of like detective work to learn whatever I could about it all.

MWE3: How difficult is it to play the Gypsy Jazz guitar compared to a more traditional acoustic steel string?

JJ: I think that every style of guitar playing has its aspects that are tricky. The difficult thing about Gypsy Jazz style is that the right hand picking techniques are very different to most other styles of playing, so it feels like completely starting over sometimes. The other thing is that the left hand is all over the neck, using the entire range of positions and notes, as opposed to some other styles that have more limited movement.

MWE3: How do you keep the action on the Gypsy Jazz guitars compared to steel string acoustics?

JJ: Many people use 13’s on a flat top, but due to the long scale most gypsy jazz players use 11’s and 10’s. The action is of course a personal choice, but since the pick attack is usually pretty strong, the action has to be high enough not to fret out the notes. The strings are also slightly spongier, because although gypsy jazz strings have a normal steel core, the windings are silver plated copper like classical strings, and thus have a softer feel to them.

MWE3: What do you practice to keep in shape on the guitar?

JJ: I usually build in phrases into my melodies and solos that contain techniques that I want to conquer, so I will normally practice whatever parts of my songs that I had trouble with the last gig! Arpeggios and right hand picking patterns help to warm up, and are always good to practice.

MWE3: Which artists inspired you to become a rock guitarist and then to play the Gypsy Jazz guitar sound?

JJ: When I first started on guitar, it was 1968, and I was entranced by the guitar sounds of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Byrds, Buffalo Springfield. As I was first learning songs by Santana, Creedence, and the Who were great because they weren't too difficult to learn. As I developed, Hendrix, Zeppelin, Yes, and Humble Pie records were gold mines of licks and inspiration. Of course Beck and Clapton figured in too. For gypsy jazz it was strictly Django. For one he had so much music recorded, and so much of it was excellent. For awhile I looked for other guitarists of Django's time, or later that would give me that same rush, but to no avail. I came across many incredible guitarists like Oscar Aleman, Charlie Christian, Dick McDonough, George Barnes, and today's European masters like Stochelo Rosenberg, Fapy Lafertin, Bireli Lagrene, and although I learn from and admire all of them, it is still Django that makes me smile the most when I hear him.

MWE3: You recorded Ultraspontane with a vintage 1939 Selmer guitar. How did that guitar shape the sound of the album?

JJ: Well, I cast the album with different guitars for different songs. The ‘39 Selmer has a voice that is extremely woody, somewhat lo-fi, and very dry, which worked well for "El Camino del Che" which was written on it, and "Ultraspontane".

MWE3: How about comparing the ‘39 Selmer with your ‘42 Selmer? You describe the ‘42 as being the most traditional sounding guitar you have.

JJ: The ‘42 Selmer is a very sweet sounding guitar, with plenty of rich bass, sparkly treble and barking mids. I say it is the most traditional sounding of all my gypsy guitars because it seems to have all the tonal frequencies covered, and is very characteristically "Selmer" sounding to my ears.

MWE3: Compare your ‘39 Selmer with your signature Tuxedo model Gitane guitar, the latter which you describe as having a slightly more edgy and modern tone.

JJ: Well, the Tuxedo model is actually slightly darker and has a more refined bass than my prototype DG300, which is the guitar I actually described as having a slightly more edgy and modern tone. The Tuxedo also has slightly more sustain, and a naturally compressed quality. That for some reason helps the guitar to play very well in tune, and very evenly over the whole neck. The Tuxedo model also has a steeper neck angle, and mahogany back and sides, as opposed to the Brazilian on the DG300, so even though the 2 Gitanes look like the main differences are cosmetic, there are actually structural and material differences that result in different voices. Compared to the Selmers, the Gitanes are a little less woody, and have a stronger and more even tone, but with less individual character. The Selmers also sound "old" and the Gitanes sound "new" which makes sense as they are, and that is a sound that is hard to describe but something that guitarists understand.

MWE3: Is your custom Dupont guitar modeled after the Selmer and Gitane guitars?

JJ: Maurice Dupont built this guitar for me in 1995. It was a group of features I requested that were not usually combined. Long scale 14 fret neck, D hole with sound chamber, Brazilian rosewood veneer, pastel colored rosette, and a walnut neck. Maurice did a great job on the guitar, and it has a very unique tone. Normally the D hole lets a lot of bass response out, and can be overly muddy for soloing, but the chamber counter acts this, and the guitar is very even with an excellent attack.

MWE3: Are there any other guitars you're interested in hearing and acquiring?

JJ: Always! I think Dupont's Vielle Reserve models are excellent, and I think that Shelly Park's guitars will be classics in the future. I wouldn't mind having a Busato, Favino and a Di Mauro in my arsenal either!

MWE3: How about strings?

JJ: I use a lot of different strings, depending on the tone of the guitar itself. Dell 'Arte makes a signature set for me that work very well on certain guitars. I also like Lenzner strings a lot, but they wear out fast. Argentines are good too, they last a bit longer but can be a little brassy at first. John Pearse strings are pretty bright, but can help a dull sounding guitar. Gallis are also good.

MWE3: Do you always use a pick when playing the Gypsy Jazz guitars and do you ever play finger style?

JJ: I almost always use a pick, at the moment a 5 mm Wegen, and sometimes various tortoise shell picks that I have accumulated over the years. On my new CD I did play finger style on Django's "Improvisation #2" as he did on the original recording. I find it very difficult to maintain consistent fingernails needed for playing finger style, and it is difficult for me to get a lot of power with my fingers, but I enjoy playing finger style by myself at home.

MWE3: It must have been great finding Beryl Davis to sing the one vocal track on Ultraspontane, as she recorded with Django in 1938 in London when she was just 13. Are any other members of Django's band still alive in 2007?

JJ: It was a treat to work with Beryl, she is a very classy and wonderful lady, and has that great old school show business experience in her stage presentation. She also still sings beautifully, and really knows how to use a mic in the studio. But I am not aware of others who worked a lot with Django.

MWE3: Were other steps taken on Ultraspontane to assist in getting that classic vintage Gypsy Jazz sound?

JJ: I was actually not going for any particular vintage sound on the new CD, just trying to get the tone that I hear in my head onto the tape for each song. I did have to experiment a lot with mic placement, and sometimes would partially block the sound hole with tape to remove a troublesome resonant frequency of the guitar body itself. I also had to make sure that the tailpiece, tuners, and strings behind the bridge and nut didn't rattle or vibrate too much. The gypsy guitars are not the most easy to record in a high fidelity situation!

MWE3: You feature a couple of Django Reinhardt originals on the Ultraspontane CD, “Improvisation #1” and “Improvisation #2”. How hard was it to master those Reinhardt originals and are there any other Django pieces you would consider covering in the future?

JJ: Both Improv #1 and #2 have tricky spots in them that were difficult to master. Probably #2 was more difficult for me because as I mentioned earlier, I don't play finger style much. The great thing about both of those pieces is that I learned a lot about Django as a composer, and as a player because without any accompaniment some of the rhythms and chords must be assumed. I have also learned "Echoes of Spain" and I would love to learn all of the other Improvisations and have them orchestrated to make a full CD. That could be a little ambitious, but at least I have a start on it!

MWE3: How would you describe the influence Django Reinhardt had on your playing?

JJ: Django's influence has been huge on my playing in general. His virtuosity is something I strive for continuously, and the joy and humor in his playing always inspires me. Learning to play in his style forced me to expand the range of my harmonic knowledge, my command of the fingerboard, my right hand technique, and my dynamic range. His influence is very apparent to me even when I am playing electric rock or country, or acoustic bluegrass or mandolin, mostly in the way I approach the music.

MWE3: Another great player currently breaking new ground in the Gypsy Jazz guitar format is Bireli Lagrene.

JJ: Well, Bireli is someone who seems to have no boundaries at all in his technique and his ideas just pour out of him. He is such a well rounded musician and has mastered other styles, and that helps him sound unique to me. Stochelo Rosenberg has created not only his own style, but a whole school of playing. His clear technique and bossa rhythms have expanded the repertoire, and I really appreciate his command of traditional Django style. It is a delicate balance, because too much innovation can push the music out of Gypsy Jazz, but the music needs to evolve to stay vital too. There are some young players out there that are trying some new things, like Gonzalo Bergara who plays rhythm in my Quintet. He recently finished his first CD, and it has some beautiful compositions on it that show his Argentinian heritage and his roots as a blues guitarist, but it is all well within a Gypsy Jazz format.

MWE3: Which guitarists and guitar albums inspired you the most to want to pick up the guitar in the first place?

JJ: I have always loved the sound of string instruments, especially guitar, so almost everything I heard with guitar on it inspired me at the beginning. I still love the guitar tones on Beatle albums, doubled, Leslied, 12 string, etc. Jeff Beck's Blow by Blow was a favorite guitar album for sure but I was already playing for a number of years when that came out. Tony Rice's Manzanita is a great one for flatpicking. I also love to listen to the Gypsy Kings, not just Tonino's guitar playing, but the amazing vocals of Nicholas Reye's as well.

MWE3: Are you planning to return to the instrumental rock style of the Hellecasters in the future and do you have plans for new recordings in the future?

JJ: It is funny, I never was really all that interested in instrumental rock, although I liked bands like Yes, The Allman Brothers and Humble Pie that had extended instrumental sections and jams in their songs. I was much more into music that had both good vocals and good instrumentals. The Hellecasters started really by accident, and had anyone told me early on that I would be playing for ten or so years in an instrumental rock band I would have thought they were crazy! Having said that, I do really enjoy playing and creating instrumental electric guitar pieces and may do an album of that style in the future. The next project up recording wise for me is one for Gypsy Jazz guitar and orchestra. It will be recorded with the Nashville Chamber Orchestra over the next couple of years. Some of the pieces I have composed, some were composed for me. It is extremely challenging to record with a full orchestra, and I am enjoying the opportunity to create a body of works for Gypsy Jazz guitar and orchestra, which to my knowledge has never existed.

Thanks to John Jorgenson @



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