Music News & Reviews

Gypsy jazz great inspired John Jorgenson to make the music his own

John Jorgenson initially thought he couldn't make a career out of playing Gypsy jazz, but times changed.
John Jorgenson initially thought he couldn't make a career out of playing Gypsy jazz, but times changed. Jesse Wild. © Future Publishing

There was a sound brewing in the back of guitarist John Jorgenson's mind in the 1980s and '90s that never had much of an opportunity to be heard.

It was a light, spirited variation on the Gypsy jazz popularized in the '30s by Django Reinhardt. But it was open enough to take on other musical accents from around the globe. Jorgenson even played it a bit in the old days, although the music was mostly a hobby. After all, he was already employed in artistic communities far removed from the land of the Gypsies.

Near the close of the '80s, Jorgenson was part of the triumvirate — with Byrds alumnus Chris Hillman and veteran country-rock stylist Herb Pederson — behind the vintage California country troupe known as the Desert Rose Band. When rock 'n' roll tugged at his sleeve, Jorgenson plugged into another trio, a fearsome group of guitar slingers known as the Hellecasters. Then in 1994, Jorgenson joined the touring band of rock celebrity Elton John. That, in essence, led to the life of an upper-class gypsy, as Jorgenson recorded and toured arenas around the world with John for six years.

Among the other giants with whom Jorgenson has collaborated: Bob Dylan, Bob Seger, Luciano Pavarotti, Roy Orbison, Bonnie Raitt, Earl Scruggs and Emmylou Harris.

"I discovered Gypsy jazz in 1979 and played it a bit in the early to mid-'80s," Jorgenson said. "At the time, there really wasn't really any kind of scene for the music, so I couldn't see playing it as a career.

"But then there was a shift. While I was working with Elton John and doing a lot of session work, a shift came from the Internet that allowed people with specific musical interests to connect with each other. Then people realized they weren't the only ones who were fond of this music. They banded together and started having festivals while guitar companies started building instruments that were affordable replicas of the old French guitars. So that became a sort of sign to me."

That sign was illuminated when Jorgenson was invited not only to create Reinhardt-style music for the 2004 film Head in the Clouds but to play the famed Gypsy guitarist in the movie.

"When I started to go out and perform this music, I would have been happy just to be in a Django tribute band. I would have been happy to dress up like it was the 1930s and do that whole thing. But I started doing my own compositions to fill out the concert programs, and audiences responded as much to them as they did to the traditional Gypsy jazz tunes."

That led to Jorgenson's 2004 album Franco-American Swing and the formation of a quintet that blended Gypsy jazz inspirations with accents of Greek, Romanian and Latin music and more.

"When I describe this music to people, I have to mention Django Reinhardt and Gypsy jazz to get them into this world," Jorgenson said. "But it ends up being so much more. I feel it's much more like world music. There are Greek elements, Eastern European elements and flamenco elements.

"The Gypsies have a very interesting heritage in the street performance of music and dance. That's been a tradition of theirs forever. When they played in the streets of a particular country, they would learn of the music that people liked in that country so they could be more popular. So the influences of all the countries colored the music."

Jorgenson broadened his Gypsy-music variations in 2010 by releasing two recordings, a quintet album (One Stolen Night) and a collaboration with Orchestra Nashville (Istiqbal Gathering). There also were performances at festivals throughout Europe and North America to commemorate what would have been Reinhardt's 100th birthday.

"I just love music. I have loved it for so long. And I have always loved different styles of music," Jorgenson said. "So when I go into these styles, I want to be true to them.

"Even when we find differences in Gypsy jazz, there are emotional and harmonic components that tie it all together. It could be the difference between a Bulgarian brass band and the pop flamenco of the Gipsy Kings. It's very different music. But there's a commonality — at least, there is in the way I hear and feel it. And that element is what I try to bring out in what I play."