Bluegrass and all that jazz

A guitar legend breaks out the mandolin to explore the Left Coast of contemporary acoustic music

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Guitar virtuoso John Jorgenson — whose bluegrass band plays the Dairy Arts Center in Boulder on Jan. 14 — has a connection to Colorado that runs back almost a half century. Courtesy: John Jorgenson Bluegrass Band

Music fans are forgiven if they thought there were multiple virtuosos over two generations named John Jorgenson. After all, it’s a fairly common Nordic name.

There was the electric guitar-wielding John Jorgenson who had backed Roy Orbison and Little Richard, fronted a rockabilly band and toured with Elton John.

Then there was the harmonizing, twangy John Jorgenson of the Desert Rose Band which scored two country music No. 1 hits and earned him a Grammy for Best Country Instrumental with Brad Paisley.

Some fans regard John Jorgenson as the second coming of Romani jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. The bluegrass world knows Jorgenson as an exceptional singer, mandolinist and Tony Rice-inspired flatpicker who toured with Earl Scruggs.

If John Jorgenson — the one and only, now 68 — had stuck to one genre or even to one instrument, you could speculate that he would be regarded as one of America’s most gifted and influential musicians of the past half century.

“It has always been normal for me to play different styles and different instruments,” he says.

The California-raised Jorgenson was playing the piano at 4 years old and the clarinet at 8. Then came guitar a couple years later, followed by his first paid gig around age 13 in a church production of The Messiah

“I immediately spent the money on a wah-wah pedal,” he remembers.

From that first taste of the spotlight through his many musical accomplishments to come, Jorgenson says the motivation behind his instrumental prowess has stayed much the same.

“I hear something, I fall in love with it, and I want to figure out how to play it properly,” he explains. “For example, the intro riff of the Beatles’ ‘Day Tripper.’ OK, I want to make that sound on a guitar. I hear Jesse McReynolds cross-picking the mandolin. How do I play that?”

Becoming a Colorado Dawg

Jorgenson — whose John Jorgenson Bluegrass Band plays in Boulder at the Dairy Arts Center on Jan. 14 — has a connection to Colorado that runs back almost a half century. “I had a scholarship as a jazz bassist to the Aspen Music Festival in 1978, but I also got to play bassoon with a great orchestra. The problem was coming up with money for food,” Jorgenson says.

Answering an ad in an Aspen newspaper for a jazz bassist, Jorgenson signed on with a band playing so-called “dawg” music — a fusion of bluegrass, folk and jazz in the style of a recently launched California band, the David Grisman Quintet.

“It was acoustic string music, not jazz, but I loved it. I also fell in love with the mandolin,” he says. “I ran out and bought one in Aspen and got a full-time job with the band.” 

Jorgenson admits he worked his way backward into bluegrass. “I started with the progressives like Grisman and Tony Rice and New Grass Revival and went back to the Osborne Brothers, Jim and Jesse McReynolds and Bill Monroe,” he says.

When he decided to form his own bluegrass band, Jorgenson turned to an old friend who also happened to be a bona fide music legend.

“I was a huge fan of Herb Pedersen before ever meeting him,” Jorgenson says. He had heard Pedersen’s exquisite tenor harmonies on country-rock albums by Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. Pedersen was also a member of legendary California bluegrass band The Dillards. He wrote standards like “Wait a Minute” and “Old Train,” and even filled in on banjo for Earl Scruggs in the Flatt & Scruggs band.

The duo met when singer-songwriter Dan Fogelberg asked Chris Hillman (of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers) to form a band to open for him as he toured his Colorado-themed High Country Snows album.

That temporary touring ensemble was the genesis of the Desert Rose Band. The country-rock outfit recorded six albums in the 1980s, toured the world and had a slew of radio hits.

“There are certain songs we do every show where I look to see if someone else has joined in because the two parts sound like three with Herb singing,” Jorgenson says. “He makes anyone he sings with sound better.”

This collaboration led to the formation of the John Jorgenson Bluegrass Band in the 21st century, which also features veteran bassist and Grammy-winning producer Mark Fain and acoustic guitar whiz Patrick Sauber, who has accompanied everyone from Roseanne Cash to Bruce Hornsby and Peter Rowan.

Jorgenson says these gigs are not genteel acoustic listening shows. For every heartbreaking bluegrass ballad, the band blasts through an original instrumental, showing off the members’ collective fretboard prowess that defies genre.

When Jorgenson switches from mandolin to guitar, it’s easy to hear the influence of Django Reinhardt, the musician everyone from Les Paul to Willie Nelson regards as the greatest guitarist ever. “I just absolutely loved how Django’s guitar sounded,” he says. Besides his bluegrass ensemble, the guitarist’s John Jorgenson Quintet allows him to indulge his jones for Django.

“I always hear different things in my head,” he says. “And there’s bound to be spillover when I play.” 


ON THE BILL: John Jorgenson Bluegrass Band. 7 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 14, Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder. Tickets here.

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