New year, new programs: Laguna Beach Live! hosts concert with gypsy jazz guitar virtuoso and Grammy winner John Jorgenson

By THERESA KEEGAN

While organizers at Laguna Beach Live! are busy tuning up their usual programming for 2024 – including a Jazz Wednesdays series, the monthly Live! at the Museum chamber series, kids’ programming at the library and the Laguna Music Festival – there will also be one very special concert in January.

The John Jorgenson Quintet will be bringing their award-winning gypsy jazz music to Laguna Beach on January 25. While the quintet carries the name of the Grammy winner, he is quick to say that all five musicians are valuable.

“We’ve been together for more than 20 years,” Jorgenson said of the group. “We have very diverse philosophical viewpoints, and we can discuss those things with a lot of respect (toward each other)…but our musical connection tops anything else. We always keep it about the music.”

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Photo by Paul Kieu

The John Jorgenson Quintet will be performing their signature gypsy jazz music in Laguna Beach during their upcoming California tour

While the musicians are proficient in many musical genres and instruments, it’s the gypsy jazz music – a style developed in the 1930s by Paris-based guitar virtuoso Django Reinhardt – that the quintet loves performing. The music is acoustic-based and features a guitar as a lead instrument.

“I grew up playing classical music,” said Jorgenson, rattling off his instruments the way sports fans cite statistics: clarinet, bassoon, saxophone, mandocello, piano, bouzouki, guitar. “I was a fairly accomplished musician when I first heard Django’s music in 1979. It was so passionate; it became my favorite style of music.”

Unfortunately, for his career to flourish, Jorgenson finally accepted that his gypsy jazz playing would just be a hobby, as there wasn’t a commercial appeal for it at the time. So, he went on to play with Earl Scruggs, Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan and other musicians. He performed with The Hellecasters, was co-founder of the country-rock group The Desert Rose Band and was twice named “Guitarist of the Year” by the Academy of Country Music. He won a Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance and an 18-month tour with Elton John was extended into a six-year stint.

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Photo by Piper Ferguson

The accomplished, multi-instrumentalist John Jorgenson loved gypsy jazz, but also plays other music genres throughout his career

But still, gypsy jazz was his passion, which he pursued on his own. Then, when like-minded people were suddenly able to connect on the internet in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the gypsy jazz aficionados knew they were not alone and the musical style soared in popularity.

“It created a whole groundswell,” Jorgenson said. “Groups popped up all over the country and by 2007 there were festivals of this kind of gypsy jazz music all over America. People just really resonated to it.”

The Southern California native explained that it’s really a cross-cultural music style, tapping into the influence of middle eastern countries such as Romania and Spain and mixing it with American swing.

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Photo by Alan Messer

An acoustic guitar, as well as a bouzouki and clarinet are the main instruments John Jorgenson plays when performing gypsy jazz

“It’s very difficult to play – it’s technically very demanding,” said Jorgenson. “But this music also has a lot of feeling in it, a lot of excitement.” His wife likens it to watching a high-wire act musically. It certainly has broad appeal.

“For musicians who understand what we’re doing, it’s exciting,” said Jorgenson. “And then casual listeners respond to the emotion.” Some songs include vocals, but many are instrumental only. Django festivals became a world-wide phenomenon and Jorgenson, as an American, headlined as a player at the gold-standard of them all: the French Django Reinhardt Festival.

Most musicians playing gypsy jazz opt for standard songs. But when the quintet started touring, Jorgenson wanted to break up the traditional style with other elements, so he began composing some pieces.

“My original compositions got more interest and applause from the audience,” he said. “That’s something I noticed, so now we play only a few traditional pieces.”

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One of his favorite pieces, “One Stolen Night,” features Jorgenson playing the bouzouki, a Greek instrument that features a long-necked lute.

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Photo by Paul Kieu

The John Jorgenson Quintet has been playing together for almost two decades, when gypsy jazz became a popular music genre

“The audience always tells me they feel transported to another place, so that’s cool,” he said. “And when I play it live, I also try and get into that place…where I’m not sitting in a venue performing but sitting on a mountain top in Greece.”

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Photo by Harry Fisher

John Jorgenson uses his music to transport his audience – and himself – during his live performances

The power of live performances keeps Jorgenson happily touring. Although he acknowledges the popularity of gypsy jazz is waning a bit in popular culture, the group still tours monthly to different locales. The Laguna Beach show is part of the quintet’s 10-day-long California tour. Members, who live throughout the country, include Casey Driscoll, violin; Simon Planting, bass; Rick Reed, percussion and John Jarvis, piano.

“I see every performance as an opportunity for magic,” Jorgenson said of his shows. “Music can be magical when shared with a group of people and if the audience is really with us, through the experience, it also elevates us as performers.”

For tickets and more information about the Laguna Beach Live! concert featuring the John Jorgenson Quintet, which begins at 6 p.m. at [seven-degrees] on January 25, click here.

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