While most of us didn’t take music lessons as seriously as our parents and teachers might have liked, John Jorgenson says he actually liked practicing as a kid.
“I understood that if I wanted to play something, I had to practice it,” he says. “I could see that if I did, I would get better. A lot of times, young kids who don’t practice don’t ever feel the satisfaction of getting better, which makes it not so horrible to practice.”
Apparently, the rest of us should have listened, because Jorgenson’s efforts appear to have paid off. He’s now a master multi-instrumentalist who plays mandolin, mandocello, Dobro, pedal steel, piano, upright bass, clarinet, bassoon, and saxophone. Oh yeah, and he’s a world-class guitarist, who travels the world performing with the likes of Elton John, Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan and Bonnie Raitt.
Of course, Jorgenson had a bit of a head start—his mom was a piano teacher and his dad was a music teacher at the University of Redlands. He started playing piano at age 4, studied classical piano until he was 13, picked up the clarinet at 8 and the guitar at 12.
“The people I was around were much better and more advanced than I was,” he says. “I always strived to be up at that level. I’m still striving to be at a higher level than I am now.”
For Jorgenson, the goal of practicing is not to impress audiences with technical chops. He aims to put thoughts and feelings across musically, and doesn’t want lack of technique to get in the way.
“In order to have enough skill to translate what you hear in your mind instantly to the instrument, you have to be really proficient,” he says. “Anything you play is part of either a scale or arpeggio. If you can play all of those up and down, in your sleep, as fast as you want, when you get to the place where you’re trying to improvise, or play with feeling off the top of your head, you don’t get interrupted by technical problems.”
When artists are interrupted by lack of technique, audiences can feel it. As Jorgenson puts it, they “feel more of your insecurity or hesitation or frustration than the real feeling you want to convey through the musical phrase.”
At any given time, Jorgenson is working on numerous musical projects simultaneously, including his own gypsy jazz band, his electric band, his bluegrass band, side projects, studio work, touring and more.
On Aug. 19, Jorgenson performs at Kuumbwa with his bluegrass band. A longtime fan of the genre, Jorgenson is rooted firmly in traditional styles and techniques, which gives him the freedom to further contemporary bluegrass in interesting ways.
“If I’m going to play it, I want to be able to play it as true as possible to the original style—not so that I have to stay there,” he says, “but, if you don’t have the foundation of anything, how can you stand and move from it?”
Jorgenson’s latest bluegrass album, From the Crow’s Nest, is a collection of songs he hopes will “help people see different things.” He wrote the song “If You Could See” for two of his friends, who he describes as “accomplished and quite famous musicians,” who both took their own lives within a 10 day period—a time he describes as devastating.
“I didn’t even do the song for a while on-stage because I felt like it might be too heavy,” he says, “but we’ve started doing it and it’s actually been a pretty nice moment—a beautiful moment.”
Another tune, “Wandering Boy,” written by Rodney Crowell, is the story of twin brothers from Texas—one straight, one gay—who both have to face their own prejudices and judgements.
The album as a whole is a reflection of Jorgenson’s finely-honed musical ability and his curiosity about people and music, in general.
“I get entranced with a style and I want to learn all about it—I don’t want to just dabble in it,” he says. “I want to learn about the elements that drew me to the music and what the core of that style is.”
The John Jorgenson Bluegrass Band will perform at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 19 at Kuumbwa Jazz, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. $27-40. 427-2227.