Downtown Louisville’s global music, culture and cuisine celebration WorldFest seemed a somewhat unlikely venue for a full length concert performance by the John Jorgenson Quintet. After all, the acoustic ensemble fashions itself after the spirited guitar/violin string swing sound dubbed “gypsy jazz” over 70 years ago by Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. Such music possessed a solid physicality at times. But there were also great subtleties in solo passages and ensemble exchanges within the music’s make up that perhaps weren’t best cultivated in an unavoidably noisy outdoor environment populated by passers-by and idly curious onlookers.
While it obviously would have been preferable to hear Jorgenson’s fine group indoors, some refreshing and unexpectedly honest response surfaced from the scattered audience. A handful of children, for example, simply bopped around at the front of the stage, giddy from the music’s merry stride but unconcerned completely with the hows and whys of its design. And there more than a few adults that seemed game for what seemed to be something new. “I wonder what jazz by gypsies sounds like,” remarked a woman sitting near me as she thumbed through her program. By the end of the ensemble’s 90 minute set last night at Louisville’s Belvedere, she and her sizable entourage were standing and applauding every solo.
Of course, what makes this music work, regardless of the surroundings, is Jorgenson himself. The guitarist boasts heavy credentials in traditional country (as a co-founding member, along with Herb Pederson and ex-Byrd Chris Hillman, of the Desert Rose Band) and arena rock (with a six year stint as touring guitarist for Elton John). And while the band was keenly versed in the brezzy tonality of the Reinhardt/Grappelli swing tradition – from the percussive rhythmic foundation provided by Jorgenson and co-guitarist Kevin Nolan to the interactive lyricism of violinist Jason Anick – the music never felt stylistically pinned down.
Regularly, the compositions encompassed Eastern European (jazz as well as classical), Nordic and Latin (specifically, Argentine) accents. F.A. Swing, for instance, glowed with the bright cosmopolitan feel of Reinhardt in his prime. But on Mediterranean Blues, the music took a harder jazz line with Jorgenson displaying the sort of brittle, acoustic speed in his playing that recalled fusion-bred contemporaries like Al DiMeola. And on Dr. Jazz, where Jorgensen juggled turns on vocals and clarinet, the music was thoroughly Americanized with a sweaty New Orleans flavor that made the humid, outdoor setting suddenly seem a lot less foreign.
Best of all was the show-closing Ultraspontane, a glowing gypsy dance where all the band’s melodic strengths worked as one and moved the tune along like a caravan. The players may have remained onstage, but the music and its infectious string strength strolled right out into the crowd and straight up into the late summer sky.