INTERVIEW JORMA KAUKONEN
That mighty fine acoustic bluesman Roy Book Binder used to quip that he didn’t know what a Jorma was. Times of course change and now they are great buddies, jamming, playing and teaching guitar together while Jorma has recorded songs in the traditional-style written by the Book. And Jorma has continued to weave his own magical spell, with lightening licks and down-low blues picking that simply seems to get stronger by the day.
Now approaching seventy-five years of age, Kaukonen remains at the top of his game garnering Grammy nominations with almost every album released and crossing seamlessly from blues to modern Americana and country with complete ease and confidence. As frontman, central figure in leading US band Hot Tuna, he is still partnered by one of the finest Bassmen on the planet, Jack Casady, a partnership that goes back to the days of Buddy Holly and has stood the test of time and musical change and challenges.
Door: Iain Patience
‘Jack and I go way back. He’s from DC and I lived in Washington DC when I was young. We are best of friends and began playing together in a band back around 1958,’ he says with a sparkling chuckle.
When asked if he ever imagined he’d still be picking that ole guitar so far down the line, Jorma laughs: ‘Well, it sure feels good. I’m still able to do it, and now I have more time on my hands to play guitar, I’m loving it.’
Kaukonen of course is one of the too few survivors who played the legendary Woodstock Festival back in 1969 as guitarist with San Francisco, psychodelic rockers, Jefferson Airplane. Indeed, the band took their name from Jorma’s then nicknames connected to old blues masters like Blind Lemon Jefferson and others, echoing his early, developing love of the music way back then. So where does the blues interest and love come from, I ask?
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee laughs: ‘I was playing some guitar and luckily met the late Ian Buchanan up at Antioch College in Ohio. He sort of introduced me to the music of Rev Gary Davis. Ian was a great player and a buddy of Gary Davis,’ he confirms. ‘It just sort of grew out of that initial contact and listening to him play and then finding more and more of the music. And now, Hot Tuna is a big part of my life.’
These days Kaukonen still hits the road, touring and gigging for about one hundred days a year, he reckons. Much of the remainder of his time is taken up with work on his personal project running a near-legendary guitar/music teaching camp in the Appalachian foothills of Ohio: Fur Peace Ranch was his brainchild, a way to pass on performance skills, confidence-boosting chances and keep the music fresh and alive for generations of new players. ‘I don’t make enough from Fur Peace to survive on’, he says. ‘But it’s great fun and an important side of my life. But I still tour, festivals and gigs mostly, around the States for about a third of each year.’
Kaukonen confirms he loves playing Europe and has recently gigged in Italy and also had a blast in Scandinavia a few years ago with gigs in both Finland and Sweden. ‘I’ve never played Ireland or Scotland,’ he shrugs with some evident surprise. ‘I’d pretty much cover the costs for gigs there’, he hints, in what must surely be a tempting possibility for some promoter out there.
He is particularly proud that these days with a significant blues-based back-catalogue out there, he is in the position to introduce music fans to the music of Gary Davis. ‘I think it’s important to make Rev Gary Davis more accessible to others who might never have discovered him.’ When I suggest he plays more in the style of the Rev than as a copyist, he agrees, adding that he does have freedom to pretty much play whatever takes his fancy now, without in any way feeling constrained by musical tastes or whims and without limits or musical boundaries. ‘We’re (Hot Tuna) not like the Eagles who must play note for note, the same stuff all the time. I can vary it at any time, chop and change how I do it and give it much more variety,’ he says with evident satisfaction and veracity.
Jorma also now has the honour of a Martin Signature guitar on the market, an honour shared with the likes of Eric Clapton, David Bromberg (one of his old buddies) and others. And yet, he remains mostly noted as a Gibson guitarist, I point out with a hint of devilment: ‘Yea,that was one of those things. Gibson kept saying they planned to put something out but just never got around to it. So when Martin approached me, I said yes.’
As for the future, with his current new album, ‘Ain’t In No Hurry’, rolling well, gathering critical acclaim, he takes each day as it comes. Now easily one of the most influential and inspiring, gifted guitarists of his generation, Kaukonen pauses to reflect on the longevity of his career to date. ‘You can’t plan for stuff like this,’ he simply says.