Published March 25. 2014 4:00AM
BRINGS HIS GYPSY
We're all clear on this, right?
Gypsy jazz musician Django Reinhardt was one of the finest, most innovative and visionary guitarists of all time. And, since two of the four fingers of Reinhardt's fretting hand - the ring and fourth finger - were paralyzed in a fire when he was 18, the standard joke is: jeez, what could he have done with two more fingers?!
It's a question that Thor Jensen thinks about a lot - though not remotely in a punchline context. Jensen is the astounding Stonington-based guitarist most associated with the jam band Incognito Sofa Love, as well as for his touring slots with Quiet Life and Daphne Lee Martin. In his free time, he's spent the last several years preoccupied with acoustic jazz guitar through the prism of gypsy jazz, which of course was the heartbeat behind Reinhardt's technique and legacy.
"I've been studying jazz for a real long time," Jensen says, "and in recent years the main focus has been gypsy jazz, which is acoustic and based in hard swing. And I decided I wanted to explore that within an ensemble context - to take elements of gypsy jazz and use it as a springboard to do American and contemporary jazz and even original stuff."
The Thor Jensen Jazz Organization debuts Friday at the Knickerbocker Cafe in Westerly. Along with Jensen, the fully acoustic band includes rhythm guitarist Tom Foley, flutist Ashley Crawford, bassist Eric Spoldi and trumpeter Scott Crawford.
One obvious difference in the lineup - in the context of Reinhardt and gypsy jazz - is that Jensen decided to forgo the typical violin presence.
"I wanted the traditional swing of the bass and the rhythm guitar, but I thought it would be fun and interesting to add other melodic components that weren't necessarily what you'd get with the gypsy violin," Jensen says. Since his girlfriend, Ashley Crawford, is a music teacher and a fluidly intuitive player, and since her brother, Tom, is a similarly gifted trumpeter, it seemed obvious to Jensen.
"With Tom and Ashley, we have different options for the melodies and it's been fun to explore that," Jensen says. He laughs. "The truth is, we've only had four actual group rehearsals. I worked with Tom for a long time, just charting out rhythms and ideas and tunes. Only then did we bring the full band in."
Jensen says the first practice was devoted to just walking through arrangments and refining them. He then took the results home and, before the next rehearsal, did a lot of chart transposing. He says, "It's the sort of stuff I hadn't really wanted to do and in fact hadn't done a lot of. But it turned out to be really fun to go through it and the musicians were incredibly helpful as we worked on the material."
As the band progresses, Jensen says their repertoire is tweaked. "We're definitely doing the gypsy jazz stuff. But we use those theories and sounds and twist all sorts of material. It's a bit of an experiment, honestly. I'm going to give all the time I have to this project. I'm vested in Quiet Life and with Daphne's band and we still play in ISL when we can. I love all of it. But this is something I'd like to see grow; branch out a bit in the area and maybe someday tour with it."
Jensen says the genesis of his Jazz Organization probably started seven years ago when he read a biography about Reinhardt.
"I couldn't stop thinking about him and what he went through, and I couldn't stop listening to the music," says Jensen, who describes Reinhardt's style as a mix of traditional French music, traditional gypsy music and traditional Louis Armstrong.
He says, "As someone who grew up playing rock 'n' roll, trying to play fiery stuff - to hear Django play fiery stuff on an acoustic ... I couldn't get around it."
Jensen has thought a lot about and been significantly inspired by Reinhardt's handicap.
He says, "Django never thought about stopping. He was able to invent this new way to play. He invented chords and a new way of soloing. I can see why he came up with the style he did - and that it's so appealing and intriguing is amazing. His handicap shaped him. I think if you get maimed at 18, that has a lot to do with shaping your life and how you go forward. It's something I want to always think about."