Jun 022023

In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!

If you don’t know Jorma, you don’t know Jack. — T-shirt saying

If you know Jorma Kaukonen at all, it’s as the lead guitarist of the iconic Jefferson Airplane, or perhaps as leader of Hot Tuna, the psychedelic blues-rock Airplane spin-off. In either case, you do know Jack–Jack Casady, bass player in the Airplane and Hot Tuna. But maybe you know Jorma strictly as a solo artist, with a dozen or so albums to his name. In which case you know Jorma, but you still don’t know Jack.

As teenagers in the Washington D.C. area in the late ‘50s, Jorma and Jack played in rock bands together. But while he was away at college, Jorma discovered the finger-style guitar playing of Reverend Gary Davis. The encounter was transformative; if Jorma or Hot Tuna is playing a show tonight, chances are good that the set list calls for a Davis piece, if not two or three.

Transferring to the Bay Area in 1964, Jorma connected with other roots-minded musicians in the area–unknowns like Jerry Garcia and Janis Joplin among them. (The earliest known Joplin recordings are her rehearsal sessions with Jorma, recorded at his apartment in ‘64.) But it was Jorma’s connection with non-traditionalists Marty Balin and Paul Kantner that led to the formation of Jefferson Airplane in ‘65. Jorma persuaded his old friend Jack to move out west to fill the bass slot.

By the end of the ‘60s the Airplane had become an international sensation, playing all the landmark music festivals of the day–Woodstock, Altamont, Monterey, and Isle of Wight. Jorma left most of the songwriting to others, but as lead guitarist he helped define the quintessential psychedelic sound of that time and place. With Jack as his co-pilot, Jorma soared into swirling and aggressive improvisations, deploying all the newest effect pedals to warp the sound.

But Kaukonen also offered a grounded counterbalance to the Airplane’s mayhem. His acoustic guitar instrumental “Embryonic Journey” wasn’t a hit like “White Rabbit” or “Somebody to Love,” but it’s a timeless classic nonetheless, a true original that belongs to no genre. Jorma’s rewrite of the old hymn “Good Shepherd” is another example of the quiet depth Jorma brought to the band.

For all his acid-rocking, and his crafting of instrumentals, Jorma kept right on developing as a blues player and singer–some Chicago blues, a lot of country blues. He certainly departed from the conventional blues playbook–he admired peers like Mike Bloomfield and Eric Clapton, but he didn’t care to follow their patterns and frameworks.

Jorma and Jack formed Hot Tuna In 1969 during lulls in Airplane’s schedule. They have been at it ever since, with time-outs for Jorma’s solo outings and other pursuits. The blues-focused side gig organically evolved into the main one. A live recording of acoustic material debuted in 1970, followed by another live album (electric this time) in ’71. Alternating between acoustic and electric is something they still do, with the acoustic band sometimes opening for the electric one. Personnel changes occurred with each new album or tour. The early line-up with electric violinist Papa John Creach and drummer Sammy Piazza was probably Hot Tuna at its hottest. Later in the ’70s Hot Tuna worked the power trio format. Since then, Hot Tuna frequently presents as a duo–just Jorma and Jack, sometimes billed as “The Original Acoustic Hot Tuna.”

In 1974 Jorma made his solo debut with Quah. Produced by Jack Casady, the album featured old blues, new instrumentals, and one of Jorma’s finest songs in “Genesis.” And yet the album earned only one honor: In 2000 it was voted number 1 in the All-Time 50 Long Forgotten Gems category (in Colin Larkin’s All Time Top 1000 Albums). In other words, it didn’t sell. Major label support evaporated by the early ’80s. Artistically, commercially, and personally, the ’80s and ’90s were a struggle. Nevertheless, he persisted. One highlight was a brief, rancorous reunion of Jefferson Airplane in ‘89 –a bright spot only in that it led to a new record deal for Hot Tuna, who opened for Airplane on the reunion tour. (As for the Jefferson Starship incarnation of his old band, Jorma wanted no part of it.)

In 2002, Jorma’s solo album Blue Country Heart revealed a man with renewed energy, and a new crop of collaborators. With top-tier players like Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, and Jerry Douglas signing on, Jorma delved into old-time country music (Jimmie Rodgers, the Delmore Brothers), and earned a Grammy nomination for the recording. By that time the industry knew how to deal with the increasing demand for Americana and roots-influenced music of the sort Jorma had been performing for 40 years.

Jorma and Jack were in the news again last month with an announcement that Hot Tuna’s upcoming electric tour will be their finale as an electric band. Now in his 80s, Jorma may feel it’s time to relax deeper into operations at the Fur Peace Ranch, the music-farm he runs with his wife Vanessa on their 128-acre ranch in rural Ohio. You can go there for workshops and performances with leading musicians of the day and of course Jorma himself. If your timing is right you can even take a bass workshop, and get to know Jack.

Jorma Kaukonen – I Am the Light of This World (Reverend Gary Davis cover)

We’ll start with a Reverend Gary Davis deep cut, presented with a certain purity on Jorma’s Quah album. A clean, unadorned take on this song reveals the bone structure underlying so much of Hot Tuna’s music: Jorma thumps out his own bass line on the lower strings while playing melodies on the higher ones. You can see how this would free a bass player like Casady to explore jazzy excursions while Jorma holds down the root notes and drives the syncopation.

Hot Tuna – Keep On Truckin’ (Blind Boy Fuller cover)

Hot Tuna brought fiddler Papa John Creach on board for their first studio recording, Burgers. They swing hard on this Jesse “Blind Boy” Fuller song from the 1930s. Fuller studied under Rev Gary Davis, and became another of the Piedmont style players that influenced Jorma so thoroughly.

Papa John was a classical violinist and jazz player going back to the ‘30s. Before finding himself in the Haight-Ashbury scene, he played with Big Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker. He knew how to jam on the ragtime-based “Keep on Truckin’” but he could gel beautifully with Jorma’s melodic instrumentals like “Water Song” (also on Burgers). Papa John’s jaunty demeanor on stage, juxtaposed with the spooky textures and hair-raising harmonics he coaxes from his instrument, lifted Hot Tuna to its most inspired levels of musicianship and showmanship.

Hot Tuna – That’ll Never Happen No More (Blind Blake cover)

With this ragtime piece from Arthur “Blind” Blake, we complete our survey of giants of the Piedmont blues style. It’s a highlight from Hot Tuna’s first electric album, when Will Scarlett on harmonica was still in the lineup. Scarlett plays with a light touch on this number and leaves the real soloing to Papa John.

Hot Tuna – How Long Blues (Leroy Carr cover)

It’s surprising that an acoustic guitar and bass duo would latch onto piano-driven blues for their first album, but they did, and it still sounds fresh so many decades later. The recording featured two Jelly Roll Morton numbers and Leroy Carr’s “How Long Blues” from 1929. Carr’s mournfulness contrasts with the lighthearted pieces from Morton.

Carr is perhaps best known for “In the Evening When the Sun Goes Down.” In contrast to the rural blues figures that populate Jorma’s typical setlists, Carr was an urban blues star–in some ways the first and most important one. He was a hugely influential artist who died tragically young. “How Long Blues” was his first hit.

Jorma and Jack do some nice playing off each other here, with a fluid sense of time on the instrumental breaks.

Jorma Kaukonen – Operator (Grateful Dead cover)

One of the first friends Jorma made in the Bay Area was Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. At that time McKernan played in a jugband, knew tons about old blues, jazz, and ragtime records, and was soon to become the leader and frontman of the Grateful Dead. As with their mutual friend Janis Joplin, McKernan’s appetites got the best of him, leading to a terribly early death at age 27.

McKernan was more drawn to interpreting early blues material than writing original songs (much like Jorma, early on). But he contributed “Operator” to the Dead’s classic American Beauty, where it gets overshadowed by the veritable greatest hits collection that forms the rest of the album.

This fond tribute to Pigpen is from Jorma’s River of Time, which he recorded in Levon Helm’s studio up near Woodstock, NY. Levon himself plays on a number of tracks, as does Larry Campbell (Tom Petty, Bob Dylan) who also produced the recording.

Hot Tuna – Candy Man Blues (Reverend Gary Davis cover)

For all Reverend Gary Davis’s sermons, he could throw down sinful secular music with the best of them. Witness “Candyman,” which is not about a man dealing in candy. On YouTube there’s footage of Davis playing “Candyman” in his later years, but he refuses to sing the verses; perhaps his wife was watching to keep him from the Devil’s music.

Everyone solos but Jorma, the calm at the center of the storm. Will Scarlett on harmonica sounds like he’s trying to out-yowl Papa John on this number, or maybe he just got overstimulated by Jack’s killer bass solo. This performance is a fine example of playing traditional music in way that seems faithful to the tradition and yet which radiates newness and joy.

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  8 Responses to “In the Spotlight: Jorma Kaukonen”

Comments (8)
  1. My favorite version of what Jorma does is “Embryonic Journey,” more so than his blues-inflected work. But he’s a master of finger picking for sure.

    • Excellent find, Kevin, that Doug Smith. Impressive performance indeed–the way he goes off in his own direction with it is what I like most. Even more to my liking is this interpretation by Steven McLane, a little more chill than Doug Smith’s, with some exotic-sounding bits tucked in here and there. https://youtu.be/L7Zrj5arkyo

      Kinda wish I had included it in the main article, but on the other hand I had fun keeping the spotlight on Jorma’s playing.

      • McLane’s lines are remarkably clean.

        I was sorta surprised you didn’t include Blues Stay Away From Me, from Blue Country Heart. But then you said you wanted to feature Jorma’s playing and I’ve always thought he was very modest on that recording, allowing the other excellent players to stretch.

        Interesting that you referred to I Am the Light of This World as a deep cut. It’s the song that first drew me to Jorma’s solo career. In 1976, I first heard it on the legendary WHFS in DC. Went right out to Kemp Mill Records in Georgetown and bought Quah.

        Thanks for this list. You’ve triggered a revisiting of the Hot Tuna catalog.

        • $3.99 an LP at Kemp Mill; four for $12.00. I bought in bunches.

        • Same here, Kevin–only with me it was at a live show when “I am the Light of this World” really struck out as a gem and compelled me to go out and get some recordings. I call it a deep cut because as far as I can tell it is not one of the Reverend’s many well-known compositions–certainly not in the top ten, say.

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