By: Tim Newby
Jorma Kaukonen’s fifty-year career as one of the brightest, most inventive guitarists of his generation has branded him a legend. From his earliest beginnings playing acoustic-blues, to his ground-breaking time with Jefferson Airplane, to his highly-influential work with Hot Tuna, Kaukonen is quite simply one of the most important guitarists of all-time. With his latest album, Ain’t In No Hurry, Kaukonen enlarges that legacy and subtly references back to his earliest roots as a musician.
The twelve songs on Ain’t In No Hurry are a mix of Kaukonen originals and covers that help tell the story of the guitarist’s long, influential career. The album also includes a nod to Kaukonen’s oldest musical compadre, legendary bassist Jack Casady. The pair met when Kaukonen was still a bluegrass loving teenager in High School in Chevy Chase, Maryland and Casady was a guitar playing middle-schooler. In 1965 Casady would move to California and switch to bass at the request of Kaukonen and join his new band, Jefferson Airplane. As part of Jefferson Airplane the pair would help create some of the most enduring musical-psychedelia to come out San Francisco’s Summer of Love. In 1969 Casady and Kaukonen would form the blues-folk outfit Hot Tuna as a side-project while there was down-time from Jefferson Airplane. Following the slow-dissolution of Jefferson Airplane the pair would commit full-time to Hot Tuna in 1972.
On Ain’t In No Hurry Kaukonen references back to that highly-influential band with a stripped-down, spirited take on the 1975 classic Hot Tuna tune “Bar Room Crystal Ball,” that includes bass supplied by Casady. Kaukonen says that Casady’s appearance on the track was out of necessity, “When Larry [Campbell, the albums producer] and I were doing that song we both agreed there is only one person who can play bass on this song and that is Jack Casady.” Despite the inclusion of the Hot Tuna song and the presence of longtime musical partner Casady on the one track, Kaukonen makes it clear Ain’t In No Hurry is a solo album, not a Hot Tuna album. “I am lucky guy that I get to play with one of the world’s great bass players in Jack Casady. We play together all the time and the question is why would I do a Jorma solo album and if so why wouldn’t I use Jack?” asks Kaukonen. “If I use Jack then it would be a Hot Tuna album. When Jack and I do something the artistic spotlight is on the interaction between what Jack and I do together which is very cool. A Jorma solo album is pretty much about the songs rather than specific interactions.”
With the spotlight squarely on the songs that make up Ain’t In No Hurry and the leisurely way they unfold to narrate the musical adventure of Kaukonen, the album becomes an aural trip guided by Kaukonen’s elegant guitar work. The songs range from the Carter Family classic “Sweet Fern,” a song he recalls first encountering on the back porch of his house while growing up, to an obscure Woody Guthrie tune, “Suffer Little Children to Come Unto Me,” to the thoughtful ruminations of “In My Dreams.” The album provides a contemplative look at life as delivered by one of rock’s elder statesmen who after a life of seeing and doing it all is content to live life at his pace, or as he sings on the title track “I ain’t in no hurry, I’m going to take my time.”
A pair of covers on the album, the Thomas A. Dorsey classic, “Terrible Operation,” and the Jimmy Cox blues-standard, “Nobody Knows When You’re Down and Out,” both speak to the earliest days of Kaukonen’s musical journey as they have been in his repertoire for as long as he can remember. It surprised the guitarist when he realized he had never actually gotten around to recording them on any of the almost thirty studio albums he has recorded with Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna, or solo. “’Nobody Knows When You’re Down and Out,’ I had been playing that before I came to California in 1962. I have played it with Janis Joplin,” recalled Kaukonen, “I couldn’t believe I had never recorded that song. I just went ‘wow’ when I realized it wasn’t on a record because I have been playing it for so long.”
The inclusion of these two gems from Kaukonen’s past fully fit into the guitarist’s stated ethos of song selection for an album of which he declares, “My choice of songs is always an effort to tell my story.” And both of these songs do just that as they highlight the acclaimed guitarist’s earliest days and harkens back to a pair of influential acoustic guitarists who really captured the imagination of the young, budding finger-picker in Kaukonen. “When I think back to people who really set me on fire as a player it would be Steve Mann and Ian Buchanan,” says Kaukonen. While those names and the importance of their contributions has been lost to many due to the ravages of time, their impact on a generation of guitarists is not.
Ian Buchanan was a New York City based guitarist who had learned from the legendary Reverend Gary Davis. In the sixties he was considered to be one of the greatest-living masters of traditional blues. Kaukonen first encountered him in the early 1960s while in college at Antioch College in Ohio. The two struck up a friendship and Buchanan started tutoring Kaukonen on guitar. “He is the guy that really started me finger-picking. He was a great player and the one who turned me onto Gary Davis,” says Kaukonen, “His playing was brilliant and very influential on me.” No less influential on Kaukonen was L.A. guitarist Steve Mann who was only on the scene for short time as he suffered a mental breakdown in 1967 and retired from music. His album Live at the Ash Grove became a highly sought-after recording and one that Kaukonen calls “Brilliant.” The style of playing Mann incorporated at the time was far ahead of what else everyone at the time was doing and pushed Kaukonen to be adventurous and inventive with his playing.
Kaukonen also takes time to mention guitar-wizard Mike Bloomfield in his list of guitar heroes. When Kaukonen was in his words “seduced” into joining the Jefferson Airplane in 1965 his experience with an electric guitar was limited and he had no real electric guitar players he looked up to. “For some reason, I don’t know why, he [Mike Bloomfield] befriended me. I wasn’t doing anything he was into at all,” says Kaukonen, “The stuff he was doing with the Butterfield Blues Band was monumental. Michael started showing me some insights into electric guitar. Up to that point I had only played amplified guitar, not electric. I didn’t know anything about sustain or any of that kind of stuff we take for granted today. I don’t play anything like Michael, but he opened those magical doors for me.” Those magical doors have been wide open ever since for Kaukonen and he barrels through them with a confident, laid-back, swagger on Ain’t In No Hurry. His masterful guitar dances across the twelve tracks, recalling the lessons learned from Buchanan, Mann, and Bloomfield, and much like they did for him, inspiring a new generation of guitar players.
In addition to Kaukonen and the spirit of his guitar heroes, the other dominant figure on the album is producer Larry Campbell. Much like the man himself, Campbell’s contributions are low-key and never draw attention to them self, but they are utterly vital and completely help shape the sound of each song. Campbell has long been sought after as a multi-instrumentalist and producer for his ability to get the most out of each song, yet at the same time being able retain every subtle nuance and charm that it was originally written with. Campbell has worked with Kaukonen for the past few years, producing Kaukonen’s previous solo album, River of Time, in 2009 and the most recent Hot Tuna album, Steady as She Goes, in 2011. Kaukonen says he likes working with Campbell because “it is just like working with yourself.” He adds, “Larry is such a great guy. As both a player and producer he has this unbelievable talent that sets him apart from any other producer in that he doesn’t try and mold whoever he works with. He comes up with suggestions and ideas, but it is all stuff that feels like me. It is not like he does something to make you sound like this other person. It is like having an old friend or bandmate that has really new ideas that apply to you.”
Campbell’s similar musical sensibilities allow him to function like a longtime member of the band which provides an easy going creative atmosphere in which to work. For Kaukonen this is great as he calls his writing style “deadline driven,” and claims that he rarely has a surplus of songs as he says “That I get off my lazy butt when I have to get things done for a project and usually wind up with exactly what I need because I stop when I get exactly what I need. As soon as I get enough to fill an album I stop writing and start recording.”
Campbell’s low-key approach, vast musical vocabulary, and un-matched multi-instrumental ability makes him the perfect complement and partner to Kaukonen’s expressive, guitar-driven, song-writing. “The guitar tells me what I can do and invites me to do stuff,” explains Kaukonen, “But Larry’s musical sensibilities come from within and manifest themselves in what is right for the job. I think it is the same when he works with me or Levon [Helm] or any of the people he produces. He gets to know them musically and then he draws from his special ablity to be creative within the artistic space the musician provides. He does not try to mold anybody.”
This partnership has crafted an album that is the sum of all those parts; Kaukonen’s guitar heroes, his transcendent finger-picking guitar, and Campbell’s creative and subtle touch that brings those glorious guitar lines to life. Those parts come together create an album that tells the story of Kaukonen’s long, influential, musical life. “At this point in my life perhaps I should be in more of a hurry,” summarizes Kaukonen, “But for me it is important that each piece fits in the right place at the right time. The songs you hear in this album cover a lot of ground for me. Some are very old, and some are quite new. From where I came from to where I am today. It is all here.”