An Interview with Memphis-based Jeff Jensen -- The real face of a genuine bluesman beyond of music

"Blues can be a great unifier, and a great equalizer. Age, race, religion, it doesn’t matter, it’s all about soul."

Jeff  Jensen: The Blues Reality

Growing up listening to 50’s, 60’s and 70’s Rock-N-Roll, the Blues was always just a step away. So when Jeff Jensen started playing guitar at age 11 the significance of blues was overwhelming. Flirting with different styles of music like Rock and Roll, Funk, Punk Rock and Jazz through high school, Jeff landed his first blues gigs at age 19 as a guitarist. Soon after he was hired to front a southern California blues band that gigged a few times a month from San Diego to Ventura. In 2003 Jeff and Chris Sabie founded the Santa Clarita Blues Society. Jeff and Chris travelled to Memphis for the 2004 IBC.

Jeff came home from that a member of the Blues Foundation and fully charged and inspired to form his own band. May 2004 the Jeff Jensen Band was born. From 2005-2009 the band performed 200 shows per year. During this time the Jeff Jensen Band was in the 2005, 2006, and 2007 IBC’s, regularly performed west coast festivals and opened for BB King at part of his 80th Birthday tour. In 2007 the band’s debut album “Self-Titled” (Swingsuit Records) was released. In 2008 Jeff was asked to produce longtime friend and musical associate John Parker’s album.  This was very challenging and emotion because by this time John was quickly losing his 5 year battle with cancer. The album was completed just weeks before John passed. It was released a few months later and contains some inspirational blues songs about his battle that serve to this day as anthems for several America Cancer Society events around the country. In 2009 Jeff Jensen Band released their album “I’m Coming Home” and in 2013 the album "Road Worn and Ragged", recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis, TN. "Morose Elephant" (2015) is the fourth studio album recorded mostly at the famed Ardent Studios.

Interview by Michael Limnios  

Photos by Jeff Jenson Archive / All rights reserved

How do you describe Jeff Jensen sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

I always try to play the ‘song’, I want every note I play on guitar to express the emotion of the lyrics. If we are playing a happy, party song, I want my guitar to sound happy… maybe even like my guitar has been drinking whiskey. If we are playing something deeply sad, I always take a few seconds to think about that emotion deep down inside of me, then I try my best to play that on guitar. Real raw emotion always comes first when playing the blues.

What experiences in your life have triggered your ideas most frequently for songs?

Love, life, loss, and the beautiful interaction between people. The ever changing state of our lives and how we all fit together like a puzzle, even if we don’t know it.

What does the BLUES mean to you & what does Blues offered you?

Blues to me is real music.  Every night we play the same songs, but they are always different because every night is different. The energy in the room, the drive or flight to the show, the hotels we are staying in, our personal lives all change the way we feel from day to day; Blues lets us express those changes night after night, it lets me communicate my true emotions and feelings even as they change from day to day. It’s an honest release. And when I hear other blues musicians playing with that kind of soul it instantly touched me. Blues is also a history, a deep and important part of American culture that needs to be embraced and prolonged. The more one understands about where ‘blues’ came from, the more you feel it in your soul… you start to really understand what the generations that came before us had to go through.  

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

Not too long ago I lost everything I had. I was literally down to a few hundred dollars, no car and no place of my own. I spent the last of my money getting from Portland Oregon to Memphis Tennessee and that is about a 2,400 mile trip. I didn’t come to Memphis with a plan. I just knew I needed a change and quick. A dear friend of mine let me stay at his house until I got on my feet. I was in Memphis for 30 hours when Brandon Santini and I first met. He was playing at Wet Willies on Beale St and he asked me sit in for a few songs. That night he offered me some gigs and we’ve been playing together ever since. It seems that as soon as I got to Memphis the gates were open to me. I have had so many great people come in to my life since moving here and it feels like it was the perfect thing for me to do… almost fate if you will.

Why did you think that the Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

Because it’s real. In a world filled with robotic sounding pop artists that look and sound “perfect”, it’s refreshing to hear something real. In the real world nothing is perfect, so why should our music? If it’s emotional and in the moment then it’s real and that has its own kind of beauty that blues fans deeply appreciate. We don’t have all the smoke and mirror tricks, every show we do, you “get what you see” and I for one LOVE THAT.

"Blues to me is real music. Every night we play the same songs, but they are always different because every night is different."

Do you remember anything funny from the open act for BB King at part of his 80th Birthday tour?

YES!!! I was 25 years old at that time and I was even more full of energy than I am now. My band and I put on a hell of a show! I would run around the stage, jump up and down, and play guitar like every show was my last show…. then BB’s band would come on stage and BB would have two people help him up to his chair he sat in… It only took BB King one single note on his guitar to match ALL the energy that I put out in a 45 minute set.  I couldn’t believe how powerful he was.  And that is not something anyone can learn, you have got to be BB KING to play like BB KING. I just remember how instantly humbling it was. I know that’s not a “funny” story, but it always makes me smile when thinking about it. I learned more from watching BB King then I ever learned anywhere else.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

Bandon Santini started the “Beale Street Mess Around” a few years ago and those have been MAJIC! The one we did in May 2013 was amazing.  The show is set up like a revue and I was the house band. So I got to play a set as ‘Jeff Jensen’ then I played a set with Brandon, then I backed up John Nemeth, Terry Hank, Sugar Ray Rayford, Bryan Lee, Redd Velvet, and Muddy Water’s son Mud Morganfield.  That was a very special night and everybody in the Rum Boogie Café on Beale Street knew it. I still feel that show in my soul when I think about it… damn, that was good lineup!

"My music has the consistency of water; it’s constantly changing and flowing. Each passing season seems to bring fresh perspectives on life and those each require a unique musical soundtrack."

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

We all get out of this what we put in to it. I try to live by that.  So I try to find what’s special about everyone I meet. But meeting Brandon Santini at the time I met him was one of the single most important events in my life. I was in a really dark place then and I really didn’t have much at all, emotionally or financially. It really was the right place at the right time. It probably saved my life.

As far as growth as a musician and blues artist, Victor Wainwright is one of the most inspirational people I have ever met. He helped me produce some tracks on my new album (due out August 2013) “road worn and ragged” and he brought out the best in me. His friendship, advice, and personal example of success will always stay with me. He continues to move me every time I see him play, or every time I play with him.

The Best advice I was ever given… hahaha… this is a good one. When I was about 20 years old I was pretty good at guitar, not great but pretty good. At the time I didn’t understand the difference between ‘good’ and ‘good for your age’, so I started thinking I was good. I had ALL the tricks down, I could play behind my head, I would jump on top of table, I could do the splits while playing guitar… I would really get the audience going.  Well, one day I was at a blues jam and an older guitar player who was really good played his set, then I got up and put on the SHOW… After my set he took me outside and said “why don’t you learn how the F*@K to play guitar before doing all those tricks!”  He was really upset and I could feel it… I left that jam thinking “WHO DOES HE THINK HE IS?!!!” But as a few months passed his message sank in.  I tried to do some shows without all the crazy tricks and the audience didn’t respond to me very well. That’s when I knew he was right. I had to really focus on HOW and WHAT to play more than the silly show stuff. That sparked a new ‘me’. I am forever grateful for his crass, straight forward talk.

"Blues is also a history, a deep and important part of American culture that needs to be embraced and prolonged."

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past?

The formalness of a concert. The old timers had so much pride in what they did and they dressed up for gigs and put on a show! Some bands do that now adays, but more and more it’s casual.  For some reason that takes some of the specialness out of it to me. I love seeing BB King and his band is suits and ties, I love seeing the pictures and videos of Muddy Water – He always looked sharp, he really cared. I don’t like seeing blues artists dressed like Kurt Cobain while on stage, I feel like it’s disrespectful to the audience that paid their hard earned money to come see a show. But to each his own, I’m not trying to be overly judgmental, and I certainly don’t want to see every blues act dressed like the Blues Brothers. It’s just nice to see a group of blues musicians that look like they are about to put on a show, that’s what all the blues icons of our past did.

What are your hopes and fears for the future of Blues music?

I hope that the blues continues to grow while holding true to the tradition of its history. I hope that the blues fans around the world will continue to listen to our music and buy our albums. I also hope that a new generation of blues fans will emerge with the new wave of blues artists.

By biggest fear is that with too many blue clubs will close or cut back not allowing for artist to tour nationally. I also fear that people will stop buying CD’s and we are dependent on that income to support our careers.  That is really a problem that our industry needs to address because with our music only sold as downloads online, it will make it tougher for us to continue our art.

"I don’t like seeing blues artists dressed like Kurt Cobain while on stage, I feel like it’s disrespectful to the audience that paid their hard earned money to come see a show."  

Which memory from recording time makes you smile?

ALL OF THEM. I love the studio. I always try to give it my all when recording. It means so much to me to hear all our hard work transfer on to tape. When recording Brandon Santini’s album “This Time Another Year”, it was magic the whole time. We cut that album almost completely live and the energy in the room was contagious. I remember after we played “Help me with the blues” we were all so excited because it just felt like me nailed it. We did that song in one take all together and that makes me smile even now thinking about how special that moment was. Victor Wainwright on piano, Bill Ruffino on bass, James Cunningham on drums, and Brandon singing his ass off and blowing harmonica like a hurricane.  WOW… that was good session.

It also makes me smile to think about some of the challenges I’ve had to overcome in the studio. I wrote some songs for my album (Road worn and ragged) that are very emotional for me. So the balance of performance vs emotion is delicate. I need to sing like I mean, but if I get too emotional in a take then I might get loose with the melody or timing. So it is kind of a lot to overcome and balance. And when it’s all done, and I hear the final product I smile and feel like I really accomplished something.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Rock and Roll, Funk, Blues, Punk Rock and Jazz?

Blues came from the church, the delta and the cotton fields - rock and roll came from blues - funk and puck rock came from rock and so on.  I am not sure any of those genres would be around today if it wasn’t for the blues. One think I love about all those genres is that are all performed by real musicians playing real instruments.

Chris Sabie with you, founded the Santa Clarita Blues Society. Where did you get that idea?

I met Chris Sabie when I was 20 years old he was in his 50’s. I was really starting to get in to the blues community in Los Angeles at that time.  He told me about the Blues Foundation and what they do and he wanted to start a blues society to preserve and promote blues music. I was happy to help. He did all the paper work and complicated filing with the IRS. And I tried to promote it and get members for us. We did a great job with it and that society is still around today 10 years after we founded it. That makes me really proud to have been part of that. Every time I go back home I try to go to and SCV Blues Society Jam and hang with all the folks. Last time I got to do that was 2 years ago and I couldn’t believe how it’s grow, it really felt good.

From California to Tennessee, what are the differences between: the local blues scenes in USA?

I have found so many similarities in blues communities all over America. Blues can be a great unifier, and a great equalizer. Age, race, religion, it doesn’t matter, it’s all about soul. That is one of my favorite things about blues music - that attitude is pretty common everywhere I’ve been in America. But there are lots of style differences; The west coast swings more, Memphis lays it back more, Mississippi and the delta get low down dirty with it. It seems most evident in the shuffles that a drummer will play and the chords a guitar player chooses and the style differences between harmonica players. It’s all the little differences that create the uniqueness of the style.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

I think it would be April 7, 1967 in Oslo, Norway for the Stax Revue concert.  The soul in that concert is second to none! To be there and feel that energy would have been amazing. I love soul music, and that is as good as it gets!

Or I would want to see Muddy Waters with Otis Spann… I don’t care where. I would just want to see those two men on stage together anywhere playing what they play.  Man, that is the best stuff there is.

You are also known of your work with America Cancer Society events. Would you tell a little bit about that?

I had a dear friend of mine named John Parker who had cancer. He and I played a lot together I even co-produced his final album; he passed right as we were finishing it. He got me in to the American Cancer Society events.  He really did try to give back as much as he could and that really inspired me.  I have lost several very close friends to cancer as well as many of my family members, so it is a cause that is very dear to me. John wrote some amazing songs about his battle with cancer that are very powerful and emotional. I know that some of those songs are used by the ACS at their events and those songs should be used as anthems for anyone. “Forget all my Fears” is the most emotional one, as I was producing that song and playing the guitar solo is got deep for all of us, we felt it, and I still do when I listen to that track today. I really believe in giving back and paying forward, I must admit I used to do more charity work in my past when I wasn’t as busy as I am today. I am hoping to get myself into a position where I can do more work for the American Cancer Society and other great causes soon.

Are there any memories from “Morose Elephant” sessions which you’d like to share with us?

“Morose Elephant” was an amazing project. In fact the most powerful I’ve ever been part of. I loved creating those songs, they really did come from a deep and special part of me, and as they came alive and started to truly take their musical shapes, it was a dream come true. They really did come out even better than they were in my mind. I’ve very proud of this album the wonderful musicians that make it all come to life.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I would like there to be more places that parents can take their children to see live music. I don’t feel that today’s youth gets exposed to music as much as they should or as much as they need. It’s such a powerful part of our world and beautiful thing for all of us to share, we should be sharing more often!

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the blues circuits?

Everytime we show up to play a show and people buy our albums I am touched. I am touched because I know that our music has made them feel inspired and that makes me feel like I’m really doing my job. We played a show not too long ago in Atlanta, Georgia and some our fans made actually ‘fans’ with my face on them and were holding them up as we were playing, it really made me laugh when about 100 of them were waving around at the same time. That’s a lot of pictures for “me” to see at once.

"Blues came from the church, the delta and the cotton fields - rock and roll came from blues - funk and puck rock came from rock and so on. I am not sure any of those genres would be around today if it wasn’t for the blues."

Do you think that your music and songs are as it started out all these years ago in your new album or has this changed and are you pointing in a new direction?

Yes it has changed. My music has the consistency of water; it’s constantly changing and flowing. Each passing season seems to bring fresh perspectives on life and those each require a unique musical soundtrack. I try to focus on the emotion of music and the emotion of life, and as we all know, that chances always. My music and song writing has changed a lot. It seems that with every new life experience I live, my perspective grows, especially with the negative ones. My album, “road worn and ragged” reflects some hard experiences I’ve had to navigate through. The original songs were written more openly and honestly than I’ve dared to do in the past. The new direction I’ve taken my music and will continue taking my music in is ‘Emotional Honesty”.

Who musician you would want to hear the album and jamm with him / her?

There are so many. I grew up listening to Buddy Guy, so it has always been a dream of mine to share the stage with him. We just played his club in Chicago but his was on tour at the time so we didn’t meet, but hopefully sometime sooner than later. Also, I’m a huge Rod Piazza fan, I would love to get the opportunity to play with Rod sometime, I’d love to hear what he thinks of my albums.

Jeff Jensen - official website

Donna Criswell Photography

 

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