Jorma Kaukonen Talks Turning 75, Hot Tuna & More

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Welcome to another edition of The Art of the Sit-In, where we mix it up with the scene’s most adventurous players and hear some stories from the road. For more, check out our recent interviews with Eric Gould, Tom Constanten, Col. Bruce Hampton, Jennifer Hartswick, Jeff Sipe and more.

“Legend” is a word that gets thrown around plenty in this scene, but for Jorma Kaukonen it certainly qualifies. One of the great guitarists, songwriters and interpreters, he is a cornerstone musician from the psychedelic era and the magical West Coast 60s scene, and he’s still at it, more than half a century later, playing the folk, blues, rock and roots music that’s never stopped moving him.

Kaukonen’s best known associations are Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, the latter of which, despite its evolution, remains an uncompromisingly great concert force. Later this month, Kaukonen will celebrate his 75th birthday (which is technically December 23) with a return visit to New York’s vaunted Beacon Theatre: two more guest-packed Hot Tuna adventures as part of a continuing tradition there.

In a recent conversation, Jorma touched first and foremost on longevity: the appeal of Hot Tuna, his reverence for the Airplane, his more than 50 year partnership with another legend, bassist Jack Casady, and why playing “Hesitation Blues” or “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning” for the 1,000th time can still reveal new things.

JAMBASE: Soon a happy birthday: 75 years old. You don’t seem to be slowing down.

JORMA KAUKONEN: [laughs] That’s true, but it depends on what time of the day we’re talking.

JAMBASE: You expect to stay busy?

JK: So far, so good. People occasionally ask me about retiring and my stock answer is: Why, so I can spend more time playing the guitar? [laughs]

JAMBASE: What would you do with all that free time?

JK: Really, I don’t know.

JAMBASE: Some of the staple songs in a Hot Tuna set — these are songs you’ve been playing for decades and even half centuries. What are you looking for when you’re playing tunes like “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning,” “Good Shepherd” or “Hesitation Blues” for what has to be the 1,000th time?

JK: That’s a great question and it’s not the first time I’ve gotten it. First of all, a good song is always a good song. The songs I keep in my repertoire over time, they’re the songs that are part of the story of my life. I really consider myself more of a storyteller – my guitar playing is incidental to me.

A song like “Keep Your Lamps,” I love the message of that song and it’s hard to deny its power. But I’ve written and learned a lot of songs over time, some of which I keep active. I don’t ignore the ones I don’t do … Well, sometimes I don’t do them because I’d have to learn them again, but often I don’t do songs because they’re just not what I’m feeling today. There’s a song from one of my albums that I love called “Wolves and Lambs.” But it’s a downbeat song and not one I feel like doing if I’m feeling good today.

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JAMBASE: Do you feel obligated to play the classic or staple Hot Tuna selections when you perform?

JK: No, and that is a good question. Like many of the old guys who have done this for a long time, we’re not just here to stroke our egos — we’re here to entertain. I wouldn’t use the word “obligated,” but I do recognize that people come to hear what Jack and I do and have certain expectations. And that’s because it’s part of their story, too — the soundtrack of the life they’ve had. Some of the songs just make that easy. Some of them are just so fun to play. No matter how many times I’ve played some of them — and you’re right, I’ve played tunes like “Lamps” for half a century — there’s still the excitement of opening that door one more time.

JAMBASE: Do you get new insights out of songs like that? Do they reveal anything new?

JK: I think so, sure. As a 75-year-old guy, I don’t feel the same about things I did when I was, oh, 21. “For this old world is almost done” (from “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning”) — when you’re 21, that line doesn’t really mean much of anything to you. Even if it does, it’s not as tangible a reality as it is for me today. No one lives forever. A song is still the same and its message is still the same, but if I’m looking at things as a 75-year-old guy the same way I did when I was a 21-year-old guy, it’s time for me to be put to bed.

JAMBASE: A lot of folks have made note of your musical partnership with Jack. Why do you think you guys have been simpatico for so long?

JK: Jack is my oldest friend. I think what people enjoy is they get to see a bunch of old friends having a conversation on stage. I know so many great musicians and there are a lot of folks who think of Jack as one of the greatest bass players. He definitely is one of them. There’s no bullshit with what Jack does. It’s an honest conversation. I think people can see that.

JAMBASE: Do you favor more the acoustic or electric playing format now?

JK: I play more acoustic now, which doesn’t mean I don’t like the electric format — I do. But you know the music world. Whether you take a band out, three pieces or 10 pieces, it’s top-heavy and it’s expensive. The electric band doesn’t tour all the time in part because the people who are in it have other careers. Justin [Guip] coming out with Hot Tuna presupposes he’s not out with Larry and Teresa or someone else.

When I go out with my acoustic guitar, I pick up my guitar, my neighbor and friend and guitar tech Myron meets me at the airport, and we go. Jack spends a lot of time on the isle of Jersey [in England] so even doing things with him requires thought. De facto, the acoustic thing tends to be closer to my heart. But I do love the electric guitar. I just got a new guitar that I’ll be playing at the Beacon. It’s a Firebird 2 and I traded something for it. Guitar is just as exciting to me today as it always was.

JAMBASE: Are you often picking up new guitars?

JK: Not often. I’m not a collector. I just get the ones I want to play.

JAMBASE: What are your plans for Hot Tuna in 2016?

JK: Jack and I have been discussing another Hot Tuna album. We’re not going to wait 20 years between albums, but you never know — another one right now might be wishful thinking, it might not. I think what we’d like to do is go back to basics with a mainly acoustic album recorded in as live a format as we can do. Instead of overdubbing vocals and doing a lot to it, we may end up just sitting down and cutting a live album. We’re thinking about it.

JAMBASE: And how about new work under your own name?

JK: I just did Ain’t No Hurry. I really like that album. People always ask me what my favorite album is, and I’m really proud of the first Hot Tuna record and [1974’s] Quah. But this one was good. I’m lucky, I’ve never done an album where I look back and think, that sucks and I wish I hadn’t made it. It’ll be a little time before I do my next one, especially with us thinking about a Hot Tuna album.

JAMBASE: You’ll have plenty of guests joining you at the Beacon as always. How do you go about choosing them?

JK: That’s tough. I’m so fortunate to have so many good friends who are great musicians and who would make themselves available to come if I ask. Without spoiling the surprises, we will have some great guests, but not so many that we detract from the Tuna experience. On both nights, we’re going to do the first set largely as a trio, just me and Jack and Justin, old school and I get to play my new Firebird. The second set each night will have a number of surprises.

JAMBASE: Switching gears a bit, Jorma, I wanted to ask you about the 50th anniversary of Jefferson Airplane and playing the Airplane set at the Lockn’ festival a few weeks ago. How was that experience for you?

JK: It was awesome. It really was. The Airplane thing is so funny because there’s only one Airplane. Grace [Slick] doesn’t sing anymore and all that stuff so it’s not like it’s the Airplane out there. Grace and Marty [Balin] and everyone were huge talents in the Airplane. People you work for want to say that Jefferson Airplane is reuniting and you can’t say that — there’s only one Jefferson Airplane. But the gals Jack and I were able to play with did such honor to those compositions. Rachael Price is unbelievable, Larry and Teresa were a big part of that. It really was a good time.

JAMBASE: Despite the enjoyment of it, you don’t seem much for nostalgia.

JK: No, I’m not. But we didn’t approach it from a nostalgic point-of-you. It’s rock music, it’s not jazz or prog or anything, it’s meant to be played and celebrated.

JAMBASE: Are you actively in touch with Grace and Marty?

JK: I am, absolutely. We talk fairly frequently. At this point in our lives we have business interests, but I spoke to Grace just the other night and got a chance to wish her a happy birthday. Marty was a guest at the Beacon last year, and we’re about to do another Marty Balin art exhibit at our Psylodelic Gallery. And I took Paul out to dinner recently. So the answer is yes.

JAMBASE: With all these friends and associations, Jorma, is there anyone you’d really like to play with whom you haven’t?

JK: Oh boy. On the top of my wish list for sometime, I have to say, I would love to play with Eric Clapton. Eric and I aren’t buddies, I don’t have his number or anything, but I’m a huge fan of his and a huge fan of his entire career — even the albums and phases he says he’s not proud of. I would love to play with him one of these years.

JAMBASE: I always close this column asking for a good sit-in story — you with someone else or someone with one of your bands. What comes to mind?

JK: Let me see. I’d have to highlight Brian Auger. Brian’s a little older than me, but just a great jazz rhythm and blues player, and his band [Oblivion Express] was powerful and awesome. He said to me, “Do you want to sit-in?” And I was aware the stuff they do is a little bit different harmonically than what I’m used to and I said, “Brian, you know who I am musically.” And he said, “How about ‘Season of the Witch?’” And I said, “Oh yeah.”