A couple of years ago, I received a review copy of Road Worn & Ragged, a disc by a Memphis-based singer/songwriter/guitarist named Jeff Jensen. Jensen had moved to Memphis a couple of years earlier from Portland, Oregon and was working with Memphis harmonica standout Brandon Santini, even co-producing Santini's most recent disc at the time. Road Worn & Ragged was quite an impressive album, with Jensen mixed blues, soul, gospel, and R&B pretty seamlessly. One of the tracks, "Brunette Woman," was a Pick of the Week at USA Today at the time.
Earlier this year, Jensen released his follow-up, Morose Elephant, to rave reviews. So far, it's one of my favorite discs of 2015. Jensen mixes seven original songs, ranging from the deep southern soul-blues of "Make It Through" and "Fall Apart" to the gritty rock of "Get Along" to the decidedly offbeat "Paper Walls," to the lovely acoustic ballad "Ash and Bone" to a really cool jazzy instrumental ("Elephant Blue"), with four well-chosen covers that he more or less makes his own, including a marvelous cover of the traditional gospel tune "Going Home." Jensen is joined on several of these tracks by a few other Memphis area musicians, such as singer Reba Russell, keyboard master Victor Wainwright, harmonica wizards Santini and Eric Hughes, and his longtime musical partner, bassist Bill Ruffino.
As you listen to this wonderful album, you can't help but hear the influence of the sounds of Memphis in Jensen's music. Friday Blues Fix thanks Jeff Jensen for sitting down to answer Ten Questions (plus a few extras) and we hope you enjoy reading them, and strongly encourage you to find out more about him by visiting his website. You can also listen to some of the new tracks, along with a few from his previous releases here.
Ten Questions With……..Jeff Jensen
Friday Blues Fix: Do you come from a musical family? How did you end up playing music?
Jeff Jensen: My mother played piano, it always inspired me, I loved listening to her play. When I was very young I started piano lessons, but I never could stick with it. At 8 years old I started guitar, but once again I wasn't really ready. Then at the age of 10 I was once again obsessed with the notion of being a guitarist, I picked it up shortly after that and have never looked back.
FBF: What kinds of music did you grow up listening to? Who were some of your favorites?
JJ: I grew up listening to the great Rock 'n' Roll of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, I love the British invasion rock the best, Eric Clapton, Rolling Stones, the rock’n’roll drenched in Blues. That’s what drew me to investigate blues and roots music.
FBF: Did you start out liking the blues, or did you gravitate to the blues from another direction? Who were some of your favorites when you started listening?
JJ: I started out with Rock ’n’ Roll, I found Buddy Guy through Clapton, I found Muddy through Guy, and that was it, then came BB King, Freddie and T-Bone Walker, I was blues obsessed!
FBF: Your music blends the blues with rock & roll, funk, soul, and jazz…..which musicians in each genre influenced, or continue to influence you, as a songwriter, guitarist, and singer?
JJ: I love Wes Montgomery to Ray Charles, Paul Simon to Led Zeppelin, The Band, to Sean Costello. Soulful, inspired, organic music is what grabs me, any style, if it’s got soul and real lyrics, I’m in. As for guitar: so many come to mind to name a few; I love Larry Carlton, Chris Cain, T-Bone Walker, and BB King. With songwriters I’m equally diverse, I admire Willie Dixon to Tom Waits, I search for interesting lyrics with powerful imagery. I want a songwriter or poet to challenge my thought process. There are many that do, I love finding new ones.
FBF: What inspired you to make the move to Memphis in 2011?
JJ: I was living in Portland Oregon at the time, beautiful city with beautiful people, my entire life fell apart and I lost absolutely everything I had. I had the option to move back to California and live with family while I picked myself back up, but that just wasn't me. On a whim I turned my car around and started heading south east. 5 days later I made it Memphis, something just told me that was what I should do. It was a calling, if you will. As I stand here today, it was the single riskiest and best decision I've ever made. I am so thankful for what Memphis and the wonderful folks the live here have done for me.
FBF: What is it about the city that attracts so many musicians?
JJ: Memphis has soul. It’s in the air. It’s in the soil. It’s in the mighty Mississippi River. There is a powerful history here of struggle, inspiration, loss, victory, and music. “The Home of the Blues, the Birth Place of Rock’n’Roll”, I’d say so. Come to Memphis with an open mind and you’ll leave with a better understanding of America and where we all came from.
FBF: You've competed in several IBC’s……what’s it like to be in that sort of musical setting, surrounded by other blues bands and fans?
JJ: IBC’s are great. It’s the largest gathering of Blues artists and fans in the world. It’s also kind of like a "blues convention" because EVERYONE is here. I personally find the IBC’s to be very inspiring, so many great musicians really putting it all out there, some are good, some are OK, and some that are future legends. It’s awesome to see and feel the excitement and energy.
FBF: Morose Elephant is one of my favorite releases so far in 2015. You cover a lot of ground with your original songs. Can you tell us about how you came to create some of them?
JJ: Thank you so much for saying that. Morose Elephant does cover a lot of ground, blues, soul, gospel and so much more. I really just wanted to put it all out there: this album is “me”. All the original songs on this release have genuine meaning, there are no filler lyrics, or conjured up stories, it is all real and organic. I am deeply moved by the feedback we’ve been getting from our fans already about his one, people finding themselves in the songs like “Ash and Bone” or “Fall Apart”, my favorite is how many messages I’ve gotten where fans are trying to ‘de-code’ “Paper Walls”, guessing who it’s about or what may have happened. That is amazing to me, we have lyrical attention of our audience and at this point that means more to me that anything.
FBF: I really liked your choices in cover tunes….. Your take on “Going Home” is really inspired. Is this something that you've developed over the years…..this re-interpretive knack…..or is it something that had to develop over time?
JJ: I just try to play cover songs that I can honestly relate to on an emotional level; “Going Home” is the extreme example of that. There have been many live shows where I am in tears at the end of it, and our audiences have been as well. That is real, and real emotional music is the only kind of music I am interested in making. So when I pick songs to perform that I didn't write you can bet you’ll find me somewhere in the lyrics or the emotional intent.
FBF: What are your future plans? Do you have any new projects in mind or in the works?
JJ: We are touring a lot all through the US. We are touring Europe all of April, and we’ll be going back in September/October. I have also been blessed with the opportunity to produce some albums for a few other artists as well, right now I’m working Mick Kolassa’s new record and a few others. As far as Jeff Jensen Band, we are flirting with the idea of a live album to be release sometime in 2016, but it’s still in the very early phases of that plan.
FBF: What do you listen to in your spare time?
JJ: Everything I possibly can! From Louis Jordan, Cab Calloway and Jimmy Rodgers to Zig Ziglar’s motivational speeches, I am learning more every day. How to play better, connect better with our fans, and how to be a better person in life.
FBF: If you weren’t a musician, what do you think you would be doing?
Morose Elephant (2015, Swing Suit Records)
Road Worn and Ragged (2013, Swing Suit Records)
I'm Coming Home (2009, Swing Suit Records)
The Jeff Jensen Band (2007)