As good as they are, Jeff Jensen’s recordings do not prepare you for the first time you experience his live show. Things start out as normal as the singer and guitarist does a couple original songs. Suddenly, the spirit moves him, transforming Jensen into a whirling dervish on stage as his passion for the music is expressed through blistering guitar runs and boundless energy seldom seen from other performers.
Generating strong emotional responses from the audience makes Jensen happy. “I feel my job is more significant than just playing guitar or playing music or selling drinks at a venue. I feel my job in life is more spiritual than that. I want to make people’s lives better in whatever small way I can. I know that we aren’t capable of changing the negatives in someone’s life – but we might be capable of creating a temporary escape from it. Maybe we can fill them up with good, positive energy that helps deal with everything else they have to deal with.”
“We try to evolve our live show to keep people on their toes, keep them guessing. I hope that my shows don’t get so predictable that audience members start texting or Facebooking on their phones. The band and I talk after every show to discuss what worked and where we can do better, how we can improve the show the next time at the venue. I want the audience’s attention so we can go on a journey together filled with energy, emotion, and stories – have a good time that leaves us rejuvenated or wore out in a good way.”
The band includes Bill Ruffino on bass and Robinson Bridgeforth on drums. Jensen credits Ruffino for being the rock that he relies on to anchor whatever Jensen is trying to do. “When you think of me or the Jeff Jensen Band sound, you can’t have that without Bill Ruffino. We have played together for eleven years. The way he grooves and the melodic nature of his playing supports me so well. He can create a wall of energy and sound that lets me play whatever I need to on guitar without things sounding thin or empty. Robinson is now in his second year with us, a Memphis native, who is another amazing dude. We are at the point now where our confidence in each other is at a level where we can push our boundaries and limitations to get to the next level as musicians. It is a fabulous support group. They both deserve as much credit as I do for the success we are having.”
Growing up in a small town in rural California, Jensen was bitten by the guitar bug when he was eight years old. His supportive parents quickly rented him a large dreadnought acoustic guitar that he could barely wrap his arms around. After taking a few lessons, the allure faded as the physical challenges of playing seemed insurmountable. Two years later, he was ready to try again. Only this time, his parents gave him a different kind of support.
“My parents told me that if I wanted an electric guitar, I could get a job and save up for one. They got me a job about a mile away cleaning out horse corrals and barns. I worked all summer and most of the school year, riding my bike every morning. On weekends I would paint and do other jobs on the ranch. I saved my money and at age eleven, I purchased that first electric guitar. I have been going non-stop ever since then”.
Listening to Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix records from his parents album collection, the youthful guitarist was inspired to start writing his own songs and formed his first band, Over the Top, before going through a phase that found him shifting away from classic rock to be a part of the punk generation, complete with the requisite Mohawk hair style. Since his high school did not have a music program, Jensen earned a spot in the local junior college jazz band. At the age of sixteen, he was already stretching boundaries by alternating between jazz & punk rock, a truly bizarre contradiction.
The old rock records also led him down a familiar path of discovery. “I found Buddy Guy through Eric Clapton. As soon as I did research on Buddy, it opened things up to Muddy Waters, B.B. King, T-Bone Walker, Freddie King – all of those guys. That was very attractive to me. It wasn’t until I was nineteen that I started playing blues on gigs. I worked with a bass player who didn’t sing but had gigs booked. He hired me to front the band. It was terrifying because I had never played a four hour gig in my life.”
In 2004, Jensen decided to start his own band. Inspiration came from a concert he attended featuring John Hiatt, Tommy Castro, Buddy Guy, and B.B. King. Watching Buddy and B.B. handle the stage and win over an audience of 5,000 fans was an amazing experience. That lesson came in handy the next year when Jensen’s band was hired to open for B.B. on a short leg of King’s 80th birthday tour.
“There I was, opening for a legendary blues artist. I am on stage; look out at the audience and there is Prince, who is looking at me play guitar. It was really hard to process, playing for Prince who was waiting for B.B. King to get on stage. It was literally the most terrifying moment of my career. Talk about legitimate pressure! That was ten years ago and I still had a lot to learn. But it went great and we had a good time”.
During this same period, Jensen showed his support for the music in a different way, partnering with a friend to start the Santa Clarita Blues Society, “I was working in a music store at the time and doing gigs as a sideman. I met a blues player named Chris Sabie, who got me interested in the Blues Foundation. Chris wanted to start a blues society and being that he was older & wiser, he handled the business side of establishing the society and filing the necessary legal documents while I would promote and get the local musicians involved. We started a not-for-profit, 501C-3 organization that is still growing strong today”. Jeff served as Vice-President for five years.
Another significant event in 2004 was attending the International Blues Challenge in Memphis. “That was the big push I needed to start my own band! I saw the opportunity these bands from all over the world had, performing in front of blues fans, talent buyers, and industry people. It was so significant just being there. I went back home and in forty-five days, the first rendition of the Jeff Jensen Band was born. Our goal was to go to Memphis the next year. We would practice two, three times a week as we learned how to be a band. When it came time for the local challenge, we surprised almost everybody by being selected.”
“We competed in 2005 and did not make the finals. But it was an awesome time. To this day, I am still in contact with people I met that year. I was there three times and never made it to the finals. But I honestly believe that me being there has factored into what has happened to my career since then. I still try to be there every year. I learn things, meet people – we got multiple festival bookings by doing the showcase gigs this year. The IBC is a blues convention! If you go with an open-mind and do some networking, you will get a lot of support. You can’t go looking at the IBC as a competition.”
Feeling it was time for a change, Jensen made the decision to relocate to the Portland, OR area, which had a thriving musical community. He wanted to see another part of the country but giving up his band and the club circuit gigs he had established in southern California ultimately did not pay off. Jensen was never quite able to build a similar arrangement in the Pacific Northwest. Two years later he was in dire straits financially and emotionally, his confidence gone. He was about to head back home to stay with family when fate intervened.
“My life was in complete shambles. My friends and family were very concerned about me. My friend, Chris Sabie, had moved to Memphis. He offered me a place to stay. I was borrowing a vehicle to drive back home but at the last minute, on a whim, I decided to go to Memphis instead. I had about $600 to my name, no band, no prospects, no family, and one friend in Memphis. Being 2,400 miles away from everyone that cares about you is a risky thing to do. They all thought I was crazy. But I just felt that was what I needed to do, which is not my nature. I need a plan, a goal.”
Within a day of arriving, Sabie took Jensen down to Beale Street to hear harp player and singer Brandon Santini at Wet Willie’s. Santini had heard of Jensen and asked him to sit in. The end of the night brought an offer of two weeks of work that month playing guitar in Santini’s band.
“I came to Memphis with nothing – and in thirty hours, I had a gig. It was actually twelve shows over two weeks. That is literally unheard of! In the music world, it is not always about how good you are. There is so much more to working in a band, including personalities and availability plus how your talent fits in the group itself. To walk into a new community with nothing and have that happen is literally a miracle”.
The pairing worked out for both musicians. Over two and a half years, they played more than 450 shows together. Jensen became Santini’s bandleader and also produced the harp player’s This Time Another Year project, which was nominated for a Blues Music Award in the Contemporary Blues Album category. And it all stemmed from a chance meeting that fateful evening.
Two years ago Jensen left Santini’s band, deciding it was time to revive his band. He released his Road Worn & Ragged album, receiving plenty of positive press in addition to a Blues Blast Awards nomination in the Sean Costello Rising Star category. His latest project, Morose Elephant, has been acclaimed by one reviewer after another, leading to the band’s upcoming European tour, a first for them, and a big uptick in bookings across the US. Jensen feels that it his best work yet and is proud that listeners feel the same way.
Another aspect of Jensen’s career is his role of producer, taking the lead on his own recordings as well as titles by Santini, John Parker, and Mick Kolassa. “ I couldn’t afford a producer for my records so I tried to emulate the sound of records that I liked. I enjoy the challenge, to have the ability to create something out of nothing. Some artists know what they want but need someone to translate their vision. Some artists like your work and want to hire you to give their record that same sound. My number one goal as a producer is to create the audio version of an emotion. I don’t care about the song on a literal level. I want to know the feeling. Are we angry, relieved, sad, depressed?”
“Once I understand the emotional journey we are going on, I can then start to figure out how I can create that emotion sonically. What instrument should we use, what approach should we take. I have always liked records that have a lot of emotion. And that doesn’t mean you are crying on every song. Legitimate laughter is an emotion. Happiness is an emotion. There are plenty of emotions we can capture. Making sure the sonic qualities are supporting the emotional content of the song is everything.”
It is emotion that fuels each and every one of Jensen’s live performances, turning the stage into a place where he can find cathartic release of his own swirling cauldron of feelings, by playing sloppy & raunchy or in a fluid, melodic fashion. “I don’t play songs the same every night. I push myself to the limit of what I am doing – and then push myself past that point. I talk to the band about that constantly. I always want to be walking on that line. Sometimes I may slip a little bit over the line and I can’t quite do what I am trying to do. That is how I grow. But I am not trying to play West Coast blues, not trying to play Chicago or Delta style blues. It all circles around my attempt to create real energy and real emotional content. There are so many good guitar players out there that I sometimes feel that almost anything I play on guitar has already been played by somebody else – and probably played better. That is why being authentic to yourself is so important to me.”
Visit Jeff’s website at jeffjensenband.com.
Interviewer Mark Thompson lives in Florida, where he is enjoying life without snow. He is a member of the Board of Directors for the Suncoast Blues Society and the past president of the Crossroads Blues Society of Northern Illinois. Music has been a huge part of his life for the past fifty years – just ask his wife!