Why would a guy who has performed on stage with everyone from Bob Dylan to Elton John be in Brisbane to do a gig with a local chamber music group? It’s a reasonable question which John Jorgenson tries to answer in a roundabout way.

Because his career hasn’t gone in a straight line. There have been byways as well as highways.

The Grammy award-winning multi-instrumentalist is known for his blistering and mandolin licks and mastery of a broad musical palette.

Before the 67-year-old muso touched down in Brisbane and to prepare for our chat when he got here, I watched a few clips of him on YouTube. That was a revelation. I was particularly blown away to see him playing the saxophone on Crocodile Rock with Elton John at the piano nearby.

As well as Elton John and Bob Dylan Jorgenson has played with The Byrds, Willie Nelson, Sting, Luciano Pavarotti, Johnny Cash and his band The Desert Rose band has featured artists including Bob Seger and Barbra Streisand. Impressive.

But on Sunday October 22 he’ll be at QPAC in Brisbane doing a gig with the Southern Cross Soloists (SXS) in a concert entitled The New World. It will showcase the musical genres of the Americas from Dvorak’s works inspired by African-American spirituals to Rhapsody in Blue by Gershwin and some Argentinian tango music from Astor Piazzola, among other treats.

Importantly the concert will also feature a new work for didgeridoo, a collaboration between Jorgenson as composer and local didgeridoo master Chris Williams, a regular with SXS.

There’s a lot of serendipity involved to explain how Jorgenson ended up writing music for the digeridoo but oddly enough it’s something he has wanted to do for some time.

A friendship with guitar legend Tommy Emmanuel led to an introduction to Australian composer Sean O’Boyle. Then Jorgenson’s wife, screenwriter and documentary maker Dixie Gamble, began writing a film entitled Alice on The Line after she visited Alice Springs and was fascinated by a memoir of the same name by Doris Blackwell and Douglas Lockwood.

The film is still in the works and Jorgenson decided he might need to learn something about the didgeridoo to help compose evocatively Australian music for the soundtrack.

So, he contacted his friend Sean O’Boyle.

“I needed to learn how to notate music for a didgeridoo,” Jorgenson explains. “To my amazement Sean told me about Southern Cross Soloists and how they had developed this ten-year didgeridoo commissioning project.”

Since there was content online from SXS to help Jorgenson, he got cracking and was then invited to compose a piece featuring Chris Williams, SXS resident didgeridoo player.

So, at QPAC, Jorgenson will be up there beside Williams helping deliver a unique collaboration entitled Global Rivers Rising.

“I definitely won’t be playing the digeridoo though,” he says. “I will leave that to Chris. I will perform on guitar and mandolin. The rest of the ensemble will include violins, viola, cello, bass, flute, oboe, clarinet, French horn, piano and percussion. I will play on a couple of other numbers too.”

It will be just the sort of thing Jorgenson loves and not too much of a stretch for him. Because though he’s been a starring rock guitarist on world tours with megastars, he’s also well versed in the world of classical music.

“I studied classical music from the age of four and I know how to write for an orchestra,” he says.

“I didn’t know how to write for a didgeridoo until I came across Southern Cross Soloists. I started working with Chris Williams over Zoom but I’m so glad that now I get to meet him and play with him. It has been an honour and a challenge and huge inspiration to write for these world-class musicians and I am extremely excited about bringing the music to life at the QPAC concert.”

He says SXS is a unique musical group and that he doesn’t know of another covering such a wide range of genres.

It’s Jorgenson’s second time in Brisbane. His first was in 1998 on tour with Elton John.

“That was probably the biggest tour he ever did and I went everywhere with him,” Jorgenson says. “When we got to Brisbane, I had some time to myself which was great because I got to cuddle a koala. I smelt like eucalyptus for a couple of days afterwards.”

Two years later one of Jorgenson’s compositions, Back on Terra Firma, was recorded by Tommy and Phil Emmanuel and performed at the closing ceremony of the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

In Brisbane he will share the stage with Chris Williams, superstar pianist Konstantin Shamray and the SXS retinue led by Tania Frazer who describes the concert as “the ultimate music journey of discovery”.

John Jorgenson would love to stay and cuddle another koala but he has to jet back to the US afterwards for a gig with his band the John Jorgenson Bluegrass Band. Also known as J2B2.

But you get the feeling he will be back now that the digeridoo has got his attention.

Southern Cross Soloists – The New World is on in the Concert Hall at QPAC Sunday October 23 at 3pm.


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