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Jan Johansson: From Small Acorns...


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Upon hearing the news and in a state of disbelief, Randi Hultin the legendary Norwegian jazz journalist rang pianist Reinhold Svensson who confirmed the worst: "Yes. Swedish jazz has just died."1 Reinhold's reaction to the death in a car accident of fellow pianist Jan Johansson whilst melodramatic reflected Jan Johansson's importance in the contemporary Swedish jazz scene and the esteem in which he was held by his peers. November 9, 1968 was indeed a black day for Swedish music.

It would be an exaggeration to claim that Jan Johansson was Swedish jazz, as the country boasted many fine exponents of the art: there was clarinetist Stan Hasselgard, who played in Benny Goodman's group in the late 1940s; baritone saxophonist Lars Gullin, an important and unique figure who so impressed (trumpeter) Chet Baker and who was the first European to win a jazz poll in the U.S; saxophonist/composer/arranger Arne Domnerus, who played alongside (saxophonist) Charlie Parker, led small and large ensembles for five decades and who was constantly searching for new challenges, even pairing saxophone with church organ in the 1970s.

There were outstanding singers such as Monica Zetterlund, who recorded Waltz for Debby (Universal, 1964) with Bill Evans, and Alice Babs, a muse of (pianist/composer) Duke Ellington, around whom his second and third sacred concerts were written; bassist/composer Georg Riedel, who played alongside Johansson in various combos for a decade; pianist, and guitarist Rene Gustafson to name but a handful.

The quality of musicianship in Scandinavia in general was high, as was the feeling for the music; when saxophonist Sonny Rollins came to Norway in 1971 he insisted on local musicians as his backing band, feeling that they would play with a passion he might not find with more road-weary American musicians. He was accompanied by Bobo Stenson on piano, Arlid Anderson on bass and Jon Christensen on drums.2

Jan Johansson was undoubtedly an important figure though, and a unique voice in the contemporary Swedish scene of the late '50s and 60s. By the time of his death, he was emerging as one of the leading figures in Swedish jazz, beginning as he was then to explore new musical panoramas, and to stretch himself as a composer and arranger, no doubt influenced as much by the avant-garde wave as he was by composers such as Gil Evans or Duke Ellington. Although it is impossible to know where his music might have led him, what is clear is that forty years later Jan Johansson is more influential than ever.

Relatively few have heard of him or know his music; and yet he has been a major influence and a source of inspiration for several generations of Scandinavian music makers, and as their voices are increasingly heard on the international stage, the ripples created by Jan Johansson's music are being felt by an audience much bigger than he ever knew in life. A significant number of internationally renowned jazz pianists readily acknowledge a debt to Johansson, from the late Esbjorn Svensson to Bobo Stenson and from Tord Gustavsen to Eple Trio's Andreas Ulvo, and Jan Lungdren

The pianist, born in the coastal town of Soderhamn in 1931 is a major cultural icon in his native Sweden. Ask any backpacking Swede if they know of Jan Johansson and the answer more often than not is affirmative. How many twenty year old kids in America have heard of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane or Duke Ellington? Johansson's fame within his own borders, and to a large degree his influence, is down to a series of Swedish folk songs which he recorded accompanied by bassist Georg Riedel between 1962 and 1964. Three EPs were released in 1964 on LP format as Jazz Pa Svenska, (Megafon, 1964) a landmark recording

The jazz scene in Sweden at that time was heavily influenced by the American tradition. American musicians such as (saxophonists) Stan Getz, and Ben Webster, (pianist) Bill Evans, (bassist) Oscar Pettiford, (trumpeters) Miles Davis and Art Farmer, (trombonist) J.J. Johnson, (pianist/bandleader) Count Basie and countless others had been regular visitors to Sweden for years, and it was largely their vernacular which influenced the young Jan Johansson and his peers.

Of pianists in particular Johansson cited Art Tatum, and John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet as primary influences, and later Oscar Peterson and Wynton Kelly, and whilst there is undoubtedly a little of Tatum in Johansson's more extrovert displays of virtuosity he was also a stylist of impeccable refinement, and the chamber elegance of the MJQ and the bluesy touch of Kelly can be heard in a lot of his playing and arrangements.

Johansson was however, even in his early recording years in the late fifties, an original voice. His phrasing and sense of timing was all his own; his lightness of touch, coupled with a bold and impressive attack always engendered swing. To my own ears, this contrasting touch on the keys, the very personal sense of space and timing and the undeniable virtuosity remind me, in spirit at least, of Ahmad Jamal.

Certainly, Johansson must have admired Jamal's music as "New Rumba," a Jamal composition featured in the set list of the Johansson trio which included bassist Georg Riedel and drummer Egil Johansson in the late 1960s. His vocabulary, as the years went by, borrowed from many sources; listening to his music today, it is easy to see what Esbjorn Svensson and others liked so much in his playing.

By 1962 however, Johansson was heading down a different path. His dusting down of Swedish folk songs and his minimalist interpretation, combining only piano and bass signaled a defining moment in his short yet fairly prolific career.

According to Erik Kjellberg, professor of musicology at the University of Uppsala, and author of the only comprehensive biography of Jan Johansson—Jan Johansson: A Visionary Swedish Musician, (Svensk Music, 1998)—he wasn't the first to turn to Swedish folkloric sources, as trumpeter Bengt-Arne Wallin had produced a jazz album of Swedish folk tunes in 1962, Old Folklore in Swedish Modern (Dux, 1962)" which had first been launched in a radio programme in October 1961.3

It was Johansson's series of EPs however, eventually released as the album Jazz Pa Svenska in 1964, which did most to launch a revival of interest in Swedish folk music and which would in time come to influence so many musicians both within and beyond the parameters of jazz.

The innovation of this music according to Erik Kjellberg, was not so much that Johansson adapted folk songs of the day, but that that it was inspired by folk tunes taken from ethnological sources—fiddler tunes from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries documented in the voluminous Svenska Iatar—music unknown to the Swedish public.4 And such undeniably beautiful music it is too. The collection of polskas, herding songs, wedding songs and songs of love and longing shifts between minor and major keys and highlights the originality of Johansson as a pianist and the wonderful chemistry between himself and bassist Georg Riedel. The most famous track on the album, "Visa fran Utanmyra," became the tune that several generations of Swedes have come to associate with Johansson. Oscar Simonsson, pianist from Swedish jazz-electronic duo Koop, explains how this music has permeated the Swedish national consciousness:

"When I grew up in the '70s and early '80s Sweden was quite special politically; for example, we only had two T.V. channels and they didn't broadcast during the day. Broadcasting started around five or six o'clock. When you were a kid you came home from school, turned on the T.V. and they would show the test screen with music before the programmes started. And they had one song by Jan Johansson that they played over and over, every day. It was the first song from Jazz Pa Svenska ("Visa fran Untanmyra") It's very melancholic, with that folk element. In any other country in the world they would play pop music; only in Sweden would that happen. You grew up with that music and you heard it everywhere which is very rare for jazz to be heard by everyone so much."5

Erik Kjellberg expands on the political connotations that this music came to assume: "The interest for folk music and ethnic traditions was one of the most forceful, radical leftish movements in Sweden during the 1970s. The great folk music revival in Sweden in the 70s has one of its models in Jan Johansson's Jazz Pa Svenska—it showed how to modernise something without violating the tradition. People all over, not least the urbanites, must have understood maybe for the first time the beauty of these melodies." 6

The melancholic beauty of the twelve tunes that comprise Jazz Pa Svenska has inspired many; Oscar Simonson also spoke of the album's influence on Koop's music: "We have the same attitude; it's not about improvising so much, it's more about keeping a melody. Our music is jazz but we want it to be popular music in the same way Jan Johansson was. What I like about it is that it is very minimal and melodic. It's beautiful and it's beautifully played; such a beautiful album. In electronic music there are a lot of bands who wanted to capture the same atmosphere of that album. His music is always there." 7

In the field of pop music too, artists such as pop star Emil Svanangen have acknowledged the influence of Jan Johansson. Internationally renowned Norwegian singer Sissel was inspired by Johansson's renditions of folk music and recorded her own version of "Visa fran Untamyra" on the album Nordisk Vinternatt (Universal Music, 2005). Her quite stunning voice takes the song's original lyrics and succeeds in capturing the song's beauty and sadness:

"The deepest anguish on earth, to lose the one you hold dearest; the heaviest sorrow which blackens out the sun, to love the one you will never have."

Pianist Tord Gustavsen was a child when he first heard Jazz Pa Svenska. I asked him to what extent he felt Jan Johansson's music had influenced him: "I think to a relatively high degree, both via the folk music treatments lying there as a kind of sub-conscious resonance when I started playing my own compositions at a somewhat later stage, and also subsequently through listening closely to that material. It was my first penetrating experience of a kind of radical simplicity.

"One of his most significant contributions to music was a bridging of Scandinavian sensibilities and American jazz, and I guess at that time the receptivity to that kind of bridging was better here than in other parts of the world. The joining of Scandinavian folk music with improvisation and jazz heritage is travelling around the world a lot more these days and getting recognition, and in one way we owe a lot of that to the pioneering work that Jan Johansson did." 8

If Gustavsen recognises the influence of Jan Johnansson in his own playing—and if you listen to Being There (ECM, 2007) after playing Jazz Pa Svenska you can feel an undeniable symmetry between the two pianists—then he also hears Johansson's musical influence elsewhere: "I think I can trace his influence either overtly or under the surface in many piano players and many other instrumentalists. Definitely a couple of Swedish players and definitely also Norwegian Dag Arnesen who just made an album based on Norwegian folk tunes. He's from Bergen, Norway, and he's been around for a long, long time. He made an album in 2007 (Norwegian Song, Resonant Music, 2007) that reached a much broader audience, using Edward Greig and Norwegian folk tunes in a way I would say quite unthinkable without the heritage from Jan Johansson" 9

The Jazz Pa Svenska album is a sales phenomenon, and according to the Swedish Music Information Centre it has sold in excess of 400,000 copies since 1964. In some ways it became onerous for Jan Johansson to have to constantly play the best known pieces to a demanding public, though he mostly obliged whenever asked. 10

There was however a lot more to Jan Johansson's music than renditions of Swedish folk songs. Throughout his career he played in a variety of settings, from conventional jazz trios and quartets to larger ensembles where he developed his arranging skills. In a way the success of Jazz Pa Svenska has overshadowed his not insignificant body of work, and in the process hidden from many the range of his output and the degree of improvisation in his playing.

Tord Gustavsen was one pianist who delved a little deeper: "I had a period of intense listening to some of the other stuff Jan Johansson did, especially the very funky, bluesy, cool jazz things that he did with Stan Getz and Arne Domnerus and then I realized just how accomplished, how funky and how penetrating his approach to music really was, how far he had come by the time he died, and how tragic it was that he wasn't allowed to go further. The bluesy funkiness, the uplifting, life-affirming yet melancholy moods, his minor key way of playing the blues—this has been a major inspiration for me. His recordings continue to amaze me." 11

The final years of his life saw Johansson exert his arranging and compositional influence on the Radiojazzgruppen, led by alto saxophonist Arne Domnerus. This group undoubtedly saw Johansson's most adventurous music-making, but at the same time remains his least known body of work.

Lennart Aberg, an adventurous young tenor saxophonist then, who would eventually succeed Domnerus as the leader of the Radiojazzgruppen, represented the new wave of Swedish musicians, one more in tune with Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and Miles Davis than the old school represented by say, Stan Getz; Aberg recounts how he never listened to the Swedish folk renditions of Johansson, but that once familiar with the pianist at close hand he was inspired to make an important choice: "When I met Jan Johansson in the Radiojazzgruppen I realised that it was my biggest influence, and to play with him was fantastic. I even refused a professorship in Austria which I had won in a world-wide competition—I was down there searching for an apartment and thinking about moving with my family—but it was Jan Johansson and the Radiojazzgruppen, though mostly him, that made me think I shouldn't leave.

"The music that he wrote for the group between '66 and 68 was so original at that time and still is today. Some of the things he wrote for the Radiojazzgruppen have been influential to (composers) Bob Brookmeyer and Gil Evans—they listened to Jan's music when they were here.

"At that time Jan was listening to the European avant-garde, to people like Ligeti and Stockhausen and so on but he was open to a lot of different music; he listened to folk music, to African music and he listened to (pianist/composer) George Russell. The radio then was presenting people like Ligeti and Stockhausen so it was a climate that was very open to experiment. He really liked that avant-garde music" 12

Despite the originality of the music Johansson composed and arranged for the Radiojazzgruppen, it has remained largely unknown for the simple reason that the group did not continue to play his music after his death. Aberg explains:"The group always played new pieces on commission. (pianist/composer) Carla Bley, (pianist/composer) George Russell, (trumpeter/composer) Palle Mikkelborg, (pianist/composer)Chris McGregor, (trumpeter/composer) Kenny Wheeler, and (saxophonist/composer) Jan Garbarek would all come here, rehearse for three days and then we'd play a concert that was recorded for the radio. Most of the time it was new music." 13

One suspects however, that Jan Johansson would have been unhappy at the thought of his music becoming repertoire to be endlessly recycled, for he himself was always looking forward. Some of his final recordings, somewhat abstract and spacey, and utilising electronics, suggest the influence of (pianist/badleader) Sun Ra, something which Aberg to a degree confirms: "Sun Ra was in Sweden in '66 or 67'where the Radiojazzgruppen was playing a festival in Umea. I remember I was standing beside Jan Johansson and Georg Riedel; Sun Ra played a very long concert with dancers and movies projected behind the musicians, and I remember Jan liked it very much. He was really very interested in Sun Ra." 14

I took the opportunity to ask Lennart Aberg about the possible influence of Ahmad Jamal in Jan Johansson's playing. Aberg's response leaves little doubt: "Ahmad Jamal? Yeah, for sure, definitely. When I listen to some of those tunes from Jazz Pa Ryska (Megafon, 1967) I hear clearly in some of the arrangements—like the song "Volga Boatman"—that he has made a real Ahmad Jamal arrangement, a very light, sparse playing. I know that he was influenced by Ahmad Jamal." 15

My ears have over the years perceived the influence of Jan Johansson in an ever-increasing number of musicians. The first musician I noted to carry the spirit of Jan Johansson was fellow Swede, the late Esbjorn Svensson. The first time I saw e.s.t in concert I was struck by the resemblance to Johansson in Svensson's playing, and above all in the unselfconscious mixture of folk, jazz and classical music which informed both pianists.

It is a terrible irony that one of the final interviews Esbjorn Svensson gave before his tragic death in a scuba-diving accident in June 2008, was to discuss the influence of another Swedish pianist whose life was lost when he too was in the prime of his life: "Every time I hear his music I realise what a genius he was" enthuses Svensson. "It's hard to say how people influence each other—but for me Jan Johansson is a very, very big influence.

"Let's put it this way, I love his whole concept, his relation to music; I love his imagination, his fantasy, and his incredible ability to not really play jazz, and not really play classical and not really play folk, but to play it all. I don't think he thought about it as we (e.s.t) don't. You can hear and feel that he created his own language and he played in a very natural way, and I liked that very much. His music has a very personal, unique language—when you hear his music you know straight away that it is Jan Johansson. And sound-wise he was very much aware of how he wanted thing to sound—you can hear that on some of the albums he recorded."16

It is difficult to gauge the extent of Johansson's influence on Svensson, a fact that Svensson himself underlines: "That doesn't necessarily mean that when I play you can hear that I'm inspired by him—maybe you can, maybe not—there's a lot of music that I'm inspired by which might not come forward when I play. I would say that most musicians in Sweden are probably also inspired by Jan Johansson, but whether they use that language so you can hear they are inspired is a different thing." 17

It is fair to say that Svensson and his musical partners of fifteen years bassist Dan Berglund and drummer Magnus Ostrum were conversant in the language of Jan Johansson. My initial conviction was confirmed by e.s.t's manager, Burkhard Hopper, who, to my (not total) surprise, informed me that "Car Crash" from the album Strange Place for Snow (Act, 2002) was dedicated to Jan Johansson, although oddly there is no mention of this fact in the album's liner notes.

Esbjorn Svensson explains: "I started to compose that tune, and I was a bit Bach-inspired if I was inspired by anything concrete, but when we started playing we very soon realised that it had a lot of Jan Johansson soul in it. So we came up with from one point of view the totally weird title for a ballad like that of "Car Crash," but we felt that in honor of Jan Johansson and in honor of his music it felt right because he died in a car crash.

"It is absolutely a dedication to him, his life and most of all his music. We played it a lot when we released the album (Strange Place for Snow) and we still play it now and then. When we do it I mention that it is a dedication to Jan Johansson and hopefully it will help to spread his music a little bit more." 18

Johansson and Svensson were in their own ways pioneers in different eras. Johansson holds the distinction of being the first European to perform with Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic, for a European tour in a Stan Getz quartet that also included Oscar Peterson's rhythm team of Ray Brown on bass and Ed Thigpen on drums. Forty plus years later, Esbjorn Svensson and e.s.t. made their own piece of history when they became the first European jazz group ever to grace the cover of Downbeat magazine.

Honorific achievements aside, their lasting and most significant achievement has been to push the boundaries of music and in doing so reach a larger audience without compromising their musical vision. In another slice of historical symmetry, it is interesting to note that the last recordings of both pianists—the respectively posthumously released 300,000 (Megafon, 1971) in the case of Johansson and Leucocyte (Act, 2008) in the case of Svensson—were both heading towards more experimental avant-garde sonorities, suggestive of Sun Ra.

One of Jan Johansson's last major performances came just a couple of months before he died; the Arne Domnerus septet joined with the Ojebo Chorus for two concerts in Karlstad and Orebo which brought together a choir with some of Sweden's most prominent jazz musicians; what seems like a commonplace merging of musical disciplines today was unheard of in Sweden then. They interpreted a program of Swedish and American folk music arranged by Jan Johansson and Georg Riedel and the resounding success of the evening prompted Johansson to declare: "now that the gates are finally open, the experiment must continue, and develop" 19

Sadly, Jan Johansson's personal experiment to dissolve the barriers between different musics ended all too soon. It is surely inevitable however, that the music which Jan Johansson left behind will find a greater audience through the innumerable musicians inspired by his music. They are, in a way, carrying on the experiment.

It is perhaps fitting that the words of Esbjorn Svensson draw a line under this article, a simple statement which nevertheless expresses a profound sentiment that I too have felt since I was first introduced to Jan Johansson's music: "I have the feeling that people all over the world would be able to listen to his music." 20

A number of people gave willingly of their time and helped make this article possible. I would like to express my thanks to: Professor Erik Kjellberg; Odd Sneeggen and Susanne Suttner of the Swedish Music Information Centre; Burkhard Hopper; Esbjorn Svensson; Tord Gustavsen; Oscar Simonsson; Georg Riedel; Lennart Aberg; Andreas Ulvo, Toby Mundy and Charis Evans for digging, and Toby in particular for introducing me to the music of Jan Johansson all those years ago.

This article is dedicated to the memory of Jan Johansson and Esbjorn Svensson, kindred spirits.

Selected Discography.

Harry Arnold Big Band, Vol 1 1964-1965 (Dragon Records, 2003)

Harry Arnold Big Band, Vol 2 1964-1965 (Dragon Records, 2003)

Gunnar Johnson Quintet 1957-1959 (Dragon Records, 1999)

Jan Johansson/Rune Gustafsson/Georg Riedel, Live in Tallin, Heptagon, 1994)

Jan Johansson, Spelar musik pa sitt eget vis (Megafon, 1973)

Jan Johansson/Arne Domnerus, Younger than Springtime, 1959-1961 (Megafon, 1973)

Jan Johansson, 300,000 (Megafon, 1971)

Radiojazzgruppen, Frostrosor (Megafon, 1969)

Radiojazzgruppen, Hostspelor (Megafon, 1968)

Radiojazzgruppen, Vardkasar (Megafon, 1968)

Jan Johansson, Musik Genom 4 Sekler (Megafon, 1968)

Jan Johansson/Svend Asmussen, Jazz Pa Ungereska (Megafon, 1968)

Jan Johansson, Jazz Pa Ryska (Megafon, 1967)

Cornelius Vreeswijk, Grimascher och Telegram (Metronome, 1966)

Arne Domnerus Septet, Mobil (Megafon, 1965)

Johansson/Riedel//Hallber/Wallin, Adventures in Jazz and Folklore (Megafon, 1965)

Jan Johansson, In Pleno (Megafon, 1964)

Jan Johansson, Jazz Pa Svenska (Megafon, 1964)

Arne Domnerus Orchestra, Musik under Stjarnorna (Megafon, 1964)

Jan Johansson/Georg Riedel, Rorelser (Megafon, 1963)

Jan Johansson, Inertio (Megafon, 1962)

Jan Johansson, 8 Bitar Johansson (Megafon, 1961)

Stan Getz, Stan Getz at Large (Verve, 1960)

Oscar Pettiford, Montmartre Blues (Black Lion, 1959)


1 Born Under the Sign of Jazz, Public Faces Private Moments: Randi Hultin, (Sanctuary Publishing, 1998)

2 ibid

3 Jan Johansson: A Visionary Swedish Musician: Erik Kjellberg (Svensk Music, 1998)

4 ibid

5 interview with author

6 correspondence with Erik Kjellberg

7 interview with author

8 interview with author

9 ibid

10 correspondence with Erik Kjellberg

11 interview with author

12 interview with author

13 ibid

14 ibid

15 ibid

16 interview with author

17 ibid

18 ibid

19 Jan Johansson: A Visionary Swedish Musician: Erik Kjellberg (Svensk Music, 1998)

20 interview with author

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