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Jan Johansson: From Small Acorns...

Ian Patterson By

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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
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