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.


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