22

The Complete Jan Akkerman: Focusing on a Life's Work

John Kelman By

Sign in to view read count
He may be largely regarded as the most influential guitarist to emerge from the Netherlands, a country that, bordering on the North Sea, is roughly one-quarter the physical size of England and, with a current number of about seventeen million, has just one-third the population of the UK's largest country. Still, despite garnering major in-country recognition, including the country's most prestigious music prize, the Golden Harp Award, being made a Knight of the Order of Orange-Nassau, and winning the De Eddy Christiani Award as a guitarist with international recognition, Jan Akkerman remains largely remembered—barring a handful of solo albums that received international distribution—for his six-year stint in '70s progressive rock group Focus, formed when he joined up with keyboardist, flautist, vocalist (and occasional yodeler), Thijs van Leer trio.

Which makes The Complete Jan Akkerman all the more a revelation. A massive 26CD box set, it houses: all 21 of the guitarist's studio albums as a leader or featured guest; two live albums (over three CDs); a disc of his favorite Focus recordings, plus a handful of his pre-Focus work with Johnny and His Cellar Rockers (Akkerman releasing his first single with the group when he was just thirteen), The Hunters, and acclaimed Dutch proto-progressive group Brainbox; and a final CD of demos and other previously unreleased material. A comprehensive 64-page booklet includes Wouter Bessels' effusive biography, along with brief comments, from Akkerman, about each of set's albums and track-by-track notes about all the unreleased music on the final CD. Some albums have never been issued in CD before, while many others have been out of print for many years. And many have not been available, in any form, beyond the borders of the Netherlands.

Perhaps the biggest revelation about Akkerman, whose time in Focus was defined by jazz-tinged shredding and paradoxical lyricism on both guitars and lute, is just how broad his musical reach has been. While jazz/jazz-rock might be the biggest bucket in which to place his work, his studio albums run the gamut from orchestral collaborations with highly regarded names like Michael Gibbs and Claus Ogerman, solo acoustic outings, albums combining progressive rock tendencies with excursions into classical and traditional music on both lute and Spanish guitar, hardcore blues, vocal pop music in his reuniting with Brainbox vocalist Kazimierz "Kaz" Lux, jazz- tinged interpretations of popular music of the day and much, much more...all underscored by Akkerman's love of Belgian-born, Romani-French jazz guitar legend Django Reinhardt and classical guitarist/lutenist Julian Bream.

Jan Akkerman
The Complete Jan Akkerman
Red Bullet
2018

Some of the music is clearly dated, most notably his '80s/'90s excursions into synth-driven, rhythmically programmed work. Overall, however, the recordings included in The Complete Jan Akkerman range from jaw-droppingly superb to, at worst, still very good, with only a couple of albums likely to get no more than a few spins—and that, despite being wholly successful in what they were looking to achieve. All in all, a very good signal-to-noise ratio renders The Complete Jan Akkerman a collection that reveals, especially to international audiences only familiar with his previous international releases, a vital and successful career defined by regular gear-shifts and, even at its least compelling, an effortless mastery of Akkerman's chosen instruments.

In addition to his informative liner notes, Bessels does an exceptional job at remastering all of the material: no brick-walling here, just punchy, clean, crisp and clear sonic upgrades that respect the broad dynamic range of Akkerman's far-reaching music, whether it be covers of other material or the original music that dominates the set. The Complete Jan Akkerman is the career-spanning tribute to this acclaimed guitarist who has gone much farther than his undeniably staggering work with Focus, subsequently sharing international stages with the likes of Charlie Byrd, Larry Coryell and B.B. King...even ranking ahead of Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana and Jimmy Page in British music paper Melody Maker's 1973 Best International Guitarist poll.

Listening to it on the My Focus disc of Focus faves and earlier bands, it's hard to believe that Akkerman was a mere fourteen years old when Decca Netherlands released Johnny and His Cellar Rockers' single in 1961, featuring Shadows/Ventures-informed instrumentals including the theme song from Otto Preminger's 1960 film Exodus and a suitably rocked-up version of nineteenth century Russian pianist/composer Anton Rubinstein's "Melody in F" (retitled "Melody in F Rock").

But hearing "Russian Spy and I," a minor Dutch hit from 1966 that, with The Hunters, introduced Akkerman to a wider (albeit still native) audience and features some surprisingly fast lines, it's clear just how far the guitarist had come in five short years, while still not yet twenty.

The progressive blues of "Down Man" and a similarly progressive-leaning version of George Gershwin's "Summertime," both from Brainbox and released in 1968 and '69 respectively (sung by Kaz Lux and with Johnny and His Cellar Rockers/future Focus drummer Pierre van der Linden in tow), reveal an even more evolved Akkerman, demonstrating a surprising facility for both remarkable dexterity and an ability to harmonically move his solos "out," while knowing just when to bring them back "in," creating a potent sense of tension and release. That Akkerman was doing this years before John Scofield emerged as an American guitarist with a similar inside/outside propensity only serves to show how, to some extent, it's not always how good or groundbreaking you are, but where you are from, that determines potential future international success.

Still, Akkerman's name is well-known amongst progressive rock fans, his star definitely on the rise in the Netherlands with the guitarist awarded a scholarship to attend the prestigious Amsterdam Music Lyceum, where he further developed his abilities as a composer, arranger and instrumentalist, also learning lute around the same time.

Jan Akkerman
Talent for Sale
Universal
1968

That said, in the midst of all this activity, Akkerman managed to release his first solo album, Talent for Sale, with Hunters band mates Ron Bijtelaar (bass) and Sydney Wachtel (drums on all but one track). An uncredited pianist, horn section and strings flesh out the session, afforded to Akkerman by the label through his session work at Bovema Studios, and with this ore-Focus album his lithe facility is heard on a variety of covers and originals, including an opening look at Milt Jackson's "Bags Groove," played with a more soul-jazz mindset made all the more so with Akkerman feeding his instrument through a Leslie to achieve a sound as close to Hammond organ as possible on electric guitar.

The entire album reflects Akkerman's interest in soul and R&B, with a groove-heavy cover of Joe Zawinul's Cannonball Adderley hit, "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy," where the guitarist combines soulful, blues-drench lines with some staggeringly rapid-fire phrases. A couple of Booker T & the MG's tunes keep the groove happening, including the group's signature "Green Onions" and "Slim Jenkin's Place," from the group's 1962 and '67 Stax albums Green Onions and Hip- Hug-Her, respectively, along with a surprisingly subtle look at Bobbi Gentry's 1967 mega-hit, "Ode to Billy Joe."

It's an album largely dominated by covers, also including Steve Winwood's 1966 non-hit for the Spencer Davis Group, "On the Green Light"—a minor-keyed blues from another musician who emerged, well-formed, in his teen years—and a bright-tempo'd version of Ray Charles' signature tune "What'd I Say" (here misnamed "What I'd Say") and Mel Torme's lone venture into rock territory, the Tucker/Dorough blues "Comin' Home Baby."

Still, in addition to a balladic interpretation of the traditional Jewish Sabbath song "Hine Ma Tov" (here, "Hinematov"), with lush strings and Akkerman on 12-string acoustic guitar, Akkerman contributes two originals that fit within the album's purview, but don't really hint at his writing to come. That said, the go-go beat of "Revival of the Cat" and more laidback "Moonbeam"—both blues, and both featuring some appropriately blues-drenched bends, light-speed lines and more from Akkerman—fit perfectly on Talent for Sale.

It's an album that, for the relative few who noticed, gave at least some indication of what was to come from a guitarist who predated another American guitarist known for similarly staggering dexterity, jazz chops and bluesy predilections in his early days, Larry Coryell. And, as Akkerman writes in his notes about the album, "At the Height of Focus' success, the record company (EMI) saw the opportunity to cash in and promptly reissued Talent for Sale with a different sleeve." That was in 1973, with the album retitled Guitar for Sale, remaining out of print until U.K.'s Esoteric Recordings reissued the album on CD for the first time (and under its original name) in 2012.

Jan Akkerman
Profile
Harvest
1972

Four years were to pass before Akkerman would release another solo record, but during that time his international star was on the ascendancy. Released the same year as Focus 3 (Sire) but after Moving Waves (Imperial, 1971) brought substantial international attention to Focus (despite its single, "Hocus Pocus," curiously not charting in the UK or USA until 1973), Profile shone a bright spotlight on the multiplicity of influences that, amongst them, led to Akkerman's playing becoming so influential on the burgeoning heavy metal scene.

Still, even though he could shred and crunch mightily alongside the very best of them, to call Akkerman a metal player would be both reductionist and misleading, as Profile makes crystal clear. The side-long opener, "Fresh Air," is an episodic, nearly 20-minute excursion into everything from dreamy atmospherics to jaggedly crunching chords and fourths-informed modal improvisational workouts, with Akkerman's aggressively overdriven tone (often, once again, fed through a Leslie) and a blend of rock-edged bends and frighteningly fast phrases driven by a kind of harmonic sophistication rarely heard from other guitarists in the progressive rock camp, and suggesting a far broader stylistic purview. Bolstered by Focus' Bert Ruiter (bass) and Pierre van der Linden (drums), with a Akkerman overdubbing Fender Rhodes and some additional bass guitar, its mid-section free- for-all resolves into more lyrical balladry, only to gradually build to another climactic peak and completely unfettered conclusion.

Side one of Profile is, culled as it was from a lengthy jam session and edited into its final form, a powerful opening statement that could appeal to jazz- rock/fusion-leaning fans of progressive rock, with its Focus on steroids approach, as Akkerman writes: "you can hear the evolution from Brainbox's "Sea of Delight" to the title track and, later, "Eruption" and "Hamburger Concerto." The second side is, however, something else entirely, an eclectic blend of musical styles and instruments, approaches.

A solo alto lute rendition of the oft-covered sixteenth century British traditional "Kemp's Jig" (also interpreted, a year later, by British progressive-folk group Gryphon's on its eponymous 1973 Transatlantic debut) is followed by another solo lute piece, this time from the classical repertoire, nineteenth century Italian guitarist/composer Matteo Carcassi's "Etude," both tracks further demonstration of Akkerman's far-reaching interests and abilities. "Blue Boy" is a bit of funk-rock, with Akkerman heavy on the wah wah pedal on a piece that could easily have fit into the Focus repertoire.

"Andante Sustenuto," by 19th century Austrian composer Anton Diabelli, changes gears once again, a lyrical piece of pastoral writing which Akkerman, this time on nylon- stringed Spanish guitar, plays not just with absolute facility, but utter credibility. Akkerman's melodic electric original, "Maybe Just a Dream," is defined by its strummed and finger- picked steel and nylon-stringed acoustic guitar underpinning, and a singable melody delivered on electric but using volume pedal swells to lend it a more vocal-like complexion.

The Akkerman-penned, alto lute solo medley, "Minstrel / Farmers Dance," continues Profile's second side alternation between traditional/classical musings and more electric excursions, but none of what came before is preparation for the album-closing "Stick." Featuring an entirely different lineup, it's a blues-rock number that also features some great barrelhouse piano from Ferry Maat, better known as the DJ who changed the face of Dutch radio with, amongst others, his Soulshow program, which ran, on four different stations, from 1972-1990 before more irregular appearances in the mid-'90s, early '00s and, most recently, from 2011-2013.

A curious fact: Profile was recorded with vocals by Cyriel Havermans, bassist and occasional "non-lexical" vocalist for Focus on Moving Waves, but leaving the group before its followup. For reasons unexplained in the liners, Akkerman recalls that "I wasn't allowed to feature Cyriel's voice on the record and so it was removed."

Released in the UK and USA in addition to the Netherlands, Profile helped raise Akkerman's international profile—and, perhaps, fed some of that visibility back into Focus, with whom he remained until early 1976, last appearing on the group's 1975 album, Mother Focus (EMI), and Ship of Memories (EMI), a 1976 compilation of previously unreleased tracks chosen without the group's involvement. But if, as its title suggests, Profile was a window into Akkerman's eclectic spirit, 1973's Tabernakel took his manifold tendencies even further.

Jan Akkerman
Tabernakel
Atlantic
1973

"From my perspective," Akkerman writes, "the introduction of new instruments such as Moog synthesizers in the Seventies marked a musical renaissance. I wanted to connect the modern with traditional lute music and that was the general philosophy behind Tabernakel." Mission accomplished, as the guitarist and, even more so, lutenist on Tabernakel digs even further into the classical repertoire with interpretations of Baroque era composers/lutenists/singers John Dowland ("Britannia," The Earl of Derby," "A Galliard") and Francis Pilkington ("Coranto for Mrs. Murcott"), and Renaissance period composer Anthonie Holborne ("A Galliard"), composer/organist Thomas Morley ("A Pavan") and lutenist/composer Laurencini of Rome ("A Fantasy").

Perhaps Akkerman's most flat-out beautiful record, Tabernakel largely eschews any trappings of rock music or instrumentation, barring the participation of ex- Vanilla Fudge rhythm section Tim Bogert (bass guitar) and Carmine Appice (drums) on a new look at the guitarist's "House of the King." First heard with an arrangement akin to contemporaneous group Jethro Tull on the American release of Focus' 1970 Sire Records debut, In and Out of Focus (later also included on the two LP Focus 3), it's taken at a brighter clip here, with Akkerman playing the memorable melody on electric sitar. The trio is also accompanied by the New York Philharmonic, arranged and conducted by George Flynn, who also contributes harpsichord, piano and glockenspiel on "Jaweh," another Akkerman original.

Bogart and Appice also play on the album-closing "Lammy," a fourteen-minute episodic epic co-credited to Akkerman and Flynn, on which, the guitarist plays everything from electric, acoustic and sitar guitars to (church) organ, lute and percussion, further augmented by Flynn's contribution on harpsichord and his choral arrangements. The piece truly spans centuries, with its organ/choral passages redolent of ninth/tenth century Gregorian chant, a bustling middle section that, following a brief drum solo, turns into a bit of fiery, vamp-based funk, with Flynn's harpsichord sounding more like a clavinet as Akkerman solos (on electric guitar) with furious abandon. But the fusion fire soon ends as a gradually dissipating symphony orchestra fades into a Baroque-inspired section for Akkerman (on lute), flautist Daniel Waitzman and Flynn, again on harpsichord, before dissolving into a moving conclusion for choir alone.

The other Akkerman composition, "Jaweh," fits perfectly within Tabernakel's overall classical leanings, albeit in a more contemporary context, with Akkerman's nylon-string guitar ranging from rapid, Flamenco-style finger-picking to gentler persuasions, accompanied by Flynn's astute orchestral arrangement. It would be easy to suggest that Tabernakel stands out as an anomaly in Akkerman's discography, except that The Complete Jan Akkerman demonstrates that Akkerman's eclecticism is defined by anomalies, with barely any release sounding like the one that came before...or after.

Akkerman's next three years were occupied, almost entirely, by Focus as the group toured extensively, even as Akkerman's conflict with van Leer became increasingly problematic. And so, having had enough of Focus but still wanting to work with a vocalist, the guitarist re-recruited Kaz Lux for two recordings, collected onto The Complete Jan Akkerman's fourth CD: 1976's Eli and, making it the only non-chronological recording of the set, 1980's Transparental.

Jan Akkerman & Kaz Lux
Eli / Transparental
Warners
1976 / 1980

With a larger cast of characters on Eli and, for the most part, a consistent lineup on Transparental, both albums were pop albums of a sort, but only the kind of pop music that could have emerged in the '70s. Still as eclectic as ever, Akkerman sent Lux musical sketches, which the singer used to write the lyrics for Eli, a concept album that won the 1976 Dutch Edison Prize for Best Album. Pop album though it may be, few such albums then (or now, for that matter) began, as Eli does, with a lone voice, heavily reverted and delayed, for over a minute-and-a-half, before the group slowly comes in, Akkerman first (on guitar and bass), followed by keyboards and drums, ultimately turning into a groove-heavy song that sets the tone for the rest of the record.

The album also introduces a number of new concepts into the Akkerman mix. Demonstrating early signs of a disposition towards technology that would expand much further over the ensuing years, Akkerman employs a drum machine, "for which the engineers hated me," recalls the guitarist, "accusing me of 'preferring machines to musicians.' Eventually everyone started using drum machines!" Still, with Pierre van der Linden contributing kit to the up-tempo rocker "Can't Fake a Good Time" (like the vamp-based "Guardian Angel," culled from edited-down in-studio jams), Los Angeles-based drummer David Kemper holding down pulse on the more funkified "There He Still Goes" (also featuring son of legendary Motown bassist James Jamerson, James "Jimmy" Jamieson Jr., also on bass) and Richard DeBois propelling the rest of the album, Akkerman's use of drum machines was far from a "real musician" replacement and, instead, just another sonic color to add to his expanding palette.

Despite its more user-friendly approach, there's no compromising on Eli, with songs ranging from the soft, piano-driven ballad "Strindberg" to the similarly down-tempo'd but more machine-driven and atmospheric spoken word piece, "Naked Actress"—even its more ethereal closer, "Fairytale," where Akkerman solos with delicate restraint, over a cushion of synthesizers. The easy-on-the-ears, machine-driven Akkerman shuffle, "Tranquilizer," is a vivid feature for Akkerman's guitar mastery, as he self- accompanies in real time, layering simple bass lines on the lower strings, and chordal movement on the upper, even as the high end delivers its simple but captivating theme. The aptly titled "Wings of Strings," on the other hand, is an acoustic guitar workout, featuring a 12-string guitar that moves from complex voicings to rapid-fire runs, before a series of arpeggios act as the foundation for keyboards from jazzer Jasper Van't Hof and Rick van der Linden (he of the dazzling Ekseption and, later, Trace).

That Eli won the Edison and, furthermore, went gold the following year, with distribution beyond the Netherlands, UK and USA into places farther afield like Australia, France, Germany, Argentina...even Turkey...wasn't enough to force Akkerman and Lux into an immediate followup. And so, four years and five albums later, Transparental was released. Less successful than Eli (and receiving far less distribution beyond the Netherlands), the album was conceived in a different fashion as well, with Lux writing most of the material and Akkerman then arranging it, adding guitar parts and exploring the possibilities of Roland's then-new GR-300 guitar synthesizer (the same model used by American jazz guitarist Pat Metheny).

The result is an album that sounds considerably different while still of a kind. Akkerman is only co-credited on five of its eight tracks, and yet his contributions remain unmistakable and manifold as ever, in particular on the brief, synth and acoustic guitar-heavy title track, composed by Akkerman alone. Still, while the album possesses greater sonic consistency with its fixed lineup, and Akkerman contributes plenty to the album's overall complexion, it reveals Lux as, if not by any means a bad songwriter, then certainly a more conventional one.

But back to the mid-'70s. Following the release of Eli, Akkerman focused on completing an album that he'd largely finished during the same sessions, with the same engineer, Jan Schuurman, behind the board at Soundpush Studios, located in the northern Netherlands village of Blaricum, part of the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area. The album was released in 1977 in countries around the globe (some, the following year), and represented the first of a particularly busy couple years for the guitarist. In addition to Jan Akkerman, he released one more record that year, with American clarinetist (and occasional vocalist) Tony Scott (Prism, credited to "Tony Scott featuring Jan Akkerman"). The following year saw the release of Aranjuez, an orchestral jazz collaboration with renowned German composer, arranger and conductor Claus Ogerman (Antonio Carlos Jobim, Frank Sinatra, Michael Brecker) and co-credited to both musicians. Finally, Akkerman released his first live album as a leader, 1978's simply titled Live, a rather short (34 minutes) selection of songs performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival on July 7, the same year.

Jan Akkerman
Jan Akkerman
Atlantic
1977

Despite its famous cover (Akkerman in bed with an acoustic guitar that has an arm reaching out to touch his back), Jan Akkerman is not an acoustic record. Instead, it's a groove-laden album of all-Akkerman compositions that easily fits in the space that American guitarists like Larry Carlton and Lee Ritenour were making in and around that time, in addition to groups like the Crusaders. With a top-drawer group of musicians including, most notably, keyboardist Joachim Kuhn, who'd already been making a name for himself on albums, in addition to his own recordings like Hip Elegy (MPS, 1975) and Springfever (Atlantic, 1976), with other artists including Polish violinist Zbigniew Seifert (Man of the Light (MPS, 1976)) and Association P.C. with flautist Jeremy Steig (Mama Kuku (MPS, 1974)).

In addition to electric bassist Cees van der Laarse, who would appear on subsequent Akkerman albums including Live, Akkerman is joined, on Jan Akkerman, by another musician who would figure on other Akkerman albums around the time, drummer Bruno Castellucci (Toots Thielemans, Rolf Kuhn, Chet Baker). Bassist James Jameson Jr. and drummer David Kemper, from Eli, guest on the propulsive, slightly disco-fueled "Crackers," though his regular group on the record (also including percussionist Nippy Noya, who first appeared on Eli and would continue to record with Akkerman on Live and 1979's Jan Akkerman 3) manages to bring the groove just as viscerally on tracks including the string-heavy power ballad "Angel Watch," the atmospheric yet still rhythmic "Pavane," the more decidedly disco-fied "Streetwalker" and gentler "Skydancer."

Drummer Pierre van der Linden makes a guest appearance on "Floatin," which (like much of the album) also possesses a bit of Weather Report from the same time, albeit with different instrumentation, while the closing "Gate to Europe" focuses largely (and, for the first time on the album) Akkerman's steel-string acoustic work, supported by the album's orchestral arranger/conductor, Michael Gibbs.

It's a beautiful conclusion to an album that may be most decidedly of its time but, between Akkerman and Kühn, still possesses more than its share of harmonic interest, and solos that bridge the gap between simpler lyricism and more potent virtuosity. And Akkerman was still innovating, with a fourths/fifths Baroque lute tuning transferred to his electric 12-string guitar leading to the writing of "Angel Watch" and "Pavane," while "Skydancer" employs the same minor-keyed altered tuning that Akkerman used on Tabernakel's "Jaweh."

And so, in many ways, Jan Akkerman is one of those deceptive albums whose inner complexities are masked by an easygoing veneer, with plenty of heat also generating from tracks like "Angel Watch," where both Kühn (on acoustic piano) and Akkerman (on electric guitar) deliver some of Jan Akkerman's most vivid, electrified moments.

Tony Scott Featuring Jan Akkerman
Prism
Polydor
1977

Prism, on the other hand, is another of those total surprises from Akkerman, who co-writes three of its four long compositions, all in the eleven to twelve- minute range, with album leader Tony Scott. Not unlike some others of his generation (though Scott was a good five-to-ten years older) including Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter and Miles Davis, Scott's early career playing with artists including Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday and Bill Evans was eclipsed by later interests in both electric music and, in Scott's case, folk music from around the world. If there's a touchstone for Prism, it's albums like Davis' In a Silent Way (Columbia, 1969) and, perhaps, touches of Zawinul (Atlantic, 1970) and the more ethereal aspects of Weather Report's 1971 eponymous Columbia debut.

Improvisation is clearly the order of the day here, with the writing more a means to set the context than anything else. While Wim Essed is credited as bass guitarist on the album, throughout the album, and in particular during his opening solo to "Blues Blues and Then Some More Blues" sure sounds like an electrified double bass. This track, the only one not co-credited to Scott and Akkerman, also stands out as something entirely different, with pianist Cees Schrama joining Essed a minute in for some free-flowing, in- tandem extemporization. Even when it settles into a slightly more conventional blues—with drummer Bruno Castellucci holding down the pulse with a pair of brushes, and only after Scott introduces the slow groove with some fiery, screaming clarinet work—it remains somehow open-ended and abstract. Akkerman and Schrama ultimately pull everything together with a gradually more swinging pulse, as the guitarist demonstrates lithe dexterity and the pianist delivers a brief history lesson of jazz piano, before Scott contributes some oddly harmonized scatting.

"Blues Blues and Then Some More Blues" is the anomaly on an album that largely leans to the abstract, the atmospheric, the ethereal; but there are all kinds of hints to a multitude of other touchstones throughout, with Scott's viscerally bending approach during the closing "Under the Bo Tree" harkenimg to a Middle Eastern harmonic sensibility, while Akkerman's heavily processed electric 12-string still reflects, albeit in a subtle way, a tinge of Ralph Towner.

Recorded in just a single day ("owing," as Akkerman recalls, "to a limited budget"), Akkerman's use of an electric 12-string and Ibanez double-neck guitar (with six and 12- string necks), coupled with some particularly astute use of effects, allows him to create the surprisingly large and, at times, incorporeal sonics that underscore much of the album. Barring Essed's at times similarly ambient yet grounded timbres, this is an acoustic recording, and if Akkerman contributes some impressive solos through the 45-minute set, it's more his approach to color and texture that renders Prism such an important addition to his discography, and such an oddity in Scott's discography.

Jan Akkerman / Claus Ogerman
Aranjuez
CBS
1978

With Akkerman clearly not someone to stand still for even a moment, 1977's Aranjuez is an altogether different beast. After successfully collaborating with orchestrator Gibbs on Jan Akkerman, here the guitarist teams up with Claus Ogerman for a program of largely classical compositions, and one original each from the composer/arranger and guitarist.

In addition to a shorter but just as beautiful version of twentieth century Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo's famous "Adagio from Concierto de Aranjuez"—by this time, already inspiring multiple definitive looks at the piece by jazz artists including pianist Chick Corea, guitarist Jim Hall and, perhaps most famously, Miles Davis—Akkerman and Ogerman deliver lushly (but never syrupy) orchestrated versions of music from twentieth century Portuguese composer Heitor Villa-Lobos ("Preludio (from Mondinha)," "The Seed of God (from Magdalena)" and "Bachiana Brasiliera #5"). The program is fleshed out with twentieth century French composer Maurice Ravel ("Pavane Pour Une Infante Defunte") and Baroque-era Spaniard Gaspar Sanz ("Espanoleta"), in addition to Ogerman's "Nightwings" (released, two years prior, as the title track to saxophonist Stanley Turrentine's Fantasy recording and, three years later, on Ogerman's 1982 Warner Bros. collaboration with saxophonist Michael Brecker, Cityscape) and Akkerman's own poignant "Love Remembered," a significant revision to the version he recorded on Focus 3.

What makes Aranjuez stand out, not just in Akkerman's discography but as a unique album of its time, period, is the combination of symphony orchestra, double bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen (Oscar Peterson, Kenny Drew, Joe Pass) and Akkerman's largely warm-toned hollow body electric guitar. It would be a rarity in any guitarist's discography, but with Akkerman's ongoing eclecticism, perhaps it shouldn't really come as a surprise, as a connected, but very different, follow-up to Tabernakel. Akkerman reflects upon the challenge in making the recording: "Ogerman recorded the orchestral parts with the London Philharmonic at CTS Studios in London. I remember coming over to hear the results and saying to myself, 'what was I thinking, working with Claus Ogerman?,' whilst simultaneously acknowledging 'this is mind-blowing, I have to play on this!' It took me six months to master it. Laying down single lines with the right intention and expression was extremely difficult. I classify this album as easy listening, but with way more tension."

Certainly, it may well be easy on the ears, but Aranjuez remains one of Akkerman's greatest achievements, and a complete surprise to any who only know him for his more rock-oriented music, along with earlier albums Profile and Tabernakel.

Jan Akkerman
Live
Atlantic
1978

Wrapping up his fourth album in just two years, Akkerman's Live reflects that he may be a capable virtuoso, but for Akkerman the writing and the overall complexion of the band are clearly of equal importance. With his regular band of the time—keyboardist Jasper Van't Hof, bass guitarist Cees van der Laarse, drummer Bruno Castellucci and percussionist Nippy Noya—expanded to a septet with the addition, from Dutch progressive rock group Solution, of saxophonist/keyboardist Tom Barlage and keyboardist William Ennes, this selection of tunes from Akkerman's 1979 Montreux Jazz Festival appearance is, in many ways, not what might be expected while, at the same time, being exactly the kind of unexpected gem from a guitarist who never seems to stay in one place for long.

The set list draws heavily from Jan Akkerman, with slightly extended versions of "Skydance," "Pavane" and "Cracker," along with a brief, atmospheric excerpt from the two-part title track to van't Hof's 1974 MPS album Transitory. The guitarist also extracts Barlage's "Tommy" from Moving Waves side-long medley "Eruption"; while it appears mid-medley in Focus' version, here it stands just fine as a stand-alone piece that references the jazzier side of Akkerman's breakout group, though the band also segues comfortably from it into Akkerman's only new piece, the greasy yet buoyant funk of "Azimuth."

While there's plenty of heat to be found—Akkerman delivering characteristic light-speed figures during his solos on "Tommy" and "Azimuth," in particular, what's most notable about his playing here is how much more refined it is, especially when compared to his early work with Focus. While he largely adopts a clean, somewhat warm but nevertheless tart tone throughout, he also contributes plenty of atmospheric work on "Transitory" and lushly constructed chordal voicings on "Pavane." His playing has matured significantly, with his rapid-fire lines far more cleanly articulated than just a few short years prior.

While the album is still somewhat of its time, it's far less overtly so than, in particular, the three tracks drawn from Jan Akkerman; while Akkerman has continued to evolve in the ensuing years, of course, Live is an album that could just as easily have been recorded in the new millennium rather than, as it was, in the late '70s, with a strong fusion edge that doesn't shy away from virtuosity but remains, indeed, about the writing and the collective ensemble sound.

The entire group is firing on all cylinders, but especially van't Hof, a keyboardist whose resume, by this time, was already very impressive; in addition to his own diverse releases ranging from Transitory, with his Pork Pie group, to the triple-LP solo piano excursions of My World of Music (Keytone, 1981), the keyboardist could be found participating on albums by Pork Pie band mates Philip Catherine (guitar) and Charlie Mariano (saxophone), as well as on seminal recordings by Archie Shepp and Zbigniew Seifert. Neither van't Hof nor Barlage (on saxophone) get as much solo space as Akkerman, but what space they do get is well-used and impressive. Van der Laarse, Castellucci and Noya make for a rhythm section capable of everything from delicate subtlety to flat-out, hard-edged grooves, while Barlage and fellow keyboardist Ennes help broaden the overall character of the group; even if they're not featured, they are absolutely essential.

It's a shame, however, that Live is such a brief set, running just over 34 minutes; particularly well-remastered by Bessels, if only more material was available from the show, it would have made for some terrific bonus material to add to The Complete Jan Akkerman. Still, as the only live document from '70s Akkerman (and with the two-CD 10,000 Clowns on a Rainy Day, also included in the box, capturing the guitarist 18-20 years later), it may be short but it's exceptionally sweet.

Jan Akkerman
Jan Akkerman 3
WEA
1979

Akkerman had just one release for 1979, the curiously titled Jan Akkerman 3 (WEA), since he'd released far more than two previous solo albums. Keyboardist Peter Schön, bassist Gene Santini, drummer Bruno Castellucci and percussionist Nippy Noya appear, as Akkerman's new band, on all but one track—the vocal "She's So Divine," a well- played but nevertheless dispensable bit of disco fluff featuring bassist Bunny Brunel (Chick Corea, Larry Coryell), drummer David Igefeld (Alphonso Johnson) and singer Willie Dee. More than most of his work, Jan Akkerman 3 is most definitely of its time, the kind of music that artists like Lee Ritenour and Dave Grusin were moving towards as a more easygoing fusion led towards the emergence of smooth jazz a few years later.

Which means funky and, occasionally, disco-driven grooves drenched in elements of soul and R&B, with the majority of the album recorded (again) at Soundpush Studios, but with string overdubs recorded in London and a kickass horn section of New Yorkers laid down in the Big Apple, both arranged, again, by the inestimable Michael Gibbs. Between Gibbs and name session players including saxophonists Lou Marini (Frank Zappa, Levon Helm), Howard Johnson and the late Michael Brecker (who takes a brief solo on the aptly titled "Funk Me"), and brass players like trumpeter Jon Faddis and Alan Rubin, trombonists Tom Malone and David Taylor and French hornists John Clark and Peter Gordon, the charts are nevertheless exceptional and the playing as tight as it gets. Akkerman once again proves himself a musical chameleon, soloing with aplomb but, even more importantly on an album that's a significant stylistic shift, verisimilitude, as Akkerman's cleaner-toned dexterity fits, hand-in-glove, into the booty-shaking grooves.

Despite the terrific charts that Gibbs adds to give the pieces more heft, the album remains a little lightweight. Still, there are some memorable moments, in particular on "Wait and See," which may still be user-friendly pre-smooth jazz, but without the vocals that render "She's So Divine" and (despite its greasy groove) "Funk Me" somewhat less appealing. A gentle but still pulse-driven ballad, it reflects Akkerman's more lyrical nature, with his volume pedal swells and simple lines, as well as giving pianist Schön some time in the spotlight. The album's only episodic composition, its three sections move from a rubato piano/strings intro (with its foreshadowing of the main theme) to the backbeat-driven main section and slower-tempo'd outro, demonstrating what Jan Akkerman 3 could, perhaps, have been, had Akkerman not handed the reins over to producer Richard DeBois ("I gave him carte blanche," recalls the guitarist).

Listen

Watch

Playlist

Tags

View events near Amsterdam
Jazz Near Amsterdam
Events Guide | Venue Guide | Get App | More...

Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and you'll support us in the process. Learn how.

Related Articles