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

John Kelman By

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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

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").




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