Wednesday, April 3, 2013

In Praise of Jan Akkerman

My "In Praise of . . . " series is intended to shine the spotlight on artists who, in my opinion, continue to be under appreciated. Though many or perhaps all of the artists I put in the spotlight will be familiar to you in name, I feel that these artists are expressing a genius, passing on a gift to we humans, that far surpasses their current levels of recognition or rewards. While not necessarily in any particular order, I am most proud to begin the series with an artist who is, in my opinion, the most enigmatic, unpredictable, fluid, dextrous, facile, complicated, inimitable, imaginative, cerebral, composer-musician I have ever had the privilege of encountering:  Dutch guitarist and composer Jan Akkerman.

"What I like about Jan Akkerman is that he is an allround player and most important is that he never plays a song the same way twice, every time he takes risks and expresses his feelings at that moment." (quote from YouTube's Foggy4180)

     Most of you are familiar with Jan from his brief presence with the powerfully creative early 70s group, FOCUS. Some of you know him from his work with Brainbox and singer/vocal stylist Kaz Lux. Others may have wandered across his many solo studio and live albums. Some of you--en Europe--have probably had occasion or two to see him live in concert (he continues to tour--even now into his mid-60s). No doubt, many have had trouble understanding much less appreciating many of his career's musical and stylistic shifts and choices. He is certainly chameleonic and ever-creative, always testing himself. As in his playing, rarely does Jan Akkerman take the next step that we might expect of him.
     In interviews--even in concert footage--I always get the sense that only a fraction of his full being is present in the given moment; the rest of his psychospiritual being is far off in a different mathematical dimension from the rest of us--one in which he might be playing poker with the likes of Franz Josef, Wolfgang Amadeus, and Ludwig Von, or one in which he is drinking coffee in a café with Claude and Maurice, Fauré and Satie. Or perhaps he's even jamming--in a patronizing way--with the likes of Paganini, or Liszt or Rachmaninoff. I think most likely that he could be taking turns playing respectfully, reverently, within a chamber orchestra in some church sacristy with J.S. Bach, Antonio V., Georg Telemann and John Dowland, or with reckless abandon (and his typical lightning speed and totally unpredictable note and chord choices) in a smokey Amsterdam lounge in a sextet with Elvin Jones, Charles Mingus, Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane. The point is, his physical being seems to only require about ten percent of his presence in order to function and perform at the (extraordinary) level that he does, while you get the feeling that not only would he rather be somewhere else, but that, mentally, spiritually, he is (somewhere else).
     Like the above-mentioned Thelonius Monk, I believe that Jan Akkerman's genius is under appreciated because his music is so wildly different, so unpredictable and incomparable to what had come before (even within his own repertoire! I mean:  Focus' III followed by the solo lute-oriented Tabernakel, then Hamburger Concerto and Mother Focus (both with FOCUS), Eli (with KAZ LUX), the jazzy, Euro-discofied Jan Akkerman, and Aranjuez (with orchestrations and accompaniment provided by acclaimed composer/arranger CLAUS OGERMAN [think Diana Krall]) all came within a four year span!). Classical, jazz, disco, orchestral, medieval/Renaissance, hard rock, lite rock, pop, serious, humorous, cerebral, emotional, technical, technological, solo and collaborative, and, along the way, plenty of experimental stuff. Incredible!
    Working against Jan in the effort to establish him as musical genius is, apparently, a certain gruff arrogance. His comments can seem awfully blunt and derrogatory to some less-familiar with Dutch humor. However, in his defense, there are countless masters from history that have been so 'cursed.' Perhaps there is a certain level of genius, intelligence that causes a natural disdain for those who have little or no aptitude for appreciating the artistic genius of . . . artistic genii! Also, knowing how difficult it is to 'let go' and yield to the deflating compromises of inspiration that go into rendering a 'fixed' record of art--whether that be song, poem, painting, sculpture, dance, or even athletic performance--I can understand why record albums can fail to A) achieve the full expression and conveyance of an artist's inspiring vision and B) fail (sometimes miserably) to meet the expectations of consumers and critics; the pressures of limited studio access and recording time, touring schedule commitments, extra-studio family affairs, financial backing, as well as artistic differences among collaborating (or even hired) contributors and mercurial intrapersonal artistic tastes and preferences (personal growth and evolution) can often interfere with the quality of the artist's final physical product.
     Jan Akkerman as a guitar player, composer and improvisor is a topic unto itself. Moving a big, thick-fingered left hand effortlessly over the fretboard, configuring those massive stumps into myriad mysteriously connected chords, notes, flurries and runs, I know of no one who is able to predict where Jan Akkerman is going to take the melody or chord foundation from nano-second to nano-second--though Jan might proclaim that it all goes back to Bach. His pitch choices and harmonic homes for his melody lines are mystifying, sometimes frustratingly so, until twenty chords, notes, flurries and runs later (or about two or three seconds worth of time) you begin to find a connection, an inkling of understanding, a glimmer of a familiar pattern, you're able to latch onto, an ever-so ephemeral and delicate thread of melodic pleasure. In those moments, there occurs within the listener an easing of angst, of doubt, of that internal confusion and, therefore, lack of appreciation.
     Again, one of Jan's flaws is the feeling that he is never truly present in his skin, or in his expression of music. I get the feeling each time I see video of him performing--or even during PR interviews--that he is going through the motions--though I often sense moments of deep engagement as he stumbles upon a sequence or flurry that feels rightly done (for that moment), or a spoken phrase or sentiment that connects with some Higher Barometer of Truth within him.
     If you've ever heard Jan Akkerman perform the songs/music of others, you know that Jan has quite an unique interpretation of that work--and even of his own songs. Each time through that song is a new and wildly creative adventure of exploration, reinterpretation, reinvention. (Though the "wildness" to which I refer here is not so very emotional in its origin but rather mental.) Not that Jan doesn't appreciate or admire the works of others, and not that he thinks that he can do it better, I think it is more likely that he sees it as task similar to that of a mathematician trying to remember, or reinterpret, or, yes, improve upon, a previously established equation or proof. A familiar song, chord sequence or melody can be reworked in infinite different ways--and that is what motivates Jan to play/perform songs that he's already played:  to see where he (or it) will take it--take him--this time. To me he's a lot like tennis's John McEnroe:  he can be abrasive and, perhaps, at times, self-centered and dramatic, but he is a mental creative genius.
     The big question for me is:  Does Jan Akkerman find satisfaction, through his guitar playing? Is he happy with his recordings and his performances, or is he, like so many frustrated artists, always feeling that his 'product' is less than the design or concept? I have a feeling that this latter might be the case, but I do not know. I have never met nor do I know Jan Akkerman. Now, in his mid-60s, it is questionable whether or not he will be able to get his 'vehicle' to ever express the wonders that his mind/soul conjures--though I had one incredible occasion of seeing Andres Segovia perform when the master was two months shy of his ninety-third birthday. I will never forget his unexpectedly large aristocratic frame (quite strikingly similar to that of my own sturdy six-foot tall grandfather) slowly, stiffly shuffling onto the stage, lowering himself slowly onto his seat, propping his foot up onto it's tiny little stool:  He looked so old and frail! But, once handed his guitar, I lay witness to one of the most miraculous transformations I've ever seen as ancient man's fragile body became one in eternal youthfulness with his instrument! His fingers and hands began flying over and among strings and fretboard with the ease and vivacity of a 16-year old (and yet all-the-while retaining the mastery of a 90-year old).
      Perhaps Jan's legacy will grow and improve with age; perhaps his focus and interest in his own playing and performing will earn more than the (perceived) 10-20 percent that he seems to engage these days; perhaps it changes from moment to moment, or day to day.  
    I agree with the quote I borrowed from a YouTube comment except for one thing:  I'm not sure Jan's momentary expressions are as emotion-based as my foggy friend surmises; I think they are more mental or even spiritual--the limited human expressions of the complete workings and understandings of a spiritual being. How frustrating it must be to be a visionary genius and to not have the best tools for the perfect expression of such genius. I guess that's why artists can be so crotchety, depressed, obsessive, and yet also the reason why they continue to create--to try to get it right or do it better than the last time.

     As for his playing, I have always been as equally mesmerized and rendered mouth a-gape at his rhythm guitar playing (as I am with many of my favorite guitarists: including John McLaughlin, Roye Albrighton, The Edge Evans, Reine Fiske, and Anthony Phillips). The transitions he can make with fluid precision and clarity within a one- or two-second period are spell-binding and, as iterated several times above, mystifyingly unpredictable. Flashy as his runs and flurries are, they pale, in my humble opinion, in comparison to his chord work. My personal estimation of Jan Akkerman's chord fluidity exceeds even that of these amazing predecessors:  Django Rhinehardt, Wes Montgomery, and Chet Atkins--as much as I revere each of their work. A sit down interview or 'master class' with Jan is what the world needs to truly appreciate this incredible genius.

Should you be willing to give Jan another try, you can start with his more "polished" and accepted "masterpieces" like:
  -- the delicate "Tommy" from the side-long "Eruption" suite off of Focus' 1971 LP Moving Waves, or
  -- the fiery (and quirky) "Hocus Pocus" from the same album, or
  -- the gorgeous and mature "Focus II," again, from the same Moving Waves album, or
  -- the humorously tongue-in-cheek, "Birth" from 1973's Focus LP, Hamburger Concerto,
  -- the equally gorgeous "Pavane" from his 1977 eponymously titled solo album.

But I would urge you to go further:
  -- Explore the gems on 1972's solo album, Profile,

  -- the raw power and fire and melodic genius while improvising of 1972's "Questions? Answers! Answers Questions,"
  -- the genius 12-string mastery of 1975's Eli's "Wings of Strings,"
  -- the medieval beauty and dexterity of "Elspeth of Nottingahm" (from Focus' III),
  -- the amazingly powerful melodies of 1975 Focus release Mother Focus' "Soft Vanilla/Hard Vanilla," and so many others.
  -- "Streetwalker."

     Ah, yes. "Streetwalker." "And then there is 'Streetwalker.'" More than any other Jan Akkerman song, I think "Streetwalker" (first published on 1977's solo album, Jan Akkerman) most and best exemplifies the genius and enigma that is Jan Akkerman. Though the "original"--the recorded version on Jan Akkerman--is mesmerizing, eargasmic, confusing, astounding and amazing, it's many live recordings over the years (many available on YouTube) give great representation to support the above proclamation regarding Jan's propensity to "never play a song the same way twice."
     Watching some of Jan's performances of "streetwalker" through the years (it is often a standard in his concert appearances), you can see (and hear) in each rendition the on-going relationship he has with his music:  Continuous exploration and discovery. Each performance will never fail to offer you glimpses into the genius and brilliance of this artist, yet don't let yourself get frustrated by the dissimilarities and overt stylistic changes and reinterpretations he might place upon a piece--especially if it is a piece that you have already heard from him. He always has the ability to deliver almost-excruciating beauty within the framework of breathtaking technical prowess, yet he will never choose the path already chosen, will always seek out and explore a new 'fresh' direction or road to pursue. he is fearless and driven. this may be quite frustrating to listeners who want/expect to hear exact replications of his studio recordings, but, c'est l'avis (d'un génie).
      I watch the videos over and over, I listen to the studio version over and over, I listen to the live recordings over and over, and am always, ALWAYS, rendered a puddle of mush from the the sheer exhaustion of succumbing to repeated adrenaline rushes, from the emotional upheaval of hearing/experiencing multiple moments of profound beauty and heightened expression, form the invariable gush of tears that pour out of my eye sockets as I give way to wave after wave of gratitude that comes with having just been in The Presence of The Divine. And it's not just Jan and his guitar. It's the space he allows for his notes to reverberate and fade, the space he allows for the human listener to recover and recuperate before he comes at you again, the space he allows for the other instrumentalists to support and feed off of him, the space he needs in order to upload his next burst of Divinely inspired lightning. Space is an integrally important element of Jan Akkerman music. Though he can attack with unearthly speed and accuracy, he knows that the human listener needs time and space within which to digest and process. But even the stuff Jan does within the 'spaces between' his flurries and flourishes are often devastating enough to catch one off-guard, even to bring you to your knees. That's just the thing: there is no rest, there are always subtleties and surprises--especially when he is not the lead performer--just listen to his support or accompaniment work. It takes my breath away.
     For all of the foibles and frustrations that come with a Jan Akkerman listening experience, the nuggets of pure gold that one can find are of a gradient rarely encountered on this planet. I am one of the richest men to have ever lived thanks to artists like Jan Akkerman.

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