Saturday, April 13, 2013

Why Jan Akkerman?

Why is Jan Akkerman's 1977 eponymously titled release, Jan Akkerman, my tenth favorite album of all-time?

The question I often find myself asking of myself is, Why is this album not my Number One all-time favorite album? Never before or since have I heard or studied a guitarist with the versatility, brave advenurousness, compositional style, over all knowledge of music in general and classical and guitar music specifically, than Jan Akkerman. And no album of his displays this, in my humble opinion, better than this album. Also, there is NO song that I have ever heard that better displays a guitarist's skill, versatility, and compositional prowess than "Streewalker"--a song that will surely be played at my funeral as one of my top ten favorite songs of all-time.

The orchestration of Michael Gibbs (a genius on a par with Claus Ogerman).

The incredible drumming by European jazz drummer Bruno Castelucci. I have rarely been so impressed by a relatively 'unknown' (at least to me) as I am by Bruno's work throughout this album. The one song without him, with highly respected drum legend Pierre Van Der Linden, is, in my opinion, the weakest drumming on the album.

The wonderful, rich keyboard work from Joachim Kühn--with solos that don't pale in comparison with the maestro's amazing guitar work.

The quirky but essential percussion work from Neppe Noya.

The recording, engineering and production:  Mega kudos to Richard DeBois and Jan Schuurman.

My review of this album for ProgArchives:

I have recently been getting back into Prog, and this week, re-listening to my considerable Jan Akkerman collection. This eponymous LP is simply blowing me away. I remember when I received it as a radio promo copy in 1977 how much I loved it, especially Side 1 with "Crackers," "Angel Watch," and "Pavane." But now, Side 2-the whole thing is just boggling my mind. The musicianship is extraordinary, even the Michael Gibbs orchestrations add such a lush, collegial atmosphere to Jan's unparalleled virtuosity. Since listening to all of my Focus discs, Eli, Tabernakel, and now this, I am prepared to dethrone John McLaughlin and proclaim Jan Akkerman as my favorite/the best guitarist ever! Akkerman can play! He can do it all: acoustic, lute, sitar, rhythm, jazz, New Age, blues, and, of course, Rock and Roll! And this album is so well recorded! Kudos to Richard DeBois and Jan Schuurman. Were it not for the dated disco-ish rhythms and now-outdated keyboards, this would be a classic for the ages! Still, I can think of no other set of recordings that better displays Akkerman's virtuosity as a guitar player. Great emotion, amazing versatility in his stylistic approaches, literally unbelievable ease and fluidity of fingering and timing (stops, pauses and transitions). The variety of ways he can express himself within the framework of one song is astounding, mind boggling.

Let's start with Side 2: "Streetwalker" [11/10] has got to be one the ten greatest electric guitar songs ever recorded. Subtle accompaniment (though listen to those drums!) allow Jan to display his virtuosity as a rhythm guitarist before, between and while (!) diving into several extraordinarily diverse lead techniques in his solos. The timing and emotion are extraordinary-even that of the orchestra! What a composition!

The rhythm/strumming work in "Skydancer" [8.5/10] is mesmerizing, though the song lacks a hook to really bring the listener into the song.

"Floatin'" [8/10] notes a reunion with Pierre van der Linden, friend and drummer extraordinaire from Brainbox and Focus days. (Jazz-Fusion drummer Bruno Castelucci performs batterie on all other songs.) The song only makes one one realize A) how much beyond the Focus era Jan already has traveled, B) just how good Bruno Castelucci is, C) just how Rock and Roll-oriented Pierre is, and D) just how much a better fit Bruno Castelucci is for this period of Jan's career. The opening melody lines are interesting for their StanleyClarke/"piccolo bass" sounds. Nice keyboard work from Joachim Kühn.

The album's last song, "Gate to Europe" [8.66667/10] is a minor-keyed work on the acoustic guitar with orchestral accompaniment somewhat prescient of the Claus Ogerman sessions (which are beautiful in their own right, though they display Jan on his electric guitar).

Now to Side 1: "Crackers" [8.75/10] is a very catchy disco-sounding song with more subtle, almost background lead guitar work. Good keyboard passages.

"Angel Watch" [9/10] is a lushly orchestrated ten minute song in which the drums compete with, yet embellish and accent Jan's extraordinary work in first section (about three minutes). The second disco-fied section allows the bass some ascendancy while Jan's treated guitar spits and stutters just before a section of muffled Wes-Montgomery-like chord playing. The disco heats up as Joachim Kühn sounds Don Pullen-like on an acoustic-yes, acoustic-piano solo-which only gets Jan riled up as he takes over: flaming the jazz artists to cinders with a flashy (though strangely soul-less) foray into speed for speed's sake. Song fades. Wow. What a strange ensemble piece.

Side 1 ends with the gorgeous, etheric (not unlike some of Jean-Luc Ponty's work around this time) "Pavane" [10/10]. The swirling keys accompanying Jan's chorus statement are too cool! Treated guitar effects not unfamiliar to the later Focus days, strumming not unlike the amazing Eli work, Jan is all over the fretboard and time-space continuum with this one.

The album rates a 8.00 out of 10 = a solid 4.0, which means: excellent though not essential. But hearing it may be essential for any true prog fan.

The other component playing into my praise of this album is the fact that Jan's guitar playing offered so many guitar solos over the course of his career that seered their place in my brain among the absolute best, most emotionally expressive, I've ever heard: the sheer beauty of "Tommy" from the mega-prog epic, Eruption" and Love Remembered," the passionated pyrotechnics on display with "Hocus Pocus" and "Answers? Questions! Questions? Answers!" the fun gorgeousness of "Soft Vanilla" and "Hard Vanilla" the amazing diversity of virtuosity on display over the course of his collaboration with former Brainbox bandmate Kaz Lux, Eli not to mention his work on Tony Scott's Meditation in 1977 and all of the live performance video showing his incredible dexterity and speed or the solo work in the middle of the Hamburger Concerto. I don't know why Jan had so much difficulty translating his ideas and genius to vinyl in the years after, but his concert performances even into the late 1990s have always been able to convey some of that stunning dexterity and genius.  

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