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Jan Akkerman - A Biography

 

 

For over fifty years, Jan Akkerman has been one of Holland’s most respected guitarists. In addition to his leading role in the globally acclaimed bands like The Hunters, Brainbox, Focus he collaborated with many local and international artists. On his solo projects, Akkerman let his creativity run free, combining rock, jazz, blues, classics and dance in his own distinctive style.


Jan was born in Amsterdam on Christmas Eve, 1946 just a stone’s throw from the famous Waterloo Square. He first picked up a guitar at the age of five; the instrument belonged to his dad, but he never saw the ‘old man’ pluck or strum the strings. While Jan had started playing the accordion a year earlier, the guitar became his instrument of choice. He also took on the bass (for instance, on Focus’ ‘Hocus Pocus’), piano and later played the drums occasionally.


During his adolescent years, Jan’s interest shifted from rock ’n roll to R&B to classical music, becoming strongly influenced by Indorock bands like The Tielman Brothers and The Crazy Rockers. At a young age, Jan started performing in local bands such as The Friendship Sextet, and Johnny & His Cellar Rockers. The latter evolved into The Hunters around 1965. While he had a minor hit in 1966 in Europe and Britain with ‘Russian Spy and I’, the song has since become a bonafide Dutch rock classic. The song, which begins with a fast guitar lick, marked Jan’s introduction to a wider audience. During the final days of The Hunters, Jan recorded his first solo album 'Talent for Sale', released in September 1968. This debut features several R&B classics, with Jan’s brother playing drums on one track, and self-penned compositions.

During the same era Jan undertook session work at Bovema’s (the Dutch division of EMI Records) Intertone Studio under the supervision of producer Tim Griek and engineer André Hooning. When Jan is asked to play guitar and Hammond organ during a session with singer Kazimierz ‘Kaz’ Lux, the collaboration leads to the formation of Brainbox. Jan asks his studio pal and drummer Pierre van der Linden to join the group with André Reynen completing the line-up on bass guitar. The first and only Brainbox album featuring Jan Akkerman is released in October 1969 and features the promising single ‘Down Man’. Heralded as a landmark debut, the album is still considered a classic example of Dutch progressive rock. Covers of ‘Summertime’ and ‘Scarborough Fair’ displayed a combination of musical styles, Jan’s distinctive arrangements and led to widespread acclaim. By the time the album reached record shops, Jan had left Brainbox to join the Trio Thijs van Leer,s cabaret group , renamed Focus in 1969.


During his six years in Focus the band gained acclaim with the singles ‘Hocus Pocus’ and ‘Sylvia’, while the albums ‘Moving Waves’ and ‘Focus 3’ climbed the international charts. In 1973 leading British music magazine Melody Maker ranked Jan above Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana and Jimmy Page in its ‘Best International Guitarist’ poll, firmly establishing his status as an influential and respected guitarist.


Around this time Akkerman produced two solo albums that defined his versatility. 'Profile' (1972) featured solid progressive rock as well his first explorations of (alto) lute and classical guitar. This direction extended further on ‘Tabernakel' (1973), which Jan recorded in New York City with an orchestra arranged by George Flynn, bassist Tim Bogert and drummer Carmine Appice. Showcasing his excellence in Rennaisance lute music and buoyed by the aforementioned Melody Maker poll and the success of Focus, both albums also charted internationally.


Having resigned from Focus in February 1976, Jan embarked on a never-ending musical journey and resumed his work with Kaz Lux. Jan’s colourful music and Kaz’ impressionistic lyrics fused on ‘Eli’ (1976), earning the album considerable critical acclaim and gold status in The Netherlands. ‘Eli’ proved Jan had a strong urge to keep developing musically after his Focus days. During this period, the guitarist laid the foundation of what became his most famous solo record ‘Jan Akkerman’ (1977) (also known as the ‘In bed with a Guitar’ album). Fully instrumental, the record features orchestral arrangements by Michael Gibbs. Garnering a prestigious Edison Award in The Netherlands, the album also led to concerts throughout Europe.


Around this time, Jan recorded the spontaneous ‘Prism’ with clarinetist Tony Scott and teamed up with German classical arranger and conductor Claus Ogerman for ‘Aranjuez’. One of Akkerman’s most revered albums, ‘Aranjuez’ displays his myriad musical styles and talent. His brilliance is further showcased during two appearances at the 1978 Montreux Jazz Festival. A solo performance was followed by a celebrated set with his six-piece band, parts of which were later released on ‘Live’.


Recorded in The Netherlands, United Kingdom and the US, ‘Jan Akkerman 3’ (1979) saw Jan working with a horn section for the first time and features sax player Michael Brecker. His third release for Atlantic Records was a box office flop, but didn’t stop Jan experimenting further and exploring various musical styles both on record and onstage. This ferocious period of experimentation led to groundbreaking new music. In 1979, Jan formed the JAP trio together with double bass player Ali Haurand and drummer Pierre Courbois. Their free jazz style featured Jan on guitar synthesiser for the first time. His tour with pianist Joachim Kühn surprised both friend and foe and saw them playing concerts in The Netherlands, Germany, Austria and Poland. The following year Jan shared the stage with drummer Billy Cobham and resumed his collaboration with Kaz Lux. The resulting album ‘Transparental’, produced using the same formula as ‘Eli’, didn’t chart and failed to reach the same artistic level as its predecessor.

During 1981 and 1982 Jan lived in Denmark and Sweden and performed/recorded with a.o. drummer Jon Hiseman from Colosseum, guitarist Kent Kroon and bassist Pablo Nahar from Jan’s group Pleasure Point. In the Summer of 1981 he agreed a bet with record company boss Willem van Kooten to record, produce and deliver an album within 24 hours. Jan won and the resulting 'Oil in the Family' is one of his most talked about and enjoyable albums. Combining disco with Arabic influences and exotic sounds, Akkerman utilised the guitar synthesiser throughout. 1982’s 'Pleasure Point' is of his most stylistic records and features mainly classical and jazz-rock inspired material. Hot on its heels came 'It Could Happen To You', which was recorded in Denmark. Both albums sound less experimental than previous works.

Returning to Holland in late 1982, Jan gradually started to revisit his Django and blues roots. On 'Can't Stand Noise' (1983) he incorporated live favourites like ‘Heavy Treasure’ and ‘Just Because’ and experimented with drums, computers and synthesisers. The single ‘Piétons’ is a vital example of this new direction. While touring Europe with his renewed Jan Akkerman Band, he accepted the offer to revive his partnership with Thijs van Leer, resulting in a one-off record in March 1985. In the interim period, Jan returned to his rock roots, the evidence of which can be heard on 1984’s ‘From the Basement’. Influenced by ZZ Top and Brainbox, the songs sound fresh and convincing. Having worked on home demos for over a year, Jan returned to the studio in the Summer of 1986 to record 'Heartware', which was released in 1987. Partly solo and partly accompanied by bassist Michael Peet and drummer Ton Dijkman, the independently-released album is considered one of his best offerings from the 80s. Jan combines rock and blues with electronic, New Age-sounding pieces. Jan’s acoustic guitar also makes its comeback on the record.

In 1989, Jan is asked by manager and record boss Miles Copeland to join the mammoth ‘Night of the Guitar’ tour. A truly great experience for the Dutch guitarist, the dates led to his comeback on international stages with tours booked in the U.S. and Brazil. Consequently, Jan signed to Copeland’s IRS label and delivered 'The Noise of Art' (1990), his first worldwide release since 1979. To promote the album Jan performed in theatres, rock venues and made an appearance at the annual North Sea Jazz Festival.

During 1991 and 1992, Jan shared the stage with the Charlie Byrd Trio, Larry Coryell, Samuel Eddy and the American blues legend Ronald Abrams. Following his return in 1992 from an exhausting tour in Japan and the Caribbean, Jan is involved in a bad car crash. Although seriously injured, he made a quick recovery and less than six months later was well enough to perform live and complete his intimate ‘Puccini’s Café’ (1993) album. ‘Blues Hearts’ followed a year later; the record featuring both new compositions and reinterpretations of older work.

Having completed an extensive theatre tour in 1994 and 1995 Jan began work on a studio album which was to preview all his musical styles and influences, past and present. On 'Focus in Time' (1996) Jan drew inspiration from classical composers such as Bach, Mozart, Fauré and Grieg as well as blues and soul music. On the tour that followed keyboardist Nico Brandsen performed with his Hammond organ and brought the old Focus times back to the fore. The shows were captured on the live double album '10.000 Clowns On A Rainy Day' (1997).

By the end of 1997, Jan had returned to the British stage performing at the annual International Guitar Festival in the Wirral. Earlier that year he was invited to share the stage with one of the biggest bluesguitar heroes B.B. King. To everyone’s joy and appreciation both guitarists continued their collaboration in 1998 and 2001. A selection of recordings from Jan’s acoustic solo performances appear on 1999’s ‘Passion’. Released by specialist metal label Roadrunner, the album offered Jan’s best acoustic material in years. During the same year, Jan designed a guitar for Dutch company Catalyst Instruments. The ‘Jakkerman’ was made from composite material. Following earlier collaborations with guitar manufacturers like Framus, the ‘Jakkerman’ proved to be the second design Jan put his name to.

At the turn of the century, Jan was invited by Dutch TV programme ‘2 Meter Sessies’ to perform a live session with rap artist Ice-T. The combination of his brilliantly-timed guitar licks and the rapper’s fluid and powerful lyrics led to a surprising and acclaimed collaboration, which also earned huge plaudits from the hip hop scene. By the end of 2000 Jan’s Django roots proved central to a theatre tour with the Rosenberg Trio, while a year later he once again picked up the lute for a series of performances. During the 2001/2002 ‘Jazzah! Tour’ Jan introduced some new songs such as ‘Cotton Bay’ and his interpretation of the Isley Brothers track ‘Between The Sheets’. Both tracks ended up on 2003’s ‘C.U.’ album, co-produced by Ronald Molendijk and Jeroen Rietbergen from dance act Soulvation. Their modern dance and electronic music had a huge influence on Jan’s compositions while incorporating his trademark blend of blues, funk and jazz. ‘C.U.’ also took Jan to various international stages, including the UK, Germany, Spain, Russia and Bosnia.

As a celebration of his significant contribution to Dutch pop and guitar music, Jan received the Golden Harp Award in early 2005. Holland’s most prestigious music prize, Jan dedicated the award to his loyal audience. Further tours followed, including another appearance at the North Sea Jazz Festival and his first visit to Japan in thirty years. In 2007, Jan and his band also visited Syria before heading to South America with pianist Mike del Ferro.

2011’s ‘Minor Details’ incorporated Akkerman’s signature fusion of rock, jazz, blues and modern electronics, but with a fresh sound that included a special appearance by trumpet player Eric Vloeimans. A year later Jan launched ‘My Brainbox’, a new project featuring singer Bert Heerink from hard rock band Vandenberg. The collaboration revitalised Brainbox material from the late sixties (as well as some tracks from the ‘Eli’ album) and celebrated Jan’s fifty years on the global stage. At the end of 2012 Jan was appointed Knight in the Order of Orange-Nassau, a monumental, royal honour that acknowledged his contribution to Dutch music and his influence on musicians around the world.

Looking back had never been at the front of Jan’s mind, but the 1977 vinyl reissue of ‘Jan Akkerman’ inspired him to perform the album in its entirety during his ‘Back To Vinyl’ tour in 2016. By the end of that year Jan had turned 70 and he celebrated the milestone with a special concert tour. A three hour performance in Amsterdam, during which he was joined onstage by numerous colleagues and friends, served as a fitting reminder of Jan’s enduring and exceptional guitar skills.

In 2018 record company Red Bullet compiled his work on the 26 cd box set “The Complete Jan Akkerman”, featuring all of his solo albums, his most important live records, his work with Johnny and his Cellar Rockers, The Hunters, Brainbox and Focus, as well as a selection of previously unreleased recordings.

Even now in 2018 Jan is still considered the most influential guitar player ever to come out of the Netherlands. For generations, he has impressed and inspired large numbers of guitarists with his timing, harmonics, virtuosity and his ability to perform with a wide range of musicians from various musical backgrounds. Being fresh, energetic and unpredictable, Jan continues to perform at the highest level and to share his passion for the guitar with current band members Coen Molenaar (keyboards), David de Marez Oyens (bass guitar), Marijn van den Berg (drums) and last, but not least - in fact foremost - with his worldwide audience.

What will be his next challenge?

Wouter Bessels (music journalist/author)