Prizm/Mediatation – Where Akkerman Goes Kind of Blue & Kind Of East
Review by Sal Cataldi
Look in the music collection of any jazzbo or half-way less than half-assed music lover and you’re sure to find a copy of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue.
The Black Knight of Brass’ landmark is one of the best-selling jazz discs of all time, for a multitude of reasons. First and most importantly because it holds, within its brief running time, the first full flowering of modern modal jazz, inspirationally delivered by a triumvirate that would set the standards for composition, harmony and improvisation that rule to this day – Miles, John Coltrane and Bill Evans. Amazingly, legend also holds that each tune was committed in a single take, on first glance, and without rehearsal. The most stunning fact? – That these tunes contain the seeds of a radical new direction while being couched in the ancient blues artform.
What also doesn’t hurt is that Blue is as much about the body as it is the head. It has become a soundtrack setting for romance, something that can please both the music geek and his/her long-suffering mate! All this has helped keep this 50-plus-year-old disc a perennial top seller, the surefire pathway for new generations into the hallowed halls of jazz buffery, overall coolness… and the slacks of their intended love target!
When I consider discussing one of my favorite of Jan Akkerman’s less-known albums, Prizm (or Meditation as it is also known in re-release), I immediately think back to Kind of Blue. The connections regard not only the style of the music and spirit of the freewheeling playing, but the spontaneity and chance with which the tunes were composed and recorded, and the sidemen. Most notable in terms of personnel is the esoteric clarinet man Tony Scott. The bald-domed licorice stick mystic was a close associate of none other than Charlie “Bird” Parker, who went from his love of the bebop and the blues to the outer reaches of meditative Eastern modal music. Hell, even the album cover and Jan and Tony’s frozen-in-style clothes and hairdos are memorable.
This vintage late 70s artifact finds Jan at his, till then, most jazzy – relaxed and fluid, playing streams of 16th notes (and sometimes 32nds) that allude to Parker-style blues and bop, as much as the semi-tone-fired modal excursions of sitar god Ravi Shankar. Of all Jan’s discs, this may be the one where his fingering is at its most free and jazz inspired - liquid bebop lightening poured over a supremely sure-footed background that’s equal parts deep blues and early trance.
But how did this oddball session between the prog-rock master and the bebop refugee come about? According to Jan it was entirely by chance. The dutch master met the pointy-bearded Yankee reed mystic in a nightclub called “The Citadel,” in the old part of Amsterdam, where he regularly hung with Hans Dufler (father of sax goddess Candy) and pianist come album producer Cees Schrama, whom Akkerman would forever dub “Schaamhaar,” pubic hair in the lingo of the Netherlands!
“He looked really freaky cool,” jokes Jan. “With his African hat, Ray Charles Ray Bans, a sheepskin body warmer, cowboy boots and ski pants – he looked like a Muppet!”
After a little early relaxation at a local pub, Akkerman and crew headed to Soundpush for the ten-hour session, where they committed to tape four, 11- 12 minute-long, deep grooving, modal blues adventures.
One of the album’s signatures is Jan’s use of an Ibanez double-neck, with 6- and 12-string appendages, and some luscious harmonic tunings made up largely on the spot to set the stage for each tune. Always a fan of the broad, wide soundscapes provided by his trusty Leslie in his Brainbox and later Focus days, Jan was then heavily leaning on a handful of devices at Soundpush, including the Electro Harmonix flanger, phaser and an envelope filter, coming forth from his Doctor Cube with meticulous attention paid to the EQ of his sound.
The sound of this oddball item in the Akkernut discography is deeply enriched by the rhythm section of acoustic bassists Wim Essed and the powerhouse of Jan’s early solo discs, Bruno Castellucci, on drums. “Bruno was one of the best guys I ever heard, big and strong, rock thump with a true jazz swing.”
“All four of the tracks were improvised on the spot,” continues Akkerman. “I just plucked titles out of the air after the session. I think of the music as Eastern bebop fusion, a sort of New Age Jazz… for the sexually deranged!”
So after all this history and hyperbole, how does this unfold, where does it take you, and leave you?
The disc opener, “The Simarrillion” begin with lush unaccompanied chordal Akkerman, ultimately joined by Castellucci’s airy cymbal work. Scott enters breathily and slowly at almost the halfway point. Bruno propels Scott’s yearning, trill-laden excursions with punchy brush work as Akkerman and bassman Essed provide support for the reedman’s solo spotlight. The next track, “The Offering,” offers more punch, beginning with hard-edged solo and riff courtesy of bassman Essed, followed by Scott’s bird song inspired soloing. Pianist Schrama follows with a bell-like upper register solo, setting the stage for Akkerman’s first soloing on the disc at the 7 minute mark, spitting the rapid-fire Dorian over the lazy, one-chord C minor blues.
As with many a fine album, the real highlight here is a slow, sometimes gut-bucket out called “Blues Blues and Then Some More Blues.” Again, Essed sets the table, here with short, fat, chord- and octave-laden riffage, which is furthered with blues phrases and outré string scratching by pianist Schrama. At the 3-minute mark, Scott strolls in, with sharp Dixieland blues worthy of Louie Armstrong. Scott’s solo is followed by Akkerman, ripping with fleet, liquid nitro blues. For the last minute, Scott comes in with a hardcore, non-verbal vocal skat, which is playful manipulated with effects. The album goes full-on Eastern with the Buddihistic closer, “Under the Bo Tree.” With Akkerman’s rangy chords and Castellucci’s bright cymbal work, Scott roams the Eastern scales in a snake charmer mode. This is the real showpiece for Akkerman, where he overdubs a rapid-fire solo with a Shakti-era John McLaughlin accent over his bed of chordal drone. The song and disc close as “Bo Tree” moves into an uptempo raga, Ravi at Monterey with a flange bed.
My own journey to and with this little-heard disc is a story in and of itself. I became a fan of Jan after hearing his monstrously great solo album “Profile,” on an obscene quadraphonic sound system in the early 70s. When he left Focus and the rock fast track in the mid-70s, his modestly distributed and promoted solo discs were impossible to come by Stateside. So I always made Amsterdam a stop in my global wanderings, where I could find Jan’s latest releases and slip the vinyl in the back of my backpack. Sometimes I would travel months toting these unknown sonic treasures, before I got back to the Big Apple and was able to hear the first note.
But ahh progress! With iTunes, Amazon and other digital download and web stores, this fine disc of modal blues, and the Eastern mystic musical happiness it generates, are just a click away.