Jan Akkerman will forever be remembered and tied to the prog-rock and fusion band that was Focus. The unmistakable sound of Hocus Pocus by Focus still reverberates across the airwaves both in its original form and via some interesting covers…my favourite has to be Helloween’s from their all-covers album, Metal Jukebox (although I had to pay a fortune for the Japanese version as that had a ‘bonus track’ cover of Purple’s Rat Bat Blue that I had to have.) Focus were way more than that single or the follow up Sylvia…their albums showed an innate sense of melody and inventiveness despite Thijs van Leer’s best attempts to drown some of them in flute and yodels.
Focus are still producing albums and touring with Thijs at the helm but Jan has also been active: the latest release Close Beauty and is his thirtieth album, I think, if you include live releases…no slouch this man! Always a hugely talented guitarist and composer, he also has that other essential quality…a finely tuned sense of humour: some of his titles are just wonderful as well as containing some classwork on various stringed instruments. Seek out his Tabernackel album for his lute prowess or Fromage a Trois or his last album, North Sea Jazz, for many and varied examples of his intuitive approach to a full range of genres. This latest is more of his eclectic mix of styles and genres and, as Akkerman says, “The title was inspired from a simple notion, that when you are too close to an object you cannot see the real value. The same applies to music.” That truly does explain where he is coming from on this rather majestic album.
It opens with the acoustic Spiritual Privacy with its slightly Spanish feel as Jan’s fingers fly but also build tension and stories without a word being uttered. OK, this sort of thing can be an acquired taste, but with the light percussion and keys in the background you can focus on the sounds an acoustic is capable of in the right hands…and he hasn’t lost any of that deftness of touch and feel that can transform a guitar piece from technical excellence into technical excellence with passion. Beyond The Horizon is next and takes us into a moody atmosphere of electric guitar that has all the lyrical content embroiled in the subtle, slow and bluesy phrasing. Not that many notes, but everyone is made to count as Jan explores the fretboard. The backing percussion, bass and keys again maintain a presence that allows the melodies to flourish. Perhaps surprisingly, he doesn’t favour ‘tapping’ or other modern affectations and just uses picking and bending the way it should be.
Reunion stays slow and moody and Jan is back on acoustic with sounds that paint pictures that, in my mind as on a lot of his work, don’t always reflect his title but conjure other images…in this case I am in a beachside bar, relaxing with a cold beer and cigarettes and reflecting on life as the sea reflects the venue…or is that a bit too deep in every sense? Either way, it is a neat flowing piece that captivates. The title track, Close Beauty, is acoustic too and has a simplistic approach that his phrases manage to make complex…then the electric midsection speaks even more clearly of such things as the hairs on a bee’s thorax or the stamens of an iris…close up beauty indeed. Retrospection has four subtitles which matter only to him I guess as the volume control electric playing with church organ suddenly changes to a flash of fusion and then an introspective rather than retrospective electric/acoustic section: the changes in feel continue throughout and never let you guess correctly what’s next….but with this kind of playing that only adds to the pleasure as well as the intrigue. Next up is Passagaglia which, I can only guess, is a variation on the seventeenth-century musical form, passacaglia…don’t care really as this clever electric piece is fascinating in its composition and execution with the chord sequences telling their own story. Tommy’s Anniversary brings us over eight minutes of jazz/blues/fusion as Jan’s electric once more washes over the subtle bass and percussion and the piano backs it all up nicely. The guitar is always the star, however, and the tonal variation through pick-up selection and amp settings is carefully, cleverly and beautifully employed.
Next, we move to Don Giovanni and, without words, the opera of the same name by some upstart called Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is reflected in the Don Juan feel to the playing…libertine and seducer he may have been, but the guitar is the one that’s playing around here! A lovely electric piece with more succinct, subtle and clever playing from Jan. Meanwhile In St Tropez uses phasing to engender the sultry feel and the jazz lounge background fits rather well. French Pride is next and, as the precursor to Fromage I prefer to think of it being entitled Mothers Pride…however, it is a mildly funky/fusion piece that I don’t see any French influences in…but it does have some neat Hammond excursions that, wrapped around the guitar makes this closer to Focus than any other but still a mile away. Now for Fromage and no, it isn’t cheesy…it is a funky little number with a clever melody running in and around it. The synth, which harmonises occasionally, could have more Hammond to my mind but the central guitar ‘solo’ Is so good, I no longer care.
The final track is the wonderfully titled Good Body Every Evening…ahh, if only! The intro uses just the lower frets and strings and leads (pun intended) into another trademark piece of subtle and telling playing…this may last for just over eight minutes but it flashes past as you take in the quality playing, phrasing and true exploration of every string and fret…not many players do that so this is especially welcomed by me.
In summary, this a guitarists guitarist album for guitarists that is a lesson as well as an unmitigated pleasure to guitar geek like wot I am…to the less geeky, there is still a huge amount to be gleaned from this highly entertaining and well-constructed album. There is a tune for every mood and, I assure you, you will have fun translating the playing and concocting a title of your own….apart from the last one; that can’t be bettered.
(Fumbled fingers’ time: and immediately above this album in my iTunes is the relatively unknown James Williamson supplying glorious blues on Homesick…quality.)
Jan Akkerman – Close Beauty – Mascot Label Group
EIGHTdoodle paws out of TEN …
- Spiritual Privacy (Sunset Tango)
- Beyond The Horizon
- Close Beauty
- Retrospection (Emotional Debris – The Power Behind The Throne – Hear The Trees Whistle For The Dog – Euridice)
- Tommy’s Anniversary
- Don Giovanni
- Meanwhile in St. Tropez
- French Pride
- Good Body Every Evening
Jan Akkerman: guitars
Marijn van den Berg: drums
David De Marez Oyens: bass
Coen Molenaar: keyboards