October 19, 2019

… if you like hearing musical virtuosos in action, you’ll enjoy what’s included here

When the lists of the top guitarists of the 60’s and 70’s are compiled, the familiar names are always included – Clapton, Beck, Page, etc – with a few others following in their slipstream, such as Peter Green, Eddie van Halen and Rory Gallagher. But one name seldom mentioned in such top flight company is Dutch guitar maestro Jan Akkerman. I’ve often wondered why this is the case as there’s little doubt his work merits inclusion alongside such stellar names. This could be because Akkerman can’t easily be slotted into any one category, as his latest solo album, Close Beauty, his first in eight years, attests. He made his name in Dutch band Focus in the early 1970s  – in 1973, readers of Melody Maker voted him best guitarist in the world – but, since leaving the band in 1976, he’s forged his own path by making albums in a wide variety of styles and genres, and playing with musicians like Alan Price and Jack Bruce. Focus are seemingly categorised as being a Prog band, but their music was always a compromise between jazz and rock, which were tacked onto the classical influences of Thijs van Leer and Akkerman, the result being a glorious hybrid mixture of contrasting styles.

Close Beauty continues along this path. It’s an album which, as would be expected from a musician of his class, contains much sublime guitar work, played on acoustic and electric guitars, and sometimes enhanced by the presence of Akkerman’s occasional backing band, and it’s an album of which it can truthfully be said is hard to pigeonhole. Opening with Spiritual Privacy, Akkerman plays some amazingly good acoustic guitar runs, almost as though he were playing lead guitar, similarly on Reunion. The jazz influences are well to the forefront on Tommy’s Anniversary and French Pride, and he lets rip with the electric guitar on Beyond the Horizon.  He also gives a slight nod to Focus with the intro to Retrospection.

But it was only on track 4, the title track Close Beauty, I formed the impression he was actually playing a tune rather than several pieces of music put together, which was a theme permeating the whole album. I wasn’t certain if these were songs or musical collages. The mood backing is soft, the vibe is cool, occasionally atmospheric, the playing right the way through is faultless and the influences are wide and varied. If you’re already a fan, nothing here will surprise you. However, if you’re someone who knows nothing about Jan Akkerman and are coming at him cold, I suspect this is not an album which will convert you. It’s an undemanding album, easy to listen to and appreciate and, if you like hearing musical virtuosos in action, you’ll enjoy what’s included here.  Ultimately, though, while there’s no denying Akkerman’s talent or his class, if you want to know how he developed the rep he has, you’d be better off starting with some of Focus’s earlier albums.