October 31, 2019

It sounds maybe a little bit outlandish, but it’s just the octatonic scale…

All serious beard-stroking musos have their favourite gripes about accomplished musicians selling out to crass commercialism. Some cite Rod Stewart, swapping his rock’n’roll roots for the Atlantic Crossing era of international superstardom; others point at Blackmore’s Rainbow or Def Leppard giving up rock for pop, or Phil Collins getting off the drum stool of one of the world’s great prog superpowers to unleash a Supremes cover single on an unsuspecting public.

However brave it may be to sacrifice musical credibility for a bigger slice of the pudding, there can be no doubt that from a business perspective it made sense. All of the above became fabulously successful in the singles market and likewise in the bank balance. Arguably braver still is the one who jumps the other way, dropping out of commercially successful bands to start a solo career in jazz and fusion, and entering the twilight world of the people-who-used-to-be-famous. Early 1970s Dutch legends Focus were never an obvious choice for commercial success, with their esoteric and eccentric instrumental prog, but they had a number of massive singles, from the flute-fronted House Of The King, to the manic yodelling heavy metal mash-up Hocus Pocus, to the catchy and upbeat Sylvia, which inspired the readers of Melody Maker to vote their ace axeman Jan Akkerman ‘Best Guitarist In The World’. Akkerman parted company with Focus soon afterwards, having progressed past pop and rock and even prog, into the rarefied circle of the musical elite, and largely dropped out of the public eye in the process.

However much admiration one may have had for Akkerman’s blistering chops on Hocus Pocus, or his melodic mastery on the highly lyrical Sylvia or controlled feedback-soaked Tommy, it may still come as a surprise to find that he hasn’t spent the past 40 years just tending his rockery as some may fondly assume; he has in fact released a good thirty studio albums, collaborations and live sets in the intervening time. The Dutch master passed his 70th birthday in 2016, but is not only still churning them out, he is still developing his direction and experimenting with imaginative techniques, while keeping one foot firmly rooted in real world accessibility. The latest result of this extraordinary output is his new solo album Close Beauty, 64 instrumental minutes of advanced composition and jamming, released on CD and double vinyl in October 2019.

All photos by Paul Bergen
All photographs by Paul Bergen

One of the first things I ask him about over a scratchy phone line is the title, Close Beauty. Akkerman explains in measured, down-to-earth but thickly accented English how difficult it is to get a clear view of one’s own music when so close to it: “Well it occurred to me that if you stand too close to an object, you don’t see the real value you know; it’s like if you’re an inch or two inches from a cow, you don’t see it’s a bloody cow. Simple as that! And it also goes for the music, or maybe for all things in life.” So Akkerman creates the object, but it is for others to stand back and admire it or otherwise.

His band may well be able to help with that: Coen Molenaar on keys, who also produced the album, drummer Marijn van den Berg, who has been playing in the band for 10 years, and relative newcomer David de Marez Oyens on bass, only a couple of years into his tenure. They have recently signed to Music Theories Recordings, a subset of the juggernaut Mascot label, which is also rooted in the Netherlands. One result of this partnership has been this CD and double LP release, the first time an Akkerman solo album has been heard on vinyl for some 30 years. “The CEO came up with the idea it’s got to be a double album,” he explains, “so I thought yes, why not? And I actually didn’t think about it, but now, when I see the artwork, it’s really worth it! The painter, Michael Cheval – I saw him on the internet and the first thing that occurred to me was that it suits my music.”

Cheval’s eyecatching album cover design is painstakingly detailed and precise, but also unsettlingly surreal, like all his work. A harlequin couple in masque costume dance euphorically at the edge of the waves in front of a glowering sunset, while a smiling Akkerman, incongruously dressed in a leather trenchcoat and peaked cap, stands ankle-deep in the surf, accompanying the scene on his trademark gold-edged, 3-pickup Les Paul custom. “Someone called me ‘the old geezer’ standing in the background!” he grins.

As soon as the first track starts, the eastern-inspired Spiritual Privacy, it’s clear that we are well out of commercial rock territory. Akkerman improvises on acoustic guitar to a jangling and arhythmic backing, in which the bass is confined almost entirely to a single repetitious note, playing at irregular intervals. So comfortable is he in this stratospheric flight, the non-standard modal scale he is using is passed off in a sentence, in order to move on to the guitar on which it is played. “It sounds maybe a little bit outlandish, but it’s just the octatonic scale, which I love,” he says with an audible shrug. “And I tried to make something totally different out of it. It’s played on a Gypsy guitar. It’s a signature guitar built for me by Saga, and it’s a direct copy of the Django Reinhardt guitar he used in 1932 or something like that.”

From there though, it’s all freewheeling. The opening track recalls the eastern stylings of John McLaughlin, or the duende of flamenco wizard Paco de Lucia, but it seems to me that the music gets easier as it goes along, working through several Focus-inspired passages, into the soft jazz of Larry Carlton or Dave Grusin. By the end of the hour, he is noodling along in a relaxed standard major scale, and the track titles have given up any pretence of spiritual anything. I gently suggest that there is more emphasis on fun and relaxation and less on complexity and hard work towards the end, and brace myself for a robust, perhaps even slightly offended response. In fact the opposite happens, as he replies, “Oh no, you’re on the dot! Except for all the other guitar players, I really didn’t think of them when I played the song Spiritual Privacy or something like that. The only thing I had in the back of my mind was none of the guitar players, but something by Miles Davis in 1987 in Paris, where he did a live show and it’s recorded on DVD. There’s a build-up for about, maybe 10, 15 minutes, and it’s one of the best things I’ve heard. And that’s what I tried to do with my playing, but then in a more Spanish type of atmosphere, although I used different scales… but anyway, it gives that Spanish taste, or maybe oriental… the only jazz musician is maybe John Coltrane or Miles Davis, that used Spanish influences, of all the jazz musicians I heard in the 60s and 70s. So I was influenced by that.”

It almost seems as if the deep dives into heavy jazz are where he is most at home, and the real experimental stuff is when he is playing in a straight 4-4 and restricting himself to standard scales. I ask him if he feels he can classify his music. “I think it is all a question of environment to determine anything. In a sense I feel that I am lucky to be able to do these things, because people seem to like it – on the other hand, I try to create a lot of diversity by changing the backgrounds. I don’t eat French fries every day – to use a different example – but I do try to create unity in diversity. That’s why the diversity in the songs, so as not to bore myself. That’s numero uno, I want to keep it interesting for myself.”

The song titles are a case in point. Spiritual Privacy may be a noble sentiment, but towards the end of the album there is a kind of trio of French-themed pieces with much more prosaic titles: Meanwhile In St. Tropez, French Pride, and Fromage. Twinkly-eyed humour has always played a part in Akkerman’s song titles, from the playfully-titled Focus album Hamburger Concerto in 1974, to his 2009 solo album Fromage A Trois. The new title Fromage sounds suspiciously like a play on the word ‘homage’ to me, so I ask him if he had anybody in mind. Once again, I hit a coconut. “Yes, well I had an album called Fromage a Trois, but this one rings a totally different bell. It was actually meant like a homage to the three Kings, BB, Freddie and Albert King. But I forgot to tell the record company, so they didn’t print it!“

Well you heard it here folks, and we’re glad to put the record straight on that one, but I also wondered how intentional it was to put the three French-themed pieces together? “I don’t know, somehow it just came out like that, you know, something French, why not? I like the cheese, I like the country.”

I wasn’t expecting quotes from Fawlty Towers…

Seeing as we had already broached the subject of the Hamburger Concerto, it seemed like a convenient route into talking a bit about the old days. How did the album, and especially such a bizarre title, come about? “Actually it was on the 11th floor of the Hilton in New York. It was all grey and there was only one black and white thing showing on the TV, a cartoon channel and it was showing Laurel and Hardy. I ordered a hamburger with some coffee and cheesecake, New York cheesecake, which is great. I was touring with Joe Walsh – or Joe Cocker – well anyway, I got this idea about making something called a Hamburger Concerto. Like eating a hamburger, in our throw-away culture of the last century.” There is a ton of classical influence in that album, but no accusations of pretentiousness can get past that intentionally dopey title. It’s almost as if Akkerman and the boys were thumbing their nose at the serious musical community.

Akkerman’s relationship with Focus was always a bit tempestuous though, especially with the enigmatic keyboard player, flautist and vocalist of sorts, Thijs van Leer. Akkerman is not wholly resistant to talking about the Focus days; in fact there are several direct points of reference on the new album, but he approaches talk of his relationship with van Leer tentatively. Nevertheless, the pair have reunited several times over the years for various projects, and I ask if they are happy to play together. “Oh, no no, there is too much antagonism, you know.” He claims that it doesn’t originate so much from his own side, but concludes in full John Cleese mode: “Don’t mention the war, right?”

Well I wasn’t expecting quotes from Fawlty Towers, but the next reference totally puts it in the shade. The final track is named Good Body Every Evening, which I confess, raises an adolescently amusing titter. Akkerman just enjoys the word play. “Benny Hill always announced himself by saying, ‘Good evening everybody.’ So the only thing I had to think about was reversing it; ‘Good body every evening’. There’s also a song by the Human League that goes, ‘I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar’. So I say, ‘I was working as a cocktail in a waitress bar’.” Ah, this is a refreshing discovery – a continental prog master who enjoys a spoonerism and a good old raspberry at the establishment.

Anyway, I take it as a good sign when European virtuosos start quoting classic British comedy at will, so I decide to take advantage of this comfortable direction to persevere with the Focus angle. In particular, the epic composition Retrospection on the new album, which seems to hark back to the old days quite strongly – the intro showcases the same soft, volume knob fade-ins he used on Moving Waves back in 1971, but this time it morphs into the first section proper, named Emotional Debris, a title which implies reminiscence. Part two, The Power Behind The Throne, turns out to be a definite Focus reference; the third section, The Trees Whistle For The Dog, we’ll come back to in a moment, but the fourth and final movement is a rendition of Euridice, which also formed the last movement of the Moving Waves epic track Eruption. I thought it seemed obvious that the title ‘Retrospection’ is a direct reference to the Focus days, but Akkerman says no.

“Well, the title is from the keyboard player, and he wasn’t into this Focus thing. He gave me the title, which is from an old Duke Ellington album. It covers the content, let’s put it that way. It starts with a core of one of my own ideas, which I used for Focus, or Focus used for me, I don’t know, like the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, I always loved that and I always liked the intro for that, so that’s what I did, to get this sound. Then right after the intro, I called the next part Emotional Debris. The second song is The Power Behind the Throne, which is actually an answer to the House Of The King. Then The Dogs Whistle For the Trees,” (He’s doing it again, see?) “which is actually based on a documentary I saw about World War I. There were these two soldiers talking to each other; they were smoking a fag, and one of them said, hey, man, hear the trees whistle for the dog. That’s so specific, so mystical – while they were on their way to the battlefield, and still making fun, having a fag, it was most impressive. And after that there is another song, Euridice, from the old Focus stuff. And why not? Lovely song, written by Eelko Nobel.”

There’s no getting away from the Focus vibe; a couple of tracks later we come to Tommy’s Anniversary, which is another nod to Moving Waves, Tommy being another one of the movements from Eruption, written by Tom Barlage. Tommy’s Anniversary starts with the exact same chords and makes as if to be a cover version, but then evolves in a completely different direction.

Still, other musical departures deserve a mention; the track Passagaglia for example, which appears to be played on a guitar absolutely soaked in effects. In fact though, it is fairly conventional, apart from a couple of notable points. “It’s a 12-string called Italia,” says Akkerman. “The electronics were designed by Jeff Foskett; it’s based on the guitar the Beach Boys used, with that special tone. And I gave another special tone to it by tuning the strings to fifths.”

Here is another advanced technique Akkerman experimented with in the mid-70s, glossed over with a passing mention. For those unfamiliar with 12-string guitars, the usual layout is basically the same as a standard 6-string guitar, but each string is replaced by a pair of strings tuned an octave apart. The resulting sound is rich and full, a bit like running a 6-string through a chorus pedal. Instead of octaves though, Akkerman tunes each pair to natural fifths, which means tuning one of each pair 7 frets higher than its mate, or 5 frets lower, depending on your preference. This means if you strum a normal A chord, you are playing an E chord at the same time, or if you are playing a melody, you are also playing the same melody 7 frets higher. It shouldn’t work, but it does, if you can get your head and your ears round it. It also means you can’t use an off-the-shelf string set; you have to get a heavy 6-string set and a light 6-string set, and mix and match in order to get all the strings at roughly the same tension. “Yes, it’s a lot of fiddling around, let’s put it that way,” agrees Akkerman.

But still, variety is the flying Dutchman’s musical creed. He declines playing in the usual common keys and selects sharps and flats, just to make it interesting. “That’s what I don’t like about a lot of the old stuff you know; it all sounds the bloody same. All the same key, all the same this, all the same that. That’s not to crack it down, it’s all necessary, but I’m glad I don’t have to do it!”

I observe that he was one of the first recording artists to start messing around with guitar synths when they first appeared in the late ‘70s. “Yeah, and it cost me a lot of fans you know! It sounds like a bagpipe, then it sounds like this or that, but I had fun experimenting with it. And that’s where I came to this, what I call the 12-string tuning, a fifth below, or a 7th below and a 5th on top, that creates that special timbre.”

There is more subtle wordplay in the title of his piece Don Giovanni. The Italian name Giovanni is more or less equivalent to John, or Johann, or in Dutch, Jan of course. “And Don,” says Akkerman, “is a knight or something like that. Or a sir. Which I am too. Nothing wrong with that!” Indeed, Akkerman is a Knight of the Order of Orange-Nassau, which is similar in rank to an OBE in the UK. The order was pinned to his chest personally by Queen Beatrix of The Netherlands. “The Queen gave me this thing and you can not refuse that! Well the Beatles could, but not here.” I thought I might impress him by my research on the subject and casually drop the observation that he is supposed to display the medal on the left side of his chest, as if it’s something I have known for years. “I haven’t got a clue man, because I never wear it!” he laughs.

My advice is to pull it out of the drawer next time he meets the Queen at least, and now he is laughing out loud. “Oh, I don’t have to, I don’t have to. See, she knows your name! Jan, there’s Jan Akkerman!”

As well she might; Akkerman has been a recording artist for close to 60 years. His first single was released in 1960, when he was just 13 years old. “I was playing with my first band, Johnny and His Cellar Rockers,” he explains. The Cellar Rockers as it happens, also included his good friend Pierre van der Linden, who went on to occupy the drum stool in Focus, and continues to occupy it to this day. “We used to rehearse in my parents’ cellar. I don’t know what happened, but someone asked my parents, is he allowed to do an EP? And this thing was called Exodus, from the film about the Jewish people trying to reach the promised land. The B side was Melody in F by Arthur Rubenstein. I changed it to Melody in A, because it twanged more on guitar; it had more rock to it.”

So here we are, 59 years later, with Akkerman standing so close to his music that he can’t see for sure whether it’s a cow or not. Nevertheless, the title Close Beauty reflects his suspicion that it is nothing of the sort. He acknowledges the body of work he and Focus produced together, but it recedes further with each passing year, as he says, “I’ve got this beautiful album, Focus is 50 years ago, that’s it.”

I decide to sign off by asking what we can expect next from the House of Akkerman. It turns out that the old stager doesn’t plan that far ahead. “Well there’s an old saying, like anybody who wants to know how the wind blows is ready for the hospital or something like that. I really wouldn’t know; I just want to wait for this album, I play day and night, do a lot of gigs in Holland, then maybe next year I will be able to play some gigs in the old Albion. I would love to come back. I like the English countryside; it’s so varied. I want to see it again. Meet the people and play for them.”

That has to be worth looking forward to, so I sign off with gratitude, which is reflected by Akkerman in his own personal style. “Thank you very Dutch!” he says; then he’s gone.