JAN AKKERMAN - TABERNAKEL SONGS OF SELF PRAISE

"TABERNAKEL" - SONGS OF SELF PRAISE

By Ellen Mandell

CIRCUS RAVES ARTICLES - JUNE 1974
 

It was an unusually damp and chilly day, even for the northern farmlands of Akkrum, Holland. But as Jan Akkerman, the Dutch guitar-master of Focus, toiled over a new composition, he was far too engrossed to remember to put on a sweater. In his arms he held his own special source of warmth - his cherished lute. On the sturdy table in front of him was an equally prized possession, a tablet of fingering exercises for the ancient instrument. He tenderly stroked the strings of the treasured lute, growing lost in its lush, lulling sound as it etched his musical thoughts. It must have been at least a quarterhour before Jan became aware of a frenzied rapping on the front door.

His unexpected visitor was a ruddy Yde de Jong, the hearty tour manager of Focus. Yde, (pronounced E-dah) had driven all the way from Rotterdam, and could hardly restrain himself from blurting out the news he had come to personally convey. "You've been voted number one in the Melody Maker poll!" he exploded in his native Dutch, anxiously waiting for his newly-crowned friend's reaction. But Jan merely nodded his head in confirmation, as if he'd known all along. "Oh, really" he replied in a less-than-enthusiastic monotone, and then set back to work.

The travel-weary manager was flabergasted by Jan's response - or rather, by his lack of one. But what Yde couldn't possibly have understood was that the award wag no surprise for the quiet yet cocksure Jan. The virtuoso guitarist had no doubt ever that he was the best in the world; the Melody Maker poll merely acknowledged that fact. Moreover, the poll recognized only a single aspect of his great talent - rock. From that moment on, Jan worked ever more furiously to achieve new musical heights. Interweaving classical and contemporary music, and exploring the magic of the lute that had become his forte, Jan felt that he was one notch closer to his artistic goal. On 'Tabernakel' his solo album on Atlantic Records, Jan proves it.

"I see a solo album as an artistic act which you cannot get rid of in the group itself," Jan revealed to Circus as he relaxed on his farm the day beforejoining Focus in England to record their next LP. 'You have to do a solo album just to relieve your mind."

Rock vs. class: Only several months earlier Jan had insisted vehemently, "Focus is nothing more than a rock band. If we were classical musicians we'd go on stage with violins." But although Jan was reared on the street blues of Amsterdam and achieved Dutch supers- tardom with the rock band Brainbox, it was his years of classical study on scholarship at the Amsterdam Music Lyceum that struck the strongest note in his early influences. His solo endeavors have been the only place he could express his classical inclinations without imposing on the other members of the band. In that respect, 'Tabernakel' has been the fulfillment of a secret dream.

The ruggedly handsome Jan explained, "I was always interested in the history of music. When I first went to England in about 1966 or '67, I heard the original music from thd Elizabethan times played by Julian Bream. It was then that I first became interested in the lute." By the time Focus's first yodel was heard this side of the Atlantic, Jan was like a man obsessed as he sought information about luteplaying technique and the instrument's history, devouring all that crossed his path.

Lute, flute, shmoote: The lute, for those, not up on their music history, is and always has been a bitch to learn to play; it is quite obsolete. for precisely that reason. Its taut twenty-three strings are made of tough animal sinew, take 3/4 of an hour to tune, and stay in tune for only ten or fifteenn minutes. But the sound is as mellow as an afternoon in the English countryside, and worth the endless hours of practice the ancient instrument demands.

Jan's own lute is a perfect facsimile of one that might have been played in the court of Henry VIII. It was the last piece built by Amon Meinel, a 65-year old rheumatic East German world-reknowned for his excellent reconstructions of classical instruments. Headstrong Jan had to outbid the Museum of Copenhagen to get hold of it.

"I've only played the lute now for 1 1/2 years," the talented Dutchman admitted. "I finally had to teach it to myself because nobody can teach it to you."

Jan travelled all over Europe to locate instructional materials and squandered a small fortune photocopying archaic books in museum libraries. In London he obtained, at no bargain, a deteriorating but priceless tablet printed in 1610 entitled 'Variety of Lute Lessons'. "If you can play those 'lute lessons', I think you're a pretty good guitarist", touted Jan. The book became his constant companion on tour.

"At first, they all thought I was crazy", Jan smiled as he described the other members of Focus's reaction to his new interest. "Nobody thought I was serious. But on tour, when I came in after the drive from the airport or after the gig, all I did was sit down and practice out of an old book." When Jan's lute practicing began to take precedence over rehearsing with the band, his Focus friend's began to worry about their guitarist's pasttime.

But the classical-rock star's intentions were only the best. He confessed, "The idea was to get young people to like 15th Century lute music without their knowing it. "As for leaving Focus to accomplish that end, nothing was farther from his mind.

Solo Flight: 'Tabernakel' is Jan's second solo album. His first, 'Profile', was recorded at a time when his enthusiasm, but not necessarily his playing, was at its strongest. For Jan, Profile has become a tremendous source of embarrassment, and he told 'Circus' that he implored Focus's American label not to release it (although eventually, they did). It was not that he felt his playing on it was bad - just that it could be far better. He decided to bring out another, better album, and felt that perhaps it might be wise to release it on a label other than Sire, the label that Focus records for.

Unlike the yodeling mogel Thijs van Leer, who negotiated a solo recording agreement on his own, Jan Akkerman left the business wheeler-dealings to Focus's manager, Hubert Terhanken, who also happens to be the highly influential director of the acclaimed Radio Luxembourg. Terhanken discussed Jan's concept for 'Tabernakel' with many high-placed friends at American record companies, and finally signed an agreement with Ahmet Ertegun and Atlantic Records. George Flynn, a young music professor at the prestigious Columbia University, and a specialist in 15th Century music, collaborated with Jan on some authentic arrangements. Songs like "Britannia by John Dowland" and "Javeh" are mixtures of Baroque charm and modern appeal. "Lammy" moves through the moods that are Jan's life - and death. And "House Of' The King" rocks with an Arabian flavor.

'Tabernakel' was recorded over a period of two weeks in the midst of a sweat-drenched New York summer. Jan led almost an ascetic exis- tence during his stay in the glitter-scarred capitol of new-decadence. "Don't get loose or don't go out even one evening if you have an idea", he advised. boasting that it's a piece of wisdom he has lived up to. Each morning he would rise to his only meal of the day, scrambled eggs and toast. Then he'd head for Atlantic Studios, where he'd move from lute to sitar to electric guitar to bass, exhausting anyone who dared to watch. At about 5 A.M. the next morning, Jan would finally call it quits, return to his room at the Holiday Inn, and "go a little bit dead for a couple of hours, "only to be jarred out of bed soon afterwards by a wake-up call to get him back to the studio on time.

On Jan's very last day in New York he began mixing 'Tabernakel' at 7 A.M. after hardly an hours sleep. By the time he was through it was early evening. He returned to the hotel for another stolen hour's rest, then hopped aboard a jet bound for Canada. Jan had a gig there with Focus that very night!

He later confided, "You see, Focus still has the priority. On the solo album I was able to express things that I could not with Focus. But Focus still comes first."

Although Jan views 'Tabernakel' primarily as an artistic relief, just the same it is a brilliant piece of work. 'Tabernakel' has made the other members of Focus even more proud that Jan is one of them - and gives them even more reason to work harder than ever to be better!

Text and pictures kindly sent by Chuck Cobb
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