Have you ever heard of “Jazz på Svenska”, “Jazz på Ryska, “Musik genom Fyra Sekler”, “Spelar Musik På Sitt Eget Vis”, or maybe “Den Korta Fristen”?
No? Well, join the club of several million other people who haven’t either.
Jan Johansson, that elusive musician from Sweden who recorded these and many other LPs before his death in November of 1968 at the age of 37, has not been forgotten, but he’s still largely unknown in most parts of the world and if one didn’t know better, one could call him one of the world’s best-kept secrets. Looking at a site like “Last.FM” though, you don’t need long to see that he’s around, more so than ever perhaps.
I do have to admit that I have no recollection of when Johansson entered my music collection. I have absolutely no idea if I bought the first of his recording myself or if someone gave it to me as a present. All I do know is that it took me some years to actually discover the sheer beauty of the music. For reasons unknown, the music slumbered in my collection, somewhere in the back of some long shelf, and for years I don’t think I heard any of it. With some degree of certainty I can say though that I probably got the first LP and put it away without listening to it (no idea why). That’s the only explanation. Got it, put it away. Had it been different, I would have remembered the first time I heard it.
Fast forward. Sometime in the 1980s I was sitting in a murky jazz club in Copenhagen, Denmark, and was discussing Scandinavian jazz with some in-house musician whose name I forgot. The only thing I really remember from that evening is that this guy kept on mentioning a Swedish pianist named Johansson. I also recall this distant feeling of having heard that name before and, after the last large draught, I walked home saying that name over and over again, until I reached my place and had a chance to flip through my collection. There it was: “Jazz på Svenska”. I put it on and, as they say, the rest is history.
Jan Johansson was a truly unique musician, someone who took the music of his mother country, Swedish traditional folk music, and fused it with jazz. The result is lyrical jazz of the most intimate type, a type of music that has become a favourite of mine and can be found all over my collection, be it in form of Bugge Wesseltoft’s Christmas album or the Tord Gustavsen Trio’s wonderful CDs. I also have more that easily fits that bill, but more about that in future posts.
It’s not really all that easy to unearth any information about Jan Johansson. Besides a very elusive book on him written by Erik Kjellberg (and translated into English), entitled “Jan Johansson, A Visionary Swedish Musician” and published by Svensk Musik in 1998 (it also features an 18-track selection of Johansson’s most known recordings), not much is available today. There are a few Wikipedia entries of varying lengths and in various languages (German | English | Swedish) and there’s a record label and its respective website, Heptagon Records, doing the invaluable job of keeping Johansson’s music alive, but that’s about it.
Let’s see if we can reconstruct Jan Johansson from that. Maybe you’ll even recognize a tidbit here or there.
Jan Johansson was born In Söderhalm/Hälsingland, Sweden, on September 16, 1931. He started playing the piano in 1942 at the age of 11, studying classical music, but as a teenager he soon gave in to the prevalent swing and bebop music, performing locally with swing and dance bands of his hometown. In the beginning 1950s he moved to Gothenburg and started studying electrical engineering at the Technical College in Chalmers, Sweden. While studying there, he played for the “Chalmersspextet”, a theater group of sorts, as far as I could ascertain, as well as with Kenneth Fagerlund (big band leader) and in Gunnar Johnson’s (bass) quintet. Johansson never completed his studies and dropped out to devote himself to music fulltime. It was also at that time that he told Swedish music magazine Orkesterjournalen that pianist John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet was his biggest influence and was, at the end, responsible for him dropping his studies and trying his hand at being a fulltime musician.
Johansson had met Stan Getz in Gothenburg and decided to move to Copenhagen, Denmark, where Stan getz was living at the time. The two ended up playing and recording together at Copenhagen’s world-famous jazz club, Montmatre, recordings which are nearly impossible to find today outside of the bootleg circuit. As was customary at the time, he then also played with many of the prominent American jazz musicians that visited the club (Oscar Pettiford, for example). Johansson was later the first European jazz musician that was invited to tour with “Jazz at The Philharmonic” Finally, in 1961, he moved back to Stockholm, Sweden, and started working with Arne Domnérus (whose infamous “Jazz at the Pawnshop” I’m listening to as I’m writing this), George Riedel and others and started recording his own body of work. He didn’t limit himself to the piano and on several recordings he can be heard playing guitar, organ or harmonica.
In 1957 he married Else Bergström and they had two sons together, Jens and Anders Johansson, both of whom became musicians.
As an aside, many of you might have come in contact with Jan Johansson afterall because to many, he is most famous for one single tune he wrote when working together with Swedish author Astrid Lindgren, putting music to her texts and composing that one tune many a child can sing, “Här kommer Pippi Långstrump”, “Here Comes Pipi Longstocking“. Next to his jazz recordings, he also composed for symphony orchestras, choirs and even the electronic scene of his time, reinterpreted well-known children’s songs and composed a slew of scores for Swedish television. He even composed the music for a Pipi Longstocking ballet together with Lars Hollmer and George Riedel which was performed in Kuopio, Finland.
On November 9, 1968 Jan Johansson died in a collision with an airport bus just outside of Arlanda/Sigtuna, Sweden.
In the end though, aside from the sparse biographical information available, it it is really the music that is important here, and in that department Johansson left a well-rounded body of work for such a relatively short lifespan, most of which was recorded in a mere eight years and was preserved on over twenty LPs.
From my point of view, it is not all that easy to classify his music and the only musician that immediately comes to my mind from that time is Jimmy Giuffre, whose music was often rooted in American folklore. All I can say is that when I compare Johansson’s music to music of his day and things I listen to today, he might have well been quite a bit ahead of his time, certainly a pioneer of this type of music. On Jazzcorner’s Speakeasy I found the following – roughly translated – comment on Johansson by one of my alltime favourite pianists:
Tord Gustavsen: Jan Johansson is a monumental figure. Like most other people I’ve loved and cherished his “Jazz In Swedish”. For the last few years I have also listened to many other recordings he made. The music gives an overwhelming impression – it’s awesome. He was really funky and bluesy – and what’s more: He was a brilliant Cool Jazz pianist. He had a wide horizon, while not losing track of the tiniest nuance, or the fine details, and not loosing track of the most living and vulnerable aspects of music.
Yes, Johansson’s music is all of that, plus more. It’s at times melancholic, quite so, but then it is also extremely funky, often bluesy, it swings, it’s got quite a touch of bebop and cool jazz, and at its best it is almost always reduced to a bare minimum, condensed so much down to the melody and focusing on the heart of a tune that I often thought “Hey, I could play that”, but of course I would never be able to. Johansson sounds like an extremely inquisitive musician, always on the lookout for that crystal clear touch to convey the beauty of a song. improvising far outside set patterns of the day, reminiscent of the best material available in that vein today.
In summation, you really have to check this music out for yourself. A good start would be “Jazz på Svenska (Jazz in Swedish)”, the best selling Swedish jazz record of all time, perhaps his most famous recording, which sold more than a quarter of a million copies. It has just been reissued with some bonus tracks. From the Heptagon website:
Jan Johansson’s sparse and infinitely beautiful interpretations of Swedish folk music have become part of the Swedish cultural fabric. The crystal clear sound of this 2005 reissue finally does the music justice. Swedish melancholia and longing have never had a clearer voice. The record contains all material related to the sessions, which was previously unreleased. (This also includes all the talking between the takes that was recorded, etc.) In addition to the normal audio CD, the bonus material is provided as MP3 files (256kbit/s encoded with Lame) on a cdextra track. No part of the CD is copy protected. 1 hour and 39 minutes (including bonus material).
Another favourite of mine is “Jazz på Ryska (Jazz in Russian)” doing the same for Russian folklore as Johansson had done for Swedish folk music. From the Heptagon website:
Like Jazz på Svenska, Jazz på Ryska feautures arrangements of folk music, in this case Russian folk music. The record was made in the autumn of 1967. Sometimes the arrangements are full of delicate humor and vigorous Jazz. But mostly it is, as on Jazz på Svenska simple, deep, enigmatic, naked, touching. This record was remixed with 32-bit technology, remastered and reissued in 2005. It contains all the material available for the session. In addition to the normal audio CD, the bonus material is provided as MP3 files (256kbit/s encoded with Lame) on a cdextra track. No part of the CD is copy protected. 1 hour and 39 minutes (including bonus material).
Last but not least, “Musik genom Fyra Sekler (Music from the Past Centuries)”, another more vigorous probe into traditional Swedish songs is equally fabulous. To top it off, you might want to invest into the great trio recordings, “8 Bittar” and “Innertrio”, which have been issued together as a single CD.
And if the bug bit you, check out all of Johansson’s other recordings. They are well worth any music lover’s time, more so than 90% of the music available today. If you like jazz infused with folklore, you owe it to yourself to give Jan Johansson a try, a prime practitioner of its form, especially now that Johansson is not neglected by CD reissue anymore. His best work is in print and available in remastered form, although it is a bit hard to find.
It’s worth searching for, believe me.
Note: Check out Heptagon Records for more information on the available CDs and either buy them through their links or any of the online dealers that carry them (the Scandinavian online retailer CDON.COM might be your best bet). I also found the only online discography (Svenskt visarkiv) that lists many of Johansson’s recordings (select “J” and search in the .pdf file for “Jan Johansson”). The only website discussing Jan Johansson in a bit more detail is ” On An Overgrown Path“. The author also contributed to the Wikipedia article on Johansson. Last but not least, the Internet Move Database also has an entry on Johansson.