Jan Erik Kongshaug, Master Engineer, Dies at 75

The Norwegian soundsmith was a key figure in the history of ECM Records

Jan Erik Kongshaug
Jan Erik Kongshaug

Jan Erik Kongshaug, a Norwegian guitarist and sound engineer who was essential in the creation of the legendary “ECM Sound” (or “Rainbow Sound”), died November 5 in Oslo, Norway. He was 75.

His death was confirmed by the Oslo daily newspaper Dagsavisen. Cause of death was a chronic lung condition.

Through his work with ECM Records’ Manfred Eicher and at his own Rainbow Studios in Oslo, Kongshaug helped put his country’s jazz music on the map. As of his death, he had been engineer on nearly half of ECM’s catalog, and about one of every six ECM albums was recorded at Rainbow. Among the thousands of credits in his discography were the albums with which Norwegian artists like guitarist Terje Rypdal and saxophonist Jan Garbarek made their breakthroughs. Kongshaug himself was a musician, entering the industry as a session guitarist in 1960s Trondheim. However, he was studying electrical engineering even then, and had long been a jazz fan; he had an intuitive grasp of how acoustic jazz should sound on records.

“In Jan Erik Kongshaug, I found a partner who shared the same ideas,” Eicher said at a 2013 ceremony in Oslo. “With the passion and madness needed to last day and night.”

Jan Erik Kongshaug was born July 4, 1944 in Trondheim to John Kongshaug, a guitarist, and Bjørg Alice Teigen, a vocalist. He began his own musical life at a very young age, playing accordion in early childhood and spending some time performing in a trio with his parents. As a teenager, however, he grew intrigued by the electric guitar, which soon became his main instrument.

He quickly began playing professionally, on the local dance-band circuit and at parties. Upon finishing school, he took a job playing on the cruise ship Bergensfjord. The ship’s usual embarkation point was New York, which afforded Kongshaug the opportunity to explore that city’s highly innovative and fruitful jazz scene of the mid-1960s.

After a year, he returned to Trondheim and began applying his New York lessons to the city’s jazz scene. He also studied electrical engineering at Trondheim Technical School, graduating in 1967—following which he moved to Oslo and took up work in Norwegian popsmith Arne Bendiksen’s studio. While there, he also worked as a session guitarist, perhaps most notably for the Danish pop band the Beefeaters (with whom he remained associated into the 1970s).

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Kongshaug met Eicher while working at Bendiksen’s studio in 1970, when Eicher came in to record Garbarek’s ECM debut Afric Pepperbird. “They [had] actually recorded this album outside Oslo,” Kongshaug recalled in a 2010 All About Jazz interview. “But the room wasn’t suited for this band, it was too live; for a classical recording it was nice, but not for a band with drums and electric guitar. So they came to Bendiksen Studio to do it in the evenings.”

It was in search of a more suitable sound for jazz—and European jazz in particular—that Eicher and Kongshaug together began developing ECM’s trademark aesthetic. It featured a clarity of detail that highlighted even the way sounds decay in a given room. “All instruments should be clear and have their personality,” said Norwegian drummer Jon Christensen in explaining the house sound. “Since the music has not been based on bebop and traditional jazz, since we went away from the American formula and played as we did, you had to have a knack to hang the music on.”

Kongshaug remained with Bendiksen until 1974, then moved to Oslo’s Talent Studio. He also worked regularly at the Power Station in New York. In 1984, however, he opened his own Rainbow Studios, where he is often said to have achieved his finest work. In Europe, the ambient aesthetic he helped pioneer is known as “the Rainbow Sound.”

Kongshaug was the engineer on some 700 ECM studio albums, and produced over 3,000 more in his own right. Along with Norwegian players like Rypdal and Garbarek, he produced a number of American artists, becoming particularly associated with work by pianist Keith Jarrett and guitarist Pat Metheny. Kongshaug also never stopped performing as a musician, playing on many of the albums he produced and engineered and leading his own jazz quartet—which made two albums of its own, 1999’s The Other World and 2003’s All These Years.

Long recognized as one of the world’s foremost sound specialists, Kongshaug was frequently acclaimed and awarded for his work. He twice won the Spellemannprisen, Norway’s most prestigious musical award. In January 2019, he received the King’s Medal of Merit from the Norwegian government, his nation’s highest civilian honor; in March, he was the subject of the Kongshaug festival in Oslo, and that summer of a CD boxed set celebrating his 75th birthday.

Kongshaug is survived by his wife, Kirsten Steen; three sons, Espen, Rune, and Paal; and five grandchildren.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.