In 1970 I was working on Jan Garbarek’s Afric Pepperbird, his first album for ECM, at Høvikodden Art Center just outside Oslo. We were recording with George Russell, but Manfred Eicher was not satisfied with the songs. We didn’t know what to do. Jon Christensen, the drummer, said, “I know a good technician named Jan Erik Kongshaug.” So we called him, and he said, “Bring it into Arne Bendiksen’s studio in Oslo, we can do it at 11 o’clock this evening.” So we did, and we started recording, and we recorded it in one overnight session. Jan Erik knew what he was doing to such a degree that it all happened incredibly fast—and it was because Manfred was so satisfied with what he had done on that record that Jan Erik became the regular technician for ECM.
I worked with him so many times, so many times. With many technicians you end up waiting on just a drum check for several hours, but when Jan Erik was working it happened very soon—half an hour, maybe, and then you record. I think it was because he was a musician that he understood what sounded good, and what it takes to sound good, on a recording. He worked very fast and got very good sounds. There was a transparency in his sound that I think he was perhaps the first sound technician to achieve.
We worked on a special echo effect on my guitar, for my recordings, using some filtering from the returns for the echo chambers—and again, he was a guitar player, a jazzier player than what I was doing, so he knew what I was looking for on that. Working together with him on that, I got to know Jan Erik pretty well. I wouldn’t say we were friends outside the studio; we didn’t see each other much. But we had great times together in the studio. He was very smart, a nice guy and a very good guitar player.
I last spoke with him last year. There was a concert in Oslo to honor him, and I couldn’t make it, so I called him at his home and he told me about his illness. He had stopped working at Rainbow Studio [the recording facility he founded in 1984] by that time. We had a nice conversation, and I’m very glad I did it, but I didn’t know just how ill he was. I was still surprised when he passed away.
I think I will remember him best because he was so easy to work with. I had a tune called “The Return of Per Ulv” [on 1995’s If Mountains Could Sing], and we were actually just rehearsing it and going through the chords, but Jan Erik recorded it and it was the rehearsal that ended up on the album, because he knew the right sound when he heard it. Between that and his rescue of the Afric Pepperbird session that he did so beautifully, that’s the Jan Erik Kongshaug that I remember.
[as told to Michael J. West]