Jan Erik Kongshaug, Maestro of Recorded Sound, Dies at 75 - The New York Times
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Jan Erik Kongshaug, Maestro of Recorded Sound, Dies at 75

The techniques he developed with Manfred Eicher, the founder of the ECM label, had a major influence on the recordings of Pat Metheny, Keith Jarrett and many others. 


The recording engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug, right, with the producer Manfred Eicher, the founder of ECM Records, at a session led by the trumpeter Kenny Wheeler at the Power Station in New York in 1996. “We had an influence on each other,” Mr. Eicher said of Mr. Konshaug. “We learned to capture sound together, to shape sound together.”
The recording engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug, right, with the producer Manfred Eicher, the founder of ECM Records, at a session led by the trumpeter Kenny Wheeler at the Power Station in New York in 1996. “We had an influence on each other,” Mr. Eicher said of Mr. Konshaug. “We learned to capture sound together, to shape sound together.”Credit...Patrick Hinely

Giovanni Russonello

By Giovanni Russonello

  • Nov. 12, 2019
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Jan Erik Kongshaug, a recording engineer who helped sculpt the rich and quietly splendorous sound of ECM Records, an influential label that has produced timeless jazz and contemporary classical recordings, died on Nov. 5 in Oslo. He was 75.

His son Espen said the cause was a chronic lung ailment.

Mr. Kongshaug’s wide-ranging career included work with some of Norway’s best-known pop musicians. A guitarist since childhood, he also recorded two jazz albums of his own.

But his most lasting contributions came with ECM, where he engineered or mastered hundreds of albums from 1970 until the end of his life. Though he played a more inconspicuous role than Manfred Eicher, the label’s renowned founder and main producer, Mr. Kongshaug was arguably just as crucial to defining the famous “ECM sound,” which relied on precision and fidelity and used heavy helpings of reverb to create a feeling of both magnitude and intimacy.

“We had an influence on each other,” Mr. Eicher recalled in a phone interview. “He was not an experienced engineer at the beginning; I was not an experienced producer. We learned to capture sound together, to shape sound together.”

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The pair first collaborated on the experimental Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek’s 1970 quartet record, “Afric Pepperbird,” one of the earliest ECM albums. They felt an immediate kinship.

“We had the same attitude towards sound; it was very easy,” Mr. Kongshaug said in a 2010 interview with the website All About Jazz. “We didn’t have to talk. It just worked, and it sounded nice.”

The techniques they developed would leave a major mark on the recorded output of the guitarist Pat Metheny, the pianists Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea, the vibraphonist Gary Burton and other jazz luminaries, as well as contemporary classical artists on ECM’s roster like Meredith Monk and Arvo Pärt.


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Mr. Eicher, the guitarist Pat Metheny and Mr. Kongshaug, seated from left, with the percussionist Nana Vasconcelos in 1981. Mr. Eicher, the guitarist Pat Metheny and Mr. Kongshaug, seated from left, with the percussionist Nana Vasconcelos in 1981.Credit...Deborah Feingold, via ECM Records

“Across styles,” The New York Times critic Jon Pareles wrote of ECM in 2017, “the label’s hallmark has been the contemplative detail of its music, a kind of acoustic enhanced realism.”

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Despite the sonic distinctiveness of the albums they made together, Mr. Kongshaug always adapted to the strengths and idiosyncrasies of the musicians he recorded. He would sometimes place microphones far from the instruments to capture the sound of the room; other times he simply used reverb to create the feeling of space, on occasion combining reverbs with different effects on a single track.

“He changed the sound as necessary when we recorded,” Mr. Eicher said. “Chick Corea’s solo records, Paul Bley’s solo record ‘Open, to Love’ and Keith Jarrett’s ‘Facing You’: All three piano players recorded on the same piano, but all sounded very different — from the mic positions, the different action. We never had a standard sound.”

Jan Erik Kongshaug was born on July 4, 1944, in Trondheim, Norway. His parents, John Kongshaug and Bjorg Alice Teigen, were professional musicians on Trondheim’s dance-music scene.

In addition to his son Espen, Mr. Kongshaug is survived by his wife, Kirsten Steen; two other sons, Rune and Paal; and five grandchildren.

Jan grew up around music. By the time he was 10, he had performed an accordion solo on the radio; soon after, he and his parents began to play publicly as a family trio. He eventually took up the guitar as his main instrument. 

He played for a year on a cruise ship; it docked repeatedly in New York City, and he often went to jazz clubs to hear greats like John Coltrane perform.

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After returning home in 1964, he became well known on the Trondheim scene. The Norwegian magazine Jazznytt awarded him first place (in a tie) as best guitarist in its 1967 poll.

After studying electrical engineering for two years, Mr. Kongshaug moved to Oslo and took a position at Arne Bendiksen Studio, where he filled a dual role as studio musician and sound engineer. It was there that his collaboration with Mr. Eicher began. When Mr. Kongshaug moved to Talent Studio in Oslo in the mid-1970s, Mr. Eicher followed him and began recording ECM artists there. (Founded in 1969, the label is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.)

All the while, Mr. Kongshaug worked steadily as a performing musician: with the pop band the Beefeaters in the late 1960s and early ’70s, with the traditional dance musician Sven Nyhus’s quartet for two decades and with the jazz composer Frode Thingnæs’s ensemble for roughly as long.

After a stint back in Trondheim, he returned to Oslo and in 1984 founded Rainbow Studio, which remains one of Norway’s premier recording studios.

He received the Spellemannspris (the Norwegian equivalent of the Grammy) in 1982 and in 1990 for his work as a sound engineer. This year he was awarded the King’s Medal of Merit from the Norwegian government and received a prize from the Rockheim, Norway’s museum of popular music. In March, more than 400 musicians convened in Oslo to perform in his honor at the Kongshaug Festival.

Kari Bremnes, a popular vocalist in Norway who often recorded with Mr. Kongshaug, remembered him fondly in an email.

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“I knew Jan Erik Kongshaug as a remarkable sensitive and talented listener,” she wrote. “He had this deep understanding of — and respect for — musicians and every instrument played. 

“Jan Erik didn’t talk much,” she continued, “he was a humble man in person, and his focus was always on the music and how to make it sound as true and genuine as possible.”


A version of this article appears in print on Nov. 13, 2019, Section B, Page 11 of the New York edition with the headline: Jan Erik Kongshaug, 75; Shaped the Sound of Records by Corea, Jarrett and Others. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe
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