A slight drizzle on an August afternoon in Oslo, Norway, set the mood perfectly for a conversation with engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug at his RainbowStudio. The space is tucked away in a beautifully designed modern business park. The lively stream running through the complex of buildings adds a well-balanced pastoral feeling to the surroundings. As I enter the building and am warmly greeted by the studio manager, I am introduced to the man that is at the center of many of the most beautiful jazz recordings of the past 35 years. He has engineered hundreds of recordings; many of them have been for the respected jazz label, ECM. The founder of ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music), Manfred Eicher, is an audiophile and producer who has been actively involved in creating the highest quality recordings possible. There are those that claim there is a signature “ECM sound” to the label’s recordings, but the discerning listener is easily able to distinguish the uniqueness of each recording. If there is a continuum from one recording to the next, it is the ability to hear the dynamic range of the music, as well as the clarity and focus of the players. Artists such as Pat Metheny, Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Chick Corea, Charlie Haden, Don Cherry, Charles Lloyd, Bobo Stenson, Arild Andersen, Jon Christensen, and Palle Danielsson, are only a few of the dozens of world renowned musicians that have made multiple recordings on ECM and have benefitted from the engineering of Jan Erik Kongshaug.
When did you first work in recording?
My first experience was at Arne Bendiksen Studio back in '67. After high school, in 1963, I worked one year as a musician on a cruise ship, which sailed all over the world. I was in New York City ten times during that year and I heard a lot of great jazz musicians. I even heard [John] Coltrane live — it was a really fantastic year! I went back [to Norway] and studied electronics for two years, and then I got a job at Arne Bendiksen. It was a different time then. Now all the engineers are well educated, but they don't get any jobs because there are so many people in the field. So I started in the studio, and after two and a half years I met Manfred Eicher. He came to Oslo to record [saxophonist] Jan Garbarek's first record for ECM [Afric Pepperbird, 1970] — this was also one of the first ECM recordings. The Jan Garbarek Quartet was Jon Christensen [drums], Arild Andersen [acoustic bass], and Terje Rypdal [guitar]. They came to do this record at an art museum outside Oslo that had a studio. It turned out that the room was too live for this kind of recording. So they came to the studio I worked at, in the evening, and we spent two evenings recording Afric Pepperbird. That's the first time I met Manfred, and it's worked very well. We had the same ideas of how the music should sound. He came back to Oslo many times and we made albums with Jan Garbarek, Keith Jarrett [Facing You], Chick Corea, and Crystal Silence with Chick Corea and Gary Burton. That's when it started; in the '70s. And the last one in the Arne Bendiksen Studio was Belonging with Jan Garbarek and Keith Jarrett. That was in '74. I got an offer from another guy in the business to build up a nice place, called Talent Studio [also located in Oslo]. So in '75 we opened Talent Studio — I was just an employee there. We made a lot of great recordings. The Keith Jarrett/Jan Garbarek album, My Song, was done there. So many others — I can't remember them all! Pat Metheny came there and made maybe ten albums? In '79 I stopped working at Talent and was a freelance engineer for five years.
I moved back to Trondheim — my hometown in the middle of Norway. My wife is also from there, so we tried to live there, which lasted three years; but we later moved back to Oslo. During this time I worked a lot with Manfred in New York at The Power Station.
You recorded Pat Metheny Group's First Circle there.
And a lot of recordings with great jazz musicians, like Michael Brecker and Kenny Wheeler, and Keith Jarrett's first volume of Standards. When I moved back to Oslo, Talent Studio was closing down. So that's why I started RainbowStudio in '84, with some other people. ECM was also involved when we started this — they helped me to get it going.
When you had the first location, were you picking a place for the acoustics? The room was an old concert hall. Actually, we didn't do much with the acoustics in the room. It was much drier than here, but it worked well. We built the control room and it was working.
What year did you come to this location?
In 2004. When we were [at the other location] we had endless problems with the landlord. Under us there was a restaurant and they started playing live music there — there was a lot of noise. We went to court several times, but in court there's only one winner... the lawyer! So after 20 years down there I realized I'd have to stop running a studio, or that I'd have to move. So we moved here. This studio is built much better, acoustically. I'm really happy.
When working at the Power Station, were you living in New York or were you flying back and forth?
I was traveling to New York with Manfred — I never lived there. It's called Avatar...