Jan Hammer: From Mahavishnu to Jeff Beck

Following the breakup of Mahavishnu, the keyboard player worked on some memorable projects.

by Marshall Bowden

Most people who can remember Jan Hammer at all probably remember him as the performer behind the hit recording of the Theme from Miami Vice in the eighties. But Hammer had already had a long and interesting career by that time, emerging as one of fusion’s more successful musicians. 

Jan Hammer first gained public notice as part of the original lineup of John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, one of jazz-rock fusion’s most venerated bands. The Czechoslovakian keyboard player left his homeland when it was invaded by the Soviet Union in August of 1968 and came to the United States, where he studied under a scholarship at Berklee College of Music. After a few gigs in fairly traditional jazz groups, he became part of McLaughlin’s group, recording Inner Mounting Flame and Birds of Fire, two of the most influential jazz-fusion albums to come along. Both Hammer and violinist Jerry Goodman were integral parts of creating the texture and depth of Mahavishnu’s sound. Probably no other group with the exception of Weather Report was generating as much excitement as Mahavishnu–coincidentally, it was Weather Report’s Miroslav Vitous, another Czech, who recommended Hammer to McLaughlin. 

Unfortunately, the group began to unravel for the usual reasons. Some members, Goodman, in particular, felt that while McLaughlin received all the writing credits for the band, other members came up with parts of the songs and the material was more collaborative in nature. Hammer also resented that McLaughlin was presented and promoted as the lead figure in the band: “He (McLaughlin) assumes that the reason he is promoted like that is not at all commercial. He refuses to see that. The only things he sees in it is that he is there by Divine Right, and that he’s an enlightened person who is already sort of a guru.” 

When the group fell apart, Hammer and Goodman headed for Nederland, Colorado’s Caribou Ranch Studio, and recorded Like Children, an album of unusually interesting fusion that gives an indication of the direction that these two musicians felt that Mahavishnu should be heading. It’s a record of incredible music, with several that include vocals (both Hammer and Goodman sing), and that turns out to be OK. Interestingly, Mahavishnu Orchestra also began to incorporate some vocals after Hammer and Goodman had departed. 

Both musicians play a variety of instruments so that the record sounds like a full band on many tracks. Goodman plays acoustic and electric violin, mandolin, and viola. He also plays some outstanding lead and acoustic guitar. Hammer handles all electric keyboards, piano, synthesizers, and sequencing as well as drums and percussion. Many don’t realize that Hammer is a pretty decent drummer as well as a keyboard player.

Like Children takes the same approach to music that Mahavishnu did in at its best, combining heavy rock, progressive synthesizer rock, and various ethnic influences into a new, complex ragout. But there are times, as on parts of opener “Country Eastern Music” when the two musicians create a sound that is very similar to that of Jeff Beck’s Blow by Blow and Wired. On the other hand, “No Fear”, on which Hammer works with an Oberheim sequencer, a sound that carries over to his first solo LP, The First Seven Days, released in 1975. But before that Hammer would make another record with a different group of musicians that further demonstrates his range.

Hammer played on jazz guitarist John Abercrombie’s solo debut Timeless. Along with drummer Jack DeJohnette, the group gives a new take on the guitar-organ-drums trio with Abercrombie displaying a confident take on the robust Hendrix/McLaughlin electric guitar school. He’s matched ably by Hammer, who plays some great organ (as well as piano and synthesizer) and demonstrates his ability to hang with musicians who are both technically and emotionally exceptional. DeJohnette provides both energy and texture in abundance, as is almost always the case on sessions he’s involved in.

The opening track of Timeless, “Lungs” is a twelve-plus minute exploration that encompasses post-bop jazz, heavy rock, free jazz, electronic funk as it segues effortlessly among its various grooves. Here we experience Jan Hammer’s ability with synthesizers as well. Hammer was a key early adopter of the Minimoog, an instrument specifically designed to be used in real time in the studio and onstage. To say that he’s a musician who has been extremely underestimated and pigeonholed is not at all an unfair assessment. The record backs off a bit with the gorgeous acoustic “Love Song,” which recalls the stately romantic quality of Mahavishnu’s “A Lotus on Irish Streams” followed by the post-bop organ trio of “Ralph’s Piano Waltz.” “Red and Orange” gets us back into solid prog-rock territory, and then offers an acoustic duet between Abercrombie and Hammer that is stunning.

That sets up the title track.  An ambient introduction gives way to a gentle groove that repeats itself, gathering a bit of momentum but never overpowering the listener. Unfolding over its nearly twelve-minute length “Timeless” is mesmerizing and hypnotic, and the most successful recording I can name that accomplishes the same musical mission as Miles’ “In A Silent Way.” In all seriousness, if you know someone who is way into classic prog and doesn’t know this album, let them know about it.

The same year that Timeless was released Hammer also released his first solo album, The First Seven Days. Based on a programmatic concept where each track presents a composition corresponding to one of the seven days of creation in the Book of Genesis, Hammer plays nearly everything on the record–piano, electric piano, Moog and Oberheim synths and sequencers, Mellotron, and drums. He brings in Steven Kindler on violin for four tracks and some additional percussion on two tracks but otherwise, the entire show, including engineering and production, belongs to Hammer.

Hammer got around the fact that he was used to working with guitarists to create the drive and the sound that he wanted by using guitar synthesizers that he managed to make sound like the real thing, so much so that The First Seven Days‘ album cover carries the note that  “For those concerned: there is no guitar on this album.” Kind of the reverse of Queen emphatically letting listeners know that there were no synthesizers on their records. Hammer is proud to wield the keyboard!

In the space of a couple of years since leaving Mahavishnu Orchestra (which was immensely successful in itself), Jan Hammer participated in records that featured a kind of modern jazz rock-folk music, an album of jazz guitar-organ trio, and a full-fledged electronic album that bore a greater resemblance to what composer/performers such as Jean-Michel Jarre and Michael Oldfield were doing. 

He went on to record Wired with Jeff Beck. Only the guitarist’s second solo album, following on the heels of the George Martin-produced Blow By Blow, the record set a standard for instrumental rock and fusion music going forward. Hammer toured with Beck as well, resulting in the album Jeff Beck with the Jan Hammer Group, a document of the group’s 117 show tour from June 1976-February 1977.  The band here, credited as ‘The Jan Hammer Group’ consists of Hammer, drummer Tony ‘Thunder’ Smith, and bassist Fernando Sanders who would spend most of the eighties playing with Lou Reed. 

Hammer put his stamp on the live Beck album, as the record (which was cut down from a projected double album by Epic due to production costs associated with the worldwide oil shortage) includes two songs from Like Children–“Earth (Still Our Only Home)” with vocals by Hammer, and “Full Moon Boogie” featuring a vocal by Smith. There is also a song from The First Seven Days, and a performance of the Hammer composition “Blue Wind,” one of the most instantly recognizable grooves from Wired. Tom Werman, an Epic A&R man remembers this: “(We) had dinner at the hotel, and we discussed mixing. At the time, I had only produced a couple of LPs, and I had had very little experience with Jan. When the subject of mixing came up, Jan simply declared “Either I will mix the album or there will be no album.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.