Legendary Jazzrock Pionieer

Text: Storm Bakker

Thanks to Robin Boer & Laurent Sprooten (check & translation)

People might know when hearing the name Jan Hammer that he is the one who ran into money with his title song for the popular television series Miami Vice in the mid-80s. However, connoisseurs will also know that he made history with John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, then got to fame as ‘sideman’ with guitarists Al di Meola, Jeff Beck and John Abercrombie. Some might know his work with Tony Williams, Steve Grossman, Jeremy Steig and Stanley Clarke, Elvin Jones and David Earle Johnson.

The time has come, as far as ProgJazz.nl is concerned, to put the spotlights on the genius who, since the eclatant success of Miami Vice, changed from the 'best selling jazz artist' to 'the best selling jazz artist of all time'. Somehow to the great grief of the real lovers, because after 1985 he would never again achieve the incomparable height and authentic depth as in the 70s. However, the sympathetic 'Emmy, Grammy and Platinum Award winning Artist' is always worth it.



After the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s line-up was completed and John McLaughlin's new, complex music was rehearsed, the band debuted as the opening act for John Lee Hooker in mid-1971. The old bluesman will not have known what struck him, six days in a row at the Gaslight at the au Go Go, a concert hall that would close down just a year later. The band would write history with groundbreaking odd-meter jazz rock, performed by five virtuoso and inspired artists: except guitarist/composer John McLaughlin and keyboardist Jan Hammer, the Panamese powerdrummer Billy Cobham (ex Horace Silver, ex Miles Davis), the American folk rock and jazz fusion violinist Jerry Goodman (ex the Flock, who joined on the recommendation of the 'President of Columbia Records', Clive Ray Davis, instead of the envisaged but prevented violinist Jean Luc Ponty) and finally the Irish bassist Rick Laird (former contrabassist of Brian Auger’s Trinity, who replaced the preferred but prevented Tony Levin, known from King Crimson).

The Mahavishnu Orchestra developed in a short time into an internationally acclaimed top act, "receiving its initial acclaim for its complex, intense music consideration of a blend of Indian classical music, jazz and psychedelic rock, and its dynamic live performances between 1971 and 1973". Two impressive studio albums appeared, Inner Mounting Flame and Birds Of Fire, and the live album Between Nothingness and Eternity, the only one with a composition by Jan Hammer, named after his sister Andrea, a song he had already played in 1971 with Reig and Bolin.

The keyboardist thrilled audiences with mind-blowing solos on the effects-distorted Fender Rhodes, (that he always played with the lid open), as well as on the newly developed Mini Moog synthesizer, regardless of the strange meters and keys the pieces were built upon. It was his way of playing from those years that had a great influence on other emerging synthesizer virtuosos, such as Benoît Widemann (Lockwood, Magma, Stivell), Max Middelton (Jeff Beck, Kate Bush) and Adam Holzman (Miles Davis, Mahavishnu Project and Steven Wilson). In 1972 the remaining tracks and out-takes of his projects with Elvin and Steig were also published (Mr. Jones and Fusion), of course because Hammer was hot & cooking.

The well selling and extensively touring working band led by the dominant McLaughlin, went apart in 1973. According to interviews from that period, they did not part as friends. Loosely translated, Jan Hammer regretted that the music had changed into something to impress with rather than something that should be played. Later he would compare the band to a 'pressure cooker' [Synthopia.com]. The new recordings that were made landed on the shelves until they were finally released many years later: The Lost Trident Sessions (1999) and Unreleased Tracks From Between Nothingness & Eternity (2011).


After the break-up, Hammer made a third album with Elvin Jones, the Prime Element. Also in 1973 he took part in the illustrious Spectrum project of Billy Cobham, which also included bass player Leland Sklar (James Taylor) and dexterous guitarist Tommy Bolin (Zephyr). Sklar would describe the experience as "flying by the seat of your pants". The band played in the studio for two days and the recordings were left unchanged afterwards. On the record is a piano solo entitled To The Women In My Life, as an intro to Le Lis, where suddenly -like during the famous Stratus and Red Baron- jazz friends like Ron Carter, Jimmy Owens and Joe Farrell appear, fortunately to accompany the synthesizers and not to hinder them. The young Bolin later would join Alphonse Mouzon, create two solo albums and subsequently replace Ritchie Blackmore in Deep Purple. In 1976 – still a young man – Bolin would die of an overdose.

In 1973 Hammer teamed up with Steve Grossman, the saxophonist who had already come to fame with the likes of Elvin Jones, Miles Davis and Lonnie Smith. His mesmerizing way of mastering his instruments stands out on the album Some Shapes To Come, with the self-taught Don Alias (drums) and bass player Gene Perla (both ex Nina Simone). Steve Grossman would later move to Europe and record countless records, also with musicians from Christian Vander's entourage, such as Michel Graillier, Alby Cullaz and Simon Goubert. In the meantime Hammer cooperated with bassist Stanley Clarke (ex Return to Forever, 1974) on the debut solo-album of the latter. Furthermore he worked as an organist with John Abercrombie on his illustrious album Timeless, with Jack DeJohnette (ex Bill Evans, ex Miles Davis) also participating.

Around this time Hammer had set up his own studio in New York (Red State). There he made two gorgeous records (Like Children, 1974, and The First Seven Days, 1975), on which Hammer himself played the drums. Jerry Goodman was involved in the first album as a violinist, on the second violinist Steve Kindler appeared. The First Seven Days (with artwork by Milton Glaser) was of course based on the history of creation, but according to Hammer in the liner notes of Maliny, one shouldn’t presume there were other reasons than writing seven new, mysterious compositions (which, as a matter of fact, have nothing to do with jazz!).

Hammer then participated in the solo projects of Harvey Mason (1975), Elvin Jones (On The Mountain, 1976), Charlie Mariano (Helen 12 Trees, 1976, with Zbigniew Seifert, John Marshall, Jack Bruce and Lenny White). In addition, the old album Maliny, a.k.a. Jan Hammer Trio Live At The Domicile, Munich 1968, was re-released (by Schwarzwald in collaboration with Dante Pugliese), now under the name Make Love and wrapped in a cheerful cover with a painting by Clint Brown, decently censored by a butterfly.


In 1976 he founded his own group, with violinist Steve Kindler (ex Mahavishnu), the singing bass player Fernando Saunders and the singing drummer Tony Smith. The albums Oh Yeah? (1976) and Melodies (1977) are regarded by the inner circle of fans as underestimated milestones of jazzrock. The dazzling tune Twenty One on the first album, an uncanny 21/16 duel between Hammer and White, can be seen as one of the most impressive rhythmic exercises in music history to that day. Songs like Let The Children Play (Oh Yeah?), Too Much To Loose and Don't You Know (Melodies), are somewhat haunting, dreamy, nostalgic or romantic songs, with the singing of Smith and Saunders. Too Much To Loose would later be redone with modern (digital) synthesizers for the album Snapshots 1.2, supported by a funny video clip on which David Gilmour (Pink Floyd), Ringo Starr (Beatles) and Jeff Beck (guitar) appear in a play back setting.

Each of these records contains tantalizing and psychedelic synthesizer-features, ostinatos, patterns, solos, licks, ad libs and so forth. By using the pitch-wheel for creating large intervals, he earned the name 'Master of Pitch Bend'. Sometimes his sound was so much like an electric guitar, that he jokingly would state in the liner notes to the albums that no guitars were involved.


Jan Hammer entered into a musical friendship with the virtuoso guitarist Jeff Beck, with whom he felt a special relationship from the very beginning. On the album Wired (1976), the first-rate collaborators are Narada Michael Walden (drums, ex Mahavishnu), and keyboard player Max Middleton (ex Hummingbird, originally a London dockworker). On the album is a rock track by Hammer entitled Blue Wind, which is produced by him and on which he plays the drums as well. During the Hollywood Bowl in 2016, the old friends once again performed the tune "In Celebration of Jeff Beck's 50 years musical career". The band was described as "full of fire and imagination" (RollingStone). It was during the tour in 1976 that the aforementioned guitarist Tommy Bolin, with his band the opening act for Jeff Beck, would die at an overdose at the age of 25.

The entire Jan Hammer Group was adopted by star guitarist Jeff Beck and is featured on the next year's live album, Jeff Beck With The Jan Hammer Group Live, which is a result of a tour of over 111 shows. There are some fine live recordings left of this supergroup, such as a footage from Paramount Theater Seattle, 1976, with many of Hammer's compositions, such as the fierce odd-meter piece Magical Dog and the brutal Country and Eastern Music, which turns into Like Children, as well as Darkness, Earth and Full Moon Boogie. In addition to the Moog and the Oberheim, Hammer also used the so-called Cordovox, a String Symphonizer (invented by Ken Freeman), which also could be found in Chick Corea's arsenal. The device contained no less than 25 oscillators, one of which was designed as a digital 'top octave synthesizer' (TOS); the other 24 were assigned per two to the twelve tones. Thus, the device was very polyphonic, unlike most synthesizers of the time.


In 1977 Jan Hammer became a steady member of the band of guitar virtuoso Al Di Meola (ex RTF), with whom he would create numerous albums. For many years, guitarist Al Di Meola depended on the Czech American. There are some clips of the many concerts they gave together, such as in the Savoy, New York (1982) with the 'all master line-up' including Steve Gadd (drums) and Anthony Jackson (bass). The repertoire also included the typical Hammer hits The Advantage and Cruisin', with nice duels between synthesizer and guitar. The clips are available on Hammer's own YouTube Channel. The albums under his own name, Black Sheep (1978) and Hammer (1979), recorded with a different line-up and intended as pop music, are preferred to be ignored by the connoisseurs – except a few tracks only. Recently Hammer had them re-mastered. The albums contain some extraordinary examples of Hendrix-evoking synthesizer, a unique asset of the Czech, but it is mainly due to the obligate vocals that the albums cannot keep up with the classics from previous years.


In 1978 he stepped into an adventurous alliance with drummer Tony Williams, from which a couple of tracks were released on the album Joy of Flying (1978/1979). The number Eris (by Hammer) is a quiet sample & hold drone, on which the drummer and the keyboardist get loose, as always telepathically connected in community and freedom. The following years Williams and Hammer would often share the stage and play the favorite songs from their repertoire with visible and audible fun. Mostly these were Hammer tracks, such as Cruisin' and The Advantage. On these occasions they would usually be backed by bass player Fernando Saunders from the Hammer Group.


Hammer reportedly worked in 1979 with Canadian singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell, who tended more to jazz rock in the second half of the 1970s. Hard evidence of Hammer’s involvement however is yet to be found. It was Joni's 10th studio album called Mingus, on which the legendary bassist Charles Mingus himself also participated, especially as a composer, but also as a model for Joni’s artwork. The recordings Mitchell made earlier with New York players, the so-called 'experimental sessions', served as the first reunion since long between John McLaughlin and Jan Hammer as musicians in one line-up. Also cooperating were outstanding players like Tony Williams, Stanley Clarke, Eddie Gomez, Gerry Mulligan, Phil Woods and the former Mingus drummer Dannie Richmond as a narrator. But the tapes were lost, at least: that's the story. But there is also a rumor that they are still available as bootlegs... Mitchell herself leaves it at that. She has been in a wheelchair since a stroke in 2015 and cannot sing anymore. Anyhow: other artists can be heard on the album, including Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Peter Erskine and Don Alias.


In 1980 Hammer also joined the band Stone Alliance of his old friends Gene Perla (bass, ex Nina Simone, ex Jeremy Steig, ex Billy Cobham) and Don Alias (drums & percussion, ex Nina Simone, ex Joni Miles, Joni Mitchel, ex Jaco Pastorius), formerly with saxophonist Steve Grossman, (who recently died), but on this occasion with Bob Mintzer (Yellow Jackets). Recordings of the concert at the Berlin Jazz Festival were released, but the album is very much like a bootleg. (see)


In 1980 Hammer made a few neat albums with the singing percussionist David Earle Johnson (ex Frank Zappa, Cobham), but only Hip Address is included in the keyboardist’s discography on Wikipedia. We saw the playful Johnson, who in terms of singing reminds us of Zappa, and with whom Hammer seems to have had a special click, already on Early Years, The First Seven Days and Oh Yeah?. The debut album of the artistic, quirky Johnson, entitled Time Is Free, was tastefully produced by Jan Hammer, with artwork provided by David's French wife, Evelyne Morisot. Because Hammer - apart from the vocals and the congas - took care of all the instruments, Time Is Free resembles all the more something like a duo record. The Beautiful Night is a good example of what the special couple was capable of. Hammer continued to meddle with Johnson. Together with John Abercrombie they made The Midweek Blues in 1983, recorded in Hammer's Red Gate Studio, Kent, New York, by the motto “the best way to overcome the midweek blues is to have a jam, which is exactly what we did . . . well, almost . . .".


In 1984, Hammer, as an organist, once again entered the studio with John Abercrombie for the masterpiece Night, one of the best albums in the history of jazz fusion to our liking. The interaction of the forementioned with drummer Jack DeJohnette and saxophonist Michael Brecker is a combination of pure drive, a rich sound and honest beauty. The ridiculous review in the Penguin Guide to Jazz by a certain Richard Cook suggests that Hammer would have outgrown the guitarist (????), and secondly, wouldn’t seem to be at ease because of the presence of Brecker with his “rapid fire changes”... Drummer Jack also didn't think of this one as his best album. When we told him a few years ago in Amsterdam, getting beers in and a ‘bitterball’ (the first of his life!), that the album Night is our all time favorite, he didn't agree. He regarded his last album (with Bred Mehldau) as his very best. Well, it may be right, because Americans ALWAYS seem to find their last album the best.


In 1985 Jan Hammer was asked to compose music for the television series Miami Vice. However well-crafted and professional, this music does not fit in the scope of our magazine ProgJazz. The title track was a #1 hit in the United States and reached the top 10 worldwide, except in the Netherlands, where it didn’t exceed no. 22. Anyway, with this he made his pile, and that is of course what our respectable synthesizer hero deserved.

But the big money rarely comes without problems. The apparently close friendship with David Earle Johnson was cooling down, when it turned out that Hammer (without permission) had used David's rare Nigerian log drums (sample) for his Miami Vice soundtrack. Court cases began, which ran out badly for Johnson. "This court case would be one of the first of its kind concerning sampling rights", could be read on a website dedicated to the percussionist. In 1998 the adventurer Johnson died at the age of 60, leaving four French daughters behind.

Meanwhile, with the great success of Miami Vice, the famous jazz rock-wizard, who was the first to take up the synthesizer as a recognized, full-fledged solo-instrument, seemed finally out of date... Or not so? In 1986 he toured Japan with Jeff Beck and among others guitarist Steve Lukather (Toto) and drummer Simon Phillips (The Who, 10CC, PHD), see YouTube). Five more albums with Jeff Beck would be released until 1999 and a reunion with with Al Di Meola culminated in three albums.

In 1991 he played with the Jan Hammer-Tony Williams Group at Montreux (see YouTube). This band played several Hammer songs, like Miami Vice Theme and Crockett's Theme, but also Darkness, Crusin' and Blue Wind. In 2006, Hammer participated in Moogfest, where also Adam Holzman, Jordan Rudess and Keith Emerson appeared.

Reread PART I Jan Hammer, Legendary Jazzrock Pioneer