The Early Years

Many are called but few are chosen, and for Czech expatriate Jan Hammer the road to recognition has been a long and circuitous one. It's led from Eastern Europe to America, from acoustic piano to synthesizer (and drums); from classical music to jazz and rock . .. and finally, something akin to the sum of those parts as the aural scenic designer for television's most trend setting show, Miami Vice. In the wake of that enormous success, this CBS affiliate has seen fit to repackage a series of instrumental totems from Hammer's Nemperor period (Like Children, The First Seven Days, Oh, Yeah.?, Melodies), and the result, The Early Years, certainly serves to cement Hammer's reputation as a soundcraftsman.

Movies might have been a more appropriate title for this retrospective, because these electro-acoustic tone poems are all vividly imagineistic. Their titles suggest thematic moods which the music goes on to evoke ("The Seventh Day," "Plants And Trees," "Bambu Forest " "Oceans And Continents, " "Your Love " "Night," "I Remember Me"), the listener, filling in the visual blanks on the canvas of his or her mind. Hammer's background as an accompanist and musical director for so accomplished a vocal virtuoso as Miss. Sarah Vaughan (or so taut a melodist as Mr. Jeff Beck) has given him a sense of cinematic dimension, and here he creates a shifting cycle of backgrounds, foregrounds and commongrounds with the dominant voice. On "The Seventh Day, " for instance, the piano sets the scene while violin takes the main theme, which is then shifted to synth as an escalating number of counter-melodies echo its central idea.

Other miniatures like "Plants And Trees," "Oceans And Continents" and "Your Love" display a sense of structure that suggests a mini piano concerto or piano trios (as in Brahms). Hammer gracefully interpolates shifting harmonic moods in a manner that might evoke Bill Evans for the more traveled listener. It's worth noting that Hammer was, and probably still is, a first-rate jazz pianist. (His emotive work with Elvin Jones at Slugs and the Village Vanguard forms the bedrock of my own early listening experience, and his contributions to Elvin's On The Mountain made that one of the drummer's most satisfying albums. )

It's also probably been forgotten that Hammer was the first musician to really put the Mini-Moog on the map, and to find musical uses for synthesizers as improvising and arranging tools. In many ways he was a key architect of the original Mahavishnu Orchestra sound (and a fine drummer as well). So it's instructive that Hammer's programmatic strengths reach full fruition on his electric- rhythmic workouts "Bambu Forest" and "The Animals." On the former Hammer lays claim to Mahavishnu's "Dance Of Maya" odd time cycle, while the latter is a beautiful jungle book of percussion, stereo panning and musical colors, all very funky and subtle.

The key word I guess is subtle. The Early Years and Miami Vice represent a summation of musical learnings and yearnings, as good as his work as a sideman with Beck, Jagger, et al, and considerably better than some of his group recordings (notable for erratic results, questionable taste). They indicate that somewhere down the line Jan Hammer is more than capable of putting his classical, jazz and rock scenarios together into a coherent vision. When he does, watch out. - Chip Stern