Reviewed by: Mark Richard Hasan
This winter's 'Red Cap' on BBC1 marks a return for Jan Hammer to the action-suspense genre on television, and though no soundtrack album is currently planned, the composer's work for his other best-known series is now available in a two-disc set.
Running on NBC from 1984-1989, 'Miami Vice' established a new musical style, aided by the composer's use of various synthesizers that elevated electronic instruments from atmospheric bit players to lead performers on the scoring stage.
Beginning as a jazz pianist and becoming one of the cornerstone members of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jan Hammer left the fusion band in 1972, and through his solo work, he embraced the worlds of pop and rock music while simultaneously forging new ground through an impressive use of electronic instruments.
His melodic, textural and rhythmic ideas were put to the test during the four years he scored over eighty-eight episodes, contributing as much as twenty minutes of music per show amid three or more popular songs mandated by the show's MTV-styled sonic design.
Hammer's new set essentially gathers all music previously released for the show on one CD, plus a boatload of unreleased tracks on disc two.
Disc one includes the signature theme that set the show's pulse and viewer excitement - a theme that became the first instrumental to hit Billboard's Top Pop album charts since Henry Mancini's 'Peter Gunn' theme.
Inspired by a snappy montage of glossy images, Hammer's theme is a two-part dialogue between a short phrase via electric guitar, and a thudding synthesized percussion cluster. Efficient chord shifts are surrounded by diverse percussion, which mimic the fast edits and visual action from gliding over-the-water shots, fast cars, and a powerboat crashing on the open sea.
Hammer's always been very good at creating addictive themes and driving rhythms, and many of the show's fans can no doubt recall them with relative ease. His early score compilations were limited to 'Escape From Television' and 'Snapshots', two albums that did well on their own during the 'Miami Vice' craze in North America, and soon after in Europe, as 'Eurocops' hit television screens.
All of the 'Escape' tracks are gathered on disc one, along with the five cues (and one theme re-mix) that were scattered across the three 'Miami Vice' soundtrack albums that featured more songs and repeated material in subsequent volumes. Like 'Miami Vice 3', 'Snapshots' was only released in Europe, yet the latter contained four 'Vice' cuts, plus the theme for 'Eurocops' and 'The Runner' television ad campaign. Disc one includes these four, filling out the disc's twenty tracks to a 64:27 running time.
(Fans missing the 'Eurocops' theme from this new collection will be glad to know the entire 'Snapshots' album was remastered in 2000 as 'Snapshots 1.2' (also on One Way Records), boasting better sound, and adding two tracks: 'Nova,' and a reworking of Hammer's theme for the feature film, A Modern Affair.)
The real gem in this set is disc two, which offers twenty-two tracks covering several themes from more popular episodes in diverse styles. 'Boat Party' is a tongue-in-cheek reggae piece, while 'Rain' serves a multi-purpose role for the tale of two youths lured by quick revenues from drugs: a two-note, tragedy-tinged echo serves as intro and fragmented theme, with a brief pause for meditative synth pulses that reflect the boredom of a police stakeout.
The two themes that appeared on Flexi-Discs in separate Keyboard issues are also included: the rhythmic call-and-answer guitar-and-percussion based 'Shadow in the Dark,' for the show's weirdo serial killer/Halloween episode; and 'Golden Triangle,' which combines a rock Asian intro using a more atmospheric variation with sustained synth textures.
'El Viejo Mix' is a major standout, tinged with a western edge (via twanging keyboards) for an aging Texas Ranger (Willie Nelson) on an old justice mission. After the gentle opener, a driving rhythm kicks into gear, with groovy electric bass and sporadic detours for some nice rhythmic keyboard solos. It's a great play on the western legend, using a smooth blend of classic heroism and urban cool. 'Texas Ranger' finishes the story with a bluesy phrase, bridging a retro-1970s melodic variation with a continuation of the former urban timbre.
'Runaround,' a non-Vice piece used in an early first season episode, recalls Hammer's post-Mahavishnu solo work, with some superb solo work over a rock beat. It's a great little gem that makes one wish Hammer would extend some his pieces for lengthier improvisations, given he's a superb musician who has sparred with the best in his lengthy career.
Brevity is the only set-back of his themes and variations, though this two-disc set brings together a good sampling of his fine work that greatly influenced the use of synthesizers in film and television. Incidentally, disc two's themes were re-recorded in 2001 using a blend of old and new technology, so the vintage sounds are authentic, many taken from decades-old synthesizers and samplers, but cleaner, with a wider range than the older CD recordings offered at the time.
Those less fond of the 'Miami Vice' sound will likely stay away from this collection, but Hammer's compendium offers a rewarding mix of styles and inspired rhythms, and fills a void in his seriously under-represented film and television work on CD.