Hammer To Fall: Jan Hammer From Mahavishnu To Miami Vice
Metaphorically Jan Hammer fell into greater recognition within popular culture from the relatively private beaches of being a musician’s musician. Czech composer, multi-instrumentalist Jan (pronounced YAN) Hammer knocked out an instrumental gem which went on to become one of the coolest TV show themes of all time: Miami Vice.
So cool it didn’t even need lyrics or still frames of Don Johnson in a Ferrari Testarossa smiling and showing teeth whiter than his $3000 sport coat and the coke he and his partner Rico were after. So cool it was simply called “Miami Vice Theme” and not something more embellished like “Linus And Lucy”, that awesome theme song for all those Charlie Brown holiday TV shows we all grew up with by jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi.
A Mahavishnu Orchestra alum (the fusion supergroup founded by British guitarist John McLaughlin), Jan went on to achieve heights heretofore unattained amongst his Jazz Fusion peers: his music synchronized to boobs on MTV. Dreams really did come true for this lad from Prague, Czechoslovakia.
So what makes this instrumental piece north of cool you ask? Well for one, the composition’s melody is played across several instruments (albeit sampled and played on keyboard) in different octaves as related parts that play off each other.
The instrumentation is just soooo tasty: from the badass machinesque staccato opening riff that he surfs the groove over, to the beat–you–down percussion hits, to the elegant synth stab riff, to the raunchy guitar riffs, he’s got an APB on your gonads.
And just for good measure, he threw in some inverted soundwave notes on bass to run aground on some low end. You wanna mess with that low synth bass? It brings a “Get on the ground, you have the right to remain silent DIRTBAG” authority to the piece. But all this is aural academics. If writing the show’s main themes like this piece wasn’t enough, he also wrote new material each episode.
With Mahavishnu Orchestra, he became one of the first keyboardists to play a Moog* synthesizer in a ensemble. Mahavishnu Orchestra was one of those bands with absolutely devastating musicianship creating experimental music which blended a myriad of musical styles and compound (odd) time signatures.
A musician and sound engineer friend I’ve worked with saw Mahavishnu Orchestra perform at a college when they were just starting out. His recollection was as that of a “shock wave of sound rolling over him of something so completely new it took him several minutes to process what just hit him.”
There’s a raw visceral energy, a ferocity to their compositions, undiluted even though it’s coming from high level musicians. As a musician, I totally love it when musical energy isn’t eclipsed by “studio sterility” in the process of recording because recording is a different skill set that performing live.
Jan also toured with Jazz vocal legend Sarah Vaughan, played on that awesome Jeff Beck album Wired with a fellow Mahavishnu Orchestra alum, drummer Narada Michael Walden**, was inducted into the Keyboard Hall of Fame, won a few of them Grammy thingys, but all that pales in comparison to the aforementioned synchronization of his composition to boobs does it not? Here’s the MTV video of the full composition with Jan rocking out:
(KEYTAR ALERT!!: sensitive musicians cover your eyes from 1:32 to 1:57)
Miami Vice show intro (chopped down to one minute):
Things came full circle when there occurred a music trivia moment on Miami Vice. Years prior to his days writing for the show, after he left Mahavishnu Orchestra, the next lineup included a member of the Mothers of Invention (French violinist Jean–Luc Ponty*** replaced Jerry Goodman formerly of the Jazz-Rock group The Flock) whose band leader was none other than Mr. Frank Zappa.
Frank guest starred on Miami Vice as a drug kingpin who lived on a yacht and sold “weasel dust” (There’s a Mothers album called Weasels Ripped My Flesh). The episode is also called “The Payback” which is also a classic James Brown song/album. The article title here is also a Queen tune so give yourself a gold star if you caught that 🙂
FZ on Miami Vice:
“The Payback” episode trailer:
*A friend of mine who studied electronic music in college actually met Bob Moog, inventor of the Moog synthesizer.
**Jan Hammer and Narada Michael Walden were NOT in Mahavishnu Orchestra at the same time. Jan played with percussionist Billy Cobham (I know, poor him). There’s not alot of footage of them out there, but here’s Jan Hammer, Billy Cobham and John McLaughlin freaking tearing it up in a crazy odd time signature back in the day on the track “Meeting Of The Spirits” (riff comes in at 1:38):
With “El Becko” Jeff Beck and Narada Michael Walden on “Led Boots”:
***Jean–Luc Ponty was actually John McLaughlin’s first choice for the original lineup of Mahavishnu Orchestra. Boo to the government for not granting him a work permit visa to move to the United States. Instead, John went with Jerry Goodman, another electric violin virtuoso from Chicago.
Here’s one of my fave Mahavishnu Orchestra tunes, “Lila’s Dance.” Jean–Luc’s playing on here gets nicely otherworldly in the middle. Gayle Moran starts the tune off in 7(that’s how I’m counting it) on piano, the band enters with the main riff in a 10 meter, then John shreds some blues intestines in 4/4 a bit later.
The most amazing thing however happens after John’s solo where the band sneaks the 10 meter back in under the 4/4 for a “WTF? they can’t do that but they just did!” moment:
When your ears want to get more adventurous and date songs other than the musical equivalent of the nice guy or girl next door (the major chord, the I-IV-V progression–think “Louie, Louie” by The Kingsmen, and 4/4 time), then Mahavishnu Orchestra is a group I recommend.
Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report completely redefined what music could be for me and expanded the sound palate of possibilities. And that’s always welcome fuel for inspiration and creativity.
Wow, this was like playing the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon in Jazz Fusion.
© Composer Yoga
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