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Interview WIth Jan Hammer

Had a chance to talk with the legendary composer, record producer, keyboardist and synth pioneer - Jan Hammer!

Jan pioneered the use of synthesizers in the 1970s, rising to prominence with Mahavishnu Orchestra, a jazz fusion group led by guitarist John McLaughlin. Throughout his career, he has collaborated with some of the most influential jazz and rock musicians of all time, including Jeff Beck, Billy Cobham, Sarah Vaughan, Mick Jagger, Carlos Santana, Stanley Clarke and more. He also created the iconic music for Miami Vice, including "Miami Vice Theme" and "Crockett's Theme".

His pioneering use of the Minimoog, especially in live settings, has inspired a number or artists. Just read this recent Synth History interview with Roger O'Donnell of The Cure, who states that: "When Jan Hammer got hold of his first Model D, how did he turn it into that weapon that he used on stage? When did he realize that with the pitch bend, he could play it like a guitar? How did that transformation happen? It was incredible. Those Mahavishnu Orchestra albums just blew everyone away."

Without further ado...

Jan Hammer Miami Vice
Jan Hammer in the studio, Miami Vice on the screen!

Synth History: How old were you when you started to play music?

Jan Hammer: I'm told I was four years old. My family was very busy with music among other things. As I was falling asleep at night, in my room as a baby, in the next room there was a full-on rehearsal with a bebop group, with my mother singing and my father playing vibraphone.

Synth History: Oh wow - that's pretty amazing.

Jan Hammer: So by the time I was four, I started picking up things on the piano and proceeded to take proper lessons when I was six.

Synth History: So very early!

Jan Hammer: Very early, yes.

Synth History: I read that you grew up in Prague?

Jan Hammer: Yes, until I was 20.

Synth History: Did you play music as a teenager there?

Jan Hammer: Oh yeah. I was supposed to be a doctor. You know, my parents and all the relatives expected me to go on and follow that path. That was the tradition in the family - lots of doctors. But music just took me over. I got successful enough to basically stick it out and put together a group, a jazz trio. I was 14 and we started playing around Europe in festivals and that's how it went.

Synth History: Do you remember the first time you heard a synthesizer in a song?

Jan Hammer: I think it might have been either Wendy Carlos' Switched-on Bach; or there were also some Beatles things that I heard that included synthesizers, that was probably the first time.

Synth History: What made you decide to incorporate synths into your music?

Jan Hammer: It was the flexibility of tone, timbre. Mainly it was being able to change the pitch at will, vibrato, note bending. This was something that was more possible on guitar and on horns and violin. I was playing piano and I heard these ideas in my head that included all kinds of slipping and sliding and bending, and I couldn't do it on the piano. I tried with different devices that I played the electric piano through, like pitch shifters and things like that - but it wasn't enough - and then I found that Moog had put out the Minimoog. I think that's what totally broke through for me. It really gave me my original voice and I don't know where I'd be if Bob Moog didn't create the Minimoog like that, if that didn't happen. So I'm eternally grateful to them.

Synth History: I've seem some of the live Mahavishnu Orchestra videos, the ones with you jamming on stage with the Minimoog - the solos that you do are so cool! Can you tell me about joining the band, how'd you meet those guys?

Jan Hammer: It was very much a jazz scene in New York City. People were meeting at each other's places, a lot of it was downtown, the 'loft' scene. There were always instruments set up. We had our loft, me and my friend, bassist Gene Perla, and people would come over and jam and play. Basically, you meet all kinds of amazing musicians that way. And if you get noticed, if people respond to how you play or how you respond to each other, that sort of leads to greater things. That's how bands, at that point, really originated and came together.

Synth History: Can you tell me about how you came to work on the music for Miami Vice?

Jan Hammer: It was an interesting story. That was probably the luckiest break. I mean, I've had lots of lucky breaks as I went along after I moved to the United States. I got to play with the great singer, Sarah Vaughan, and then right after that we put together the band Mahavishnu Orchestra. I was scoring for a few films and through mutual friends I got to meet Michael Mann, who was putting together a new television show. It was in 1984. It's been a while. [laughs]

He was talking about wanting the music to be unlike anything else that's on television. You know, just to really stand out. I had some works in progress, that were actually on a cassette. If you can believe, there used to be a thing called cassettes. [laughs]

Synth History: [laughs]

Jan Hammer: And I played him a couple of things and one of those things actually ended up being the theme for the show. It eventually ended up being number one on Billboard. So that's the secret, how I got the job and everything else that followed with it.

Synth History: I know Michael Mann also worked with Tangerine Dream - what was he like and do you think he was into synths?

Jan Hammer: Of course synthesizers at the time were the biggest, shiniest, modern example of what was being discovered. He was very into originality and what was new, avant-garde things. I thought that he was going to be a control freak, because that was the word going around. But when I got hired, when he told me that we were going to be working together on Miami Vice, he said that once we start producing the series, that he wanted me to, and this is a quote, "Run with it!" Which basically meant to put any kind of music, anything that I come up with in the show and decide where to put it and where to place it. There was no interference or interruption. The only thing, I think one time, he said, "Let's have more music," [laughs] because there were lots of montages and scenes where the dialog would drop out, it would just be really moody and the music would carry it on.

Jan Hammer

Synth History: Do you remember some of the synths you used on the show?

Jan Hammer: Of course. It was mainly Moog. At that time it was already Memorymoog. Memorymoog was very important. Around the same time I also got hold of a Fairlight CMI. For the theme, the sounds that you hear are actually samples of Memorymoog, chopped up and sequenced by the Fairlight internal sequencer, that was the only sequencer that was happening. I mean, it was all changing very fast, but I got into the Fairlight and that's how that worked out.

Synth History: What was it like at the time, in the early '80s, going from analog synths to digital synths and suddenly having MIDI, all the technology changes?

Jan Hammer: All of that really helped and made things easier for somebody like me who had to work on a brutal schedule. Being able to communicate between different instruments with MIDI and layering sounds together, it was all fantastic. I like both digital and analog. It's like bread and butter, you have to have it together to be able to really enjoy it.

Synth History: Do you have a current favorite synthesizer?

Jan Hammer: Things change so much. It started with all the different synthesizers that became a rackmount, and then eventually everything moved into virtual. Most of the things that I'm doing are a combination of some Korg instruments and virtual things in the box. For instance, Native Instruments I'm using a lot.

Jan Hammer

Synth History: You've obviously toured and collaborated with a number of artists. Can you recount one of your most favorite memories?

Jan Hammer: It would have to be Jeff Beck. It was again, a really good chance meeting. Mahavishnu Orchestra was in Europe and we ended up in Zürich, at the same time Jeff was on tour and he was playing in Zürich the day after. We were staying at the same hotel and it was his birthday, so you know, one thing led to another and we hung out and talked for a long time.

He really liked what I was doing and he wanted to collaborate on something. We were very much in the same direction, even though we met coming from opposite sides, [Jeff] coming from the rock world and myself coming from pretty much all jazz. By combining our ideas, it became something really great.

Synth History: I don't want to keep you too long so I only have one last question, if you had one piece of advice to give your younger self, or another aspiring musician what would it be?

Jan Hammer: As of today, the way things are, my advice would be: don't get discouraged by the business of music, just keep following your inspiration.

Synth History Exclusive.

Interview conducted by Danz.


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