DOWNBEAT 3-25-76

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JAN HAMMER
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THE FIRST SEVEN DAYS Nemperor NE-432:
Darkness/Earth In Search of A Sun; Light/Sun; Oceans
And Continents; Fourth Day Plants And Trees; The
Animals; Sixth Day The People; The Seventh Day.

Personnel: Hammer, piano, electric piano, syn-
thesizers, digital sequencer, Mellotron, drums, per-
cussion, Steve Kindler, violin (tracks 2, 5, 6, 7);
David Earle Johnson, congas, percussion (tracks 5, 6).

* * * *

I have misgivings about rating this album, or even discussing it, for several reasons. First, I barely understand how my electric table lamp works; when it comes to the incredibly complex world of fully electronic instruments, I am a hopeless ignoramus.

Second, it isn't clear how much of the total performance is improvised, and thus, how much attention should be given to spontaneous creation (rather an appropriate phrase, given the album's concept), as against the perhaps less ephemeral demands of composition.

Finally and this is a concern that combines the previous two how much can reasonably be expected of music like this? That is in view of the almost literally infinite possibilities of sound which synthesizers, especially overdubbed synthesizers, can create, why should the listener expect anything else than utter novelty, utter comprehensiveness, utter perfection each time out? Where, short of these goals, may a musician like Hammer stop?

Well, I guess he stops, like the 800 pound gorilla, anywhere he wants, and I guess the results are to be evaluated by me, anyway on how they sound, how they resonate on first hearing, how they hold up on repeated listening. And by these criteria, The First Seven Days, though too pretentious by half, comes off well. It sounds good, all the way through; it contains surprises, combines sounds I haven't heard before, always with musicality and not virtuosity uppermost; it is frequently beautiful.

Take Light/Sun, for example: the first surprise is that Hammer begins on unaccompanied acoustic piano. In retrospect, it makes great sense that the principle of light should be articulated with purity, clarity, and simplicity, but I was pleasantly struck here and elsewhere by the absence of pyrotechnics. When the abstraction, light, becomes the sun and stars, Hammer switches to synthesizer to provide a shimmering effect suggestive of the spreading of light across the heavens, and the shimmering gradually attains concretion until it becomes a galloping, chattering triplet figure reiterated with variations and climaxing with one French horn-like resolving note. It is a section of great delicacy and subtlety that perfectly communicates the essence of its programmatic content.

Oceans is not so fortunate. It's one thing to be delicate where light is concerned, quite another to understate, nearly ludicrously, the birth and nature of oceans and continents. There simply isn't enough energy or force here. Still, Hammer's performance on piano is remarkable, consisting mainly of intricate runs and progressions available, with few exceptions, only to classically-trained pianists. (And concomitantly lacking in the harmonic counterpart of the Afro-American rhythmic idiom in which the entire performance is ineluctably grounded an unavoidable defect, perhaps, but a defect nonetheless.)

These rhythms are stronger on Animals, in which Johnson sets up a kind of Balkan rhythm that is gradually transmuted into a blacker pulse. Again, however, Hammer's keyboard has nothing of blackness in it.

The most beautiful track, and a fitting climax to the suite, is People. The theme is stated, mostly in unison, by Kindler on violin and Hammer on acoustic piano, it's a haunting, melancholy theme which evokes our birth into sorrow and suffering original Sin?-and not a joyful new epoch of the world. Kindler's tremolo signals the actual birth, or creation, of man, and Hammer's lub-dub on bass drum mimics the systole-diastole of essential rhythm. The rest of the track is spare lean, tentative, in keeping with the understatement of the entire composition.

There is great beauty throughout this album. Hammer can play rock when he wants to, but he seldom wants to here. He's interested in spaces, silences, textures, layers, timbres. I find him successful in all these respects, and I was moved by any number of poignant moments during the album. Yet there is a human element missing, it seems to me; this is, of course, the by now shopworn plaint of the Professional Humanist-too much technology, not enough soul, but it is something more, too, I hope. It is partly the suggestion that a relatively fertile but still necessarily limited imagination can achieve more by embracing its own limitations. The concept of this album and the possibilities of its technology appear to me to have swallowed Hammer somewhere along the way. It is a tribute to his great inventiveness and individuality that the contest isn't even more one-sided.           -heineman
 


 
Contemporary Keyboard  January/February 1976

RECORDS





Jan Hammer
 

    Jan Hammer's The First Seven Days is a fascinating excursion into the richly hued world of multi-track keyboarding. With the exception of a violinist and a percussionist at the end of side two, all the music is performed by Mr. Hammer on acoustic and electric pianos, synthesizers, and Mellotron, with the aid of a digital sequencer. The album is close to the work of guitarist John McLaughlin in its use of bitonal riffs and in the construction of the tunes, which tend each to consist of two or three distinct alternating sections; but for the most part Mr. Hammer prefers creating broad sweeps of sound and slow melodies on the keyboard to the sizzling lead work he turned out with McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra. The melodies are often in unisons at a two- or three-octave range, accompanied simultaneously by a riff and by a synthesized string texture.

    The Biblical story of the Creation is an ambitious subject for an album - perhaps a little too ambitious. It is to Mr. Hammer's credit that he has preferred evocative rather than imitative music and the material of each movement does indeed evoke the appropriate images, sometimes with startling felicity (cf. the funky percussion during "The Animals," and the shimmering tone colors of "Light"). But as Mr. Hammer himself notes, the story of the Creation provided him with "an excuse to write seven new pieces of music," and the titanic impetus of the Biblical story is simply absent from the result. The only points of high drama occur at the outset and at the conclusion of the album: What is in between is beautiful music without any of the urgency that one would associate with such momentous events.

    Considered apart from its ostensible inspiration, however, the album is a gem. The cycling of the riffs creates a peaceful aura which the angular tonalities keep from cloying, and there are enough surprises both in the textures and in the junctures between sections to satisfy the most particular listener.   Taylor Young