Something Else! Reviews - July 17, 2008

Jan Hammer – Seasons Pt. 1 (2018)
I’ve always seen keyboard whiz Jan Hammer as a much more pivotal figure in the development of fusion jazz and instrumental rock than his name recognition suggests. Co-founder of the seminal fusion band the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Hammer was also present on key releases by guitar gods Jeff Beck, Al di Meola and John Abercrombie, and had a memorable collaboration in the early 80s with Journey guitarist Neal Schon. All this and more happened prior to his career turning 1985 soundtrack to the Miami Vice TV series that became a symbol of that decade. Hammer’s sleek, synthesized grooves were in lock step with the visual of that show and that era, a perfect marriage of cinema and sound.

His profile had lowered after that but he had been no less busy scoring for full-length films, television programs, commercials and even video games while still occasionally touring and making records. Since he hadn’t made records too frequently — his last came with Cocaine Cowboys in 2007, but that was an EP-length documentary soundtrack. Seasons Pt. 1 (due out July 20, 2018) is actually the first, full-length album of new material since Drive and that was a full quarter century ago. So, Hammer was due.

Surprisingly (or maybe not), Seasons Pt. 1 picks up right where Drive left off, continuing with his unique brand of wholly keyboard-based instrumental music that sits in a space between prog-pop, fusion jazz and New Age. On the prior album, there were a few guest musicians like Jeff Beck and Michael Brecker contributing on a track or two, but this time, it’s all Hammer. That matters little because, “All Hammer” and no one else never means this isn’t anything less than a fully orchestrated sound, all springing from his fertile mind and creatively assisted by technology. 

What immediately apparently from the opener “Miami – Night” is that Hammer isn’t going to pretend to be anyone but himself. Not even his ‘old’ self. The overdriven improvisational days of Mahavishnu and the fiery fusion in group settings had long given way to a tightly syncopated sound completely conceived, programmed and performed by Hammer. 

And that’s gets to the marvel of that approach: he can so effectively replace virtually any instrument and fool listeners thinking they are hearing an organic instrument not just because of similar tonalities, but how they are played. After some thirty plus years, no one has been able to make a Minimoog mimic a lead electric guitar as convincingly as Hammer, or even the rhythm guitar parts, for that matter. On “Ocean Drive” he even tosses in convincing acoustic guitar impressions. But much care is applied to rhythms, and the breezy, Caribbean sway in this song is finely textured.

A few of these cuts more than merely show lineage back to the Miami Vice days; sounds particularly 80-ish and aggressive like that “Miami Vice” theme song, and “New World II” is even more so in that vein.

A headlong dive into Continental classical forms is the mission of “Suite European,” not just mimicking entire string sections but also arranging the intricate movements. “Winter Solstice” is another turn back to Hammer’s classical background, the synths’ ice symphonic backdrop earning the song’s name. The festively Latin part of “Suite Latin” kicks well into the track, preceded by another virtual orchestral setting.

“68 Reasons” is a gently rolling rock ballad in the vein of Joe Satriani’s 1988 hit “Always With Me, Always With You,” even including a ‘guitar’ lead with a clean toned resonance like Satch’s. “Sanctuary” is not the same “Sanctuary” played by Hammer and the rest of Mahavishnu on Birds Of Fire, but like the older song is structured around a cyclical chord pattern, and hip hop rhythms underpin “Cyclone,” pointing to a possible new wrinkle in Hammer’s approach.

Since this new album is titled Seasons Pt. 1, you might guess that another volume is in the works, and you’d be correct. After all, Jan Hammer has got some catching up to do.