The power of a single long-ago hit TV show to fashion our perception of a multi-faceted artist is staggering. Since becoming legendary for his synth-driven theme and dynamic scores for “Miami Vice,” that’s been Jan Hammer’s never-ending cultural calling card. His great success scoring films and video games in the decades since has only cemented his status as an electronic composer and master of the synthesizer.
Ranging from swinging, piano centered traditional jazz and swing to soulful pop/urban smooth jazz, the Czech born composer and keyboardist’s adventurous, rhythmically eclectic new album Sketches in Jazz should go a long way to setting the record straight about his roots – and hopefully opening doors to a fresh artistic future.
While digging into key tracks like the contemplative, Bill Evans-influenced trio ballad “Deep Pool,” the playfully swinging flying mallet adventure “My Father’s Vibes,” the moody “Solitude” and his throbbing, synth trumpet laced jazz version of his 1993 classic “Magic Theatre,” you can begin brushing up on your history. Hammer, who played in a jazz trio in high school and studied jazz at Berklee College of Music, served as keyboardist/conductor for Sarah Vaughan, then joined fusion pioneers the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
As you enter the sweet seduction of “Quiet Place” (featuring synth that approximates a Toots Thielemans styled harmonica), the deeply soulful ambiences of “Later On” and the hypnotic experimental solo piano piece “Blue 3,” you can Google and realize that Hammer’s all-star collaborations include influential jazz cats like John McLaughlin, John Abercrombie Al Di Meola, Stanley Clarke and Elvin Jones (in addition to rock greats like Jeff Beck, Carlos Santana, Steve Lukather and Neal Schon).
One of the fresh conceits of this revelatory project is that they are indeed “sketches” – not longwinded, minutes long improvisation-heavy pieces, but shorter, instantly melodic treasures that get straight to the point. That’s one area where his TV/film and game cue background comes in quite handy. When you listen, by no means should you ever forget “Miami Vice” or his vast 45-year catalog. Just keep an open mind that Hammer will always be full of grand sonic surprises.