Interview by George Cole / Photograph of Jan at Red Gate studios by Ebet Roberts. Image courtesy of JanHammer.com
Keyboard virtuoso Jan Hammer has had a long and distinguished jazz career. He was at the forefront of the jazz-rock fusion revolution, co-founding the Mahavishnu Orchestra, playing on Billy Cobham’s seminal album Spectrum, and forging a strong and long-lasting musical association with Jeff Beck. The long list of jazz artists he has played with includes Sarah Vaughan, Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Steve Grossman, John Abercrombie, Chick Corea, Michael Brecker and Al Di Meola – he’s even had a jam session with Miles Davis. Jan has also released a series of solo albums that fuse jazz with an array of musical genres, and released an EP that returns to his jazz roots. In this exclusive interview, Jan looks back at his incredible jazz career.
You come from a remarkable family: your father – Dr Jan Hammer Snr – was Prague’s leading cardiologist, a noted jazz musician (he played bass and vibraphone), president of the Prague Jazz Club, and organised and MC’d the 1965 Prague International Jazz festival. Your mother was the celebrated jazz singer Vlasta Průchová. It’s fair to say that jazz was in your genes!
It was certainly earlier than when I could wear jeans! When I was a baby in my crib, I have these vague memories of there being a combo rehearsing next door, with my parents participating. I could hear them in my crib!
It was certainly a family affair. You, bassist [and future Weather Report co-founder] Miroslav Vitouš and his brother Alan on drums, formed the Junior Trio, which sometimes accompanied your mother. Is it also true that your family once jammed with Louis Armstrong in your home?
That is a fantasy. Almost anyone who played [jazz] in Prague would come and visit. The members of Louis Armstrong’s band stopped by. There was this running joke about our family – why didn’t Duke Ellington play in Prague? Because the Hammer family didn’t have a big enough apartment!
You started playing piano at four and started lessons at six. You also play organ and synthesiser. Who influenced or inspired you for each of these instruments?
For the synthesiser, I was on my own. I pretty much jumped in the cold water for soloing and kind of improvising – when I got into that, there was nothing to compare. For piano, there are certain people that inspired me. The first strong impact would be Errol Garner. Then I transitioned to more modern players. Obviously, Bill Evans – he’s god. I was very much impressed with Paul Bley. On organ, it’s who you’d expect, from Jimmy Smith to Larry Young.
What about electric piano – who inspired you?
There was nothing specific, but just to be able to be loud enough alongside guitar on stage. It’s got a nice tone, but it gave me a jolt of power!
Like the late Chick Corea, you also play drums. How did that come about and who were your influences?
My mother was already trying to get me to practice for my piano lessons. I would do that, but I would have this home-made drum kit next to the piano. Every chance I got, I would put on some record – maybe the Count Basie Big Band – because the drumming by Jo Jones was so much fun. Then obviously the other Jones – Philly Joe Jones and Elvin Jones. Elvin and Tony Williams were the greatest influence on me.
And you would get to play with Elvin Jones and Tony Williams later on in your career.
It was amazing; it was like entering paradise.
1968 was a very significant year for you. At the age of 20-21, you released your first album [The Jan Hammer Trio – Maliny Maliny] and the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia to crush the people’s demand for greater democracy. It resulted in your family moving to the United States. You enrolled at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and made lots of contacts.
Regarding the trio album, we were living in Munich in the summer of 1968, before the invasion happened [on 20 August 1968]. What was especially poignant was that the record was a live recording, made after the invasion. It was the darkest time that I remember. I didn’t know what the future would hold for my family – it was horrible, but somehow we managed to make that record.
It’s amazing how musicians can be creative even in times of adversity.
It’s ‘Old Man River’ – it just keeps rolling on!
Is it true that [jazz guitarist] John Abercrombie was your roommate at Berklee?
There was a sort of rat pack in Boston. I arrived with [Czech bassist] George Mraz. We shared an apartment and eventually John joined us. It was not just musical, but lots of fun – John was one of the funniest people I have ever met, in addition to his pristine, spiritual playing. He was just a really funny guy – it was a great time in Boston.
You decided to remain in the US and later became a US citizen, but your parents returned to Czechoslovakia. It was not easy for them on their return.
There was a lot of pressure and they really went through it, especially my father, who was a cardiologist and used to travelling to conferences. They kept him in the country – he couldn’t get out. My mother was also blacklisted and couldn’t make any new recordings. It was because of me [deciding to remain in the US]. I couldn’t go back, because it would have killed me spiritually. My parents understood this and were okay with my decision.
When did you first go back to Czechoslovakia and what are your strongest memories of that return?
It was ten years before I returned to Prague and there was just an overflow of emotion. When I arrived at our old apartment, my mother and father were still there, and so was my old piano. I just sat down and started playing something, and a complete composition came out – it sounds like a fantasy but it pretty much happened that way. The tune was called ‘Coming Back Home’, which is on Tony Williams’ album The Joy of Flying, with George Benson playing guitar on it. It was a rare moment of vast inspiration, and the title is obvious.
At Boston you formed a life-long friendship with [bassist] Gene Perla, who played a significant role in your subsequent musical career. I believe the two of you met during a session and discovered that you musically clicked together?
He was a friend of one of the Boston rat pack. He came to Boston in 1970 with Sarah Vaughan [Perla was her band’s bassist]. I met him at the gig – I went over to see Sarah singing and Gene came over and talked to me. I invited him to one of our informal jam sessions at someone’s house – everything would be set-up with instruments and recording gear. Gene came over and we played. I guess he really liked my playing, because he told Sarah the next day, ‘I’ve found you a piano player.’
You were still a student at Berklee at the time, so what was your reaction to getting the gig with Sarah Vaughan?
Obviously, I was in complete shock. But at the same time, there was some sort of synchronicity – it was meant to be. All the years I was in Prague, I was accompanying my mum singing, so I already had some chops and knew how to make the piano work with the voice. I was able to switch into it with Sarah and she obviously liked it, because she kept me for a year. It was just an amazingly large leap into the future. Basically, I was allowed into the ‘club’!
Then Gene got you to play with Elvin Jones!
That worked out great. Gene was playing with Elvin at the Village Vanguard [a jazz club in New York] – it was a wonderful place. I got to sit-in and Elvin was very happy – it was swinging, it was moving. I played on lots of gigs although I was never a member of the group, because I was already putting together the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Talk about a crazy combination of disparate styles! There was an Elvin album [Merry Go Round], where Chick Corea and I played on two pianos together [the track was a Gene Perla composition ‘Tergivisation’] that was fun – it was amazing.
What was Elvin Jones like as a person?
He was a force of nature. I remember the contrast between how I perceived him – the power he brought to Coltrane and all the beautiful records he was on – and then when I saw him live, I was amazed – he wasn’t bashing his drums. There was this dynamic thing where he was very gentle and only built up to the fury when he took his solo. He had a surprisingly gentle touch on cymbals – I was very impressed with that. He was just a miracle.
What was he like as a bandleader?
He was very relaxed! [laughs]. There was a dressing room with [saxophonists] Frank Foster and Joe Farrell, and Elvin. Elvin put on some cologne and Frank said, ‘You smell like a French whore!’ and Elvin laughed and said, ‘What’s wrong with French whores?’ In the Village Vanguard, the tables were right up close to the band. The band were playing and Gene was taking a solo, so everyone goes quiet. There was this woman, who was sitting there and would not stop talking, so Elvin stood up from the drums and said, ‘Shut the fuck up you daisy-assed bitch’ – I’m quoting verbatim. Everything went quiet. That was Elvin.
I believe you went to a workshop at Miles Davis’s house and almost recorded with Miles, but in the end, he went with Keith Jarrett?
It’s true. I had just moved from Boston to New York to join Sarah. I got a call to show up at Miles’s house the next day – it was Miles’s guy who called. Obviously if Miles calls, you jump up and run. It was strange – he was workshopping some things and he wasn’t sure of the arrangements. There was an acoustic piano. John McLaughlin was there and so was [saxophonist] Steve Grossman. I don’t remember the bassist. What I really enjoyed was that Miles wanted us to play a Crosby, Stills and Nash groove. It was really amazing – a beautiful rock groove. I realised how open he was to contemporary music. What happened next was that Keith Jarrett was in Europe and supposed to be back the next day. By the time I showed up at Columbia studios, Keith was already there. He obviously had history with Miles and so I had to be humble!
What was Miles like as a person?
I had a wonderful time with him. He was very straight ahead and over the years it got better because he really loved John and our band [Mahavishnu Orchestra]. He would come to a gig and sit in the dressing room and talk – he was very into it.
JV: You are quoted as saying that for you, the highlight for jazz was Miles’s mid-60s period. What did you think of later albums like Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way?
It was great, but for my money, the 66/67 band and things like Nefertiti was the highest peak of jazz. Anything else after that was starting to become fusion. There’s nothing wrong with fusion – it’s been good to me – but the absolute gem, the highest peak of jazz was reached with that quintet [of Miles, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams].
Talking of fusion and jazz-rock. In the early 70s acoustic piano players like you, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul and George Duke started moving towards synthesisers. Why did so many musicians turn to electronic instrumentation?
JH: There was no comparison – the Minimoog was it. With me, it was not a question of the synthesiser as an orchestrating tool or colour, with me it was just a straight ahead solo voice, like Miles – monophonic solo improvisation – that’s what really made me; that was my voice. I know a lot of times it sounds like a guitar, but there’s nothing wrong with that either. It was just an equal footing [in the Mahavishnu Orchestra] with [electric violinist] Jerry Goodman and John [McLaughlin], the three lead instruments – I was the third voice.
Did you ever discuss synthesisers with other musicians around the time, such as Joe Zawinul?
Not really. The only thing I remember [laughs], and it may sound like boasting, but it is documented, we [Mahavishnu Orchestra] were at Chicago airport and Herbie was there with his band [Headhunters]. People were standing around and Herbie came up to me and said, ‘Hey Jan, when are you going to teach me how to solo on a synthesiser?’ He was half-serious, half-kidding, but it was very good!
Looking back at the jazz-rock era. Some people see it as an exciting time when jazz and rock came together, but others say jazz took a wrong turn down a dead-end street. What’s your take on this period?
Basically, I like it as long as I’m playing on it! I feel that once the original Mahavishnu band fell apart [in 1974] jazz-rock basically began eating its own tail. I was more interested in the rock part than the jazz part. Obviously, improvisation has always been a part of my jazz roots, but the composition and the music I do is closer to rock or even soul or pop, as opposed to Olympic Games of musicianship, which was what fusion had become.
I’m intrigued as to how you got to join Mahavishnu.
Gene [Perla] and I shared a big loft downtown [New York] and at the time, jam sessions were happening pretty much on a daily basis. Everything was set-up – two drum kits, electric piano, amps. We would mostly play with the legendary triumvirate of saxophone greats – Steve Grossman, Dave Liebman and Michael Brecker.
That New York Loft Scene was incredible.
It was just so unbelievable – those three guys. There was at least one of them around every day and sometimes all three and they would play us into the ground – there was just so much energy. One day, Gene invited Billy Cobham and John McLaughlin over. I don’t remember what we played – something loose – and it really clicked. That’s what led to me joining the band.
[In 1971, the Mahavishnu Orchestra was formed, comprising of John McLaughlin (guitar), Jan (keyboards) Billy Cobham (drums), Jerry Goodman (violin), and Rick Laird (bass)]
The Mahavishnu Orchestra was a phenomenal band and its influence and legacy lives on today. What would you say were the band’s biggest strengths and weaknesses?
Wow! I think being able to digest various tricky time signatures and make them palatable so it doesn’t sound like a skipping record. Some odd time signatures can seem to be forced, and I think that was our strength. Most of the credit should go to Billy Cobham, because he was just a rock. It’s all down to sub-dividing the measures into little bite-sized pieces that just go well together and the whole thing sounds much smoother than you would expect. It was a similar thing with my drummer later on, Tony Smith – he had the same skill and that’s why I was lucky to have him in my band. Sometimes it sounded like there were three different pulses going on and they were complementary.
The weakness was something that happens to the jazz part of jazz-rock – it rears its ugly head. You have to play everything you have recorded at a certain tempo and when you play it live, you play it much faster. We’d just get carried away and it was like verging on incomprehensibility here and there, but we somehow managed to survive it and get through the maze. It could almost be self-serving, but it was still impressive and people loved it.
It’s said that Mahavishnu broke-up because of composition and credit issues.
It wasn’t specifically composition but it was about the contributions of each member, which were quite obvious to all of us, that could have been given better credit. It’s a tough thing because, in jazz, you have a Rodgers and Hammerstein tune and Miles plays something on it and it doesn’t matter – it’s still a Rodgers and Hammerstein tune as far as copyright. The actual meat of the performance is the improvisation, so it’s a combination of arrangement and improvising. The worst moment for me was when we were in Electric Lady [studio in New York] and our engineer Ken Scott – a wonderful engineer by the way – shouted over the talkback, ‘Give us a soundcheck,’ and all five of us started doing the craziest thing for about 40 seconds. That became a tune on the record [‘Sapphire Bullets Of Pure Love.’]. Who wrote it?
On the album [Birds of Fire] it says: ‘All tracks composed by John McLaughlin.’
That was the last straw for me.
Nevertheless, the legacy of Mahavishnu is amazing. You must be very proud to have been part of it.
That [the breakup] is just a little blemish – it would have ended anyway. But what we did stands the test of time. It definitely turned everything up on its head, if you consider all the Indian/classical influences and integrating the rock sound, rather than just flirting with it, which is what a lot of jazz-rock bands did – there was very little rock. We never flirted – when we got going, we rocked. That’s what I really loved about it.
What did you think of the Mahavishnu Orchestra albums released many years after the break-up – The Lost Trident Sessions, and the live album Unreleased Tracks from Between Nothingness & Eternity?
I had copies of the rough mixes and was very pleased when the albums were officially released. That 1973 session [at Trident Studios in London] was a really great recording session, but it sort of fell apart. I was also pleased that more live performances were released. I am very proud of that band.
Post-Mahavishnu, you and Jerry Goodman recorded the album Like Children, with both of you playing every instrument as well as handling all vocals. All compositions were by you and Jerry, except for ‘Steppings Tones,’ written by Rick Laird. Were any of the tunes originally written for Mahavishnu?
‘Steppings Tones’ was written while Rick was in Mahavishnu, and it’s on The Lost Trident Sessions album, but all our songs were new.
What are your feelings about this album today?
I love it. What really makes it special was Ken Scott’s magic powder – there’s just something that that guy has – the touch he has with the sound is just…he showed us things about recording drums, like what he did with Ringo [Starr – Scott engineered some of the The Beatles recordings], like putting tea towels over the drums, so they were completely dead, but still had a tone. We used that on a couple of tracks and it was just amazing. He’s just a special guy.
You also played on Billy Cobham’s Spectrum, again with Ken Scott in the studio.
That was awesome fun. It was exactly what we needed after the excesses of Mahavishnu – I’m talking about the million notes at once. It was stripped down and it felt really good. That was really a great antidote, a salve on the thousands of little cuts – it was like a soothing lotion.
The band included guitarist Tommy Bolin, and on the opening tune, ‘Quadrant 4,’ many people think it’s Tommy soloing at the intro, when in fact it’s you on a minimoog – Tommy’s solo doesn’t start until around two minutes in. Your synth playing really does sound like a guitar.
Yes, that really pissed me off! I would dare any guitar player to play that solo and try to make it sound like the way it does on a keyboard. Notes don’t sit next to each other the same way on a keyboard as they do on a guitar. That was the reason why, when I did my first solo album, The First Seven Days I put on the album cover ‘For those concerned. There is no guitar on this album.’ Just to drive the point home!
Ken Scott told me that as far as he’s concerned, Spectrum was the epitome of jazz-rock.
Definitely, definitely. It was just the perfect record for its time.
John Abercrombie’s album Timeless [released in 1975 on ECM records] is an interesting trio album – it’s him on guitar, you on keyboards and Jack DeJohnette on drums.
That was a totally magical experience. Manfred Eicher [the album’s producer and founder of ECM Records] was just a wizard, not just with the production but also with the atmosphere – it was like you were in the clouds. You could concentrate fully – he let it just happen. The first tune I heard was when John played me ‘Timeless’ and it just blew my mind – it’s one of the great compositions of the era, and it just lives on. The album also gave me a chance to let loose on organ again – I hadn’t played organ for years and it was just great, great fun. Plus, I really, really love Jack DeJohnette. He’s overlooked because of Tony [Williams]. Tony was flashier, but Jack is like a magician; just beautiful.
It’s a phenomenal album but I get the impression that John Abercrombie has been overlooked compared with some of his other contemporaries on guitar.
In the last three or four years the album has had high volumes of streaming on Spotify; people are picking up on it.
You composed a couple of tunes on the Timeless album, including ‘Red and Orange.’ You later recorded another version of the song with your band The Jan Hammer Group on the 1976 album Oh Yeah? What prompted you to revisit the tune?
Because it was my tune and I can play it! [laughs] To do it with a violin; the violin makes a lot of difference.
Another composition you’ve revisited is ‘Too Much To Lose.’ The first version was a vocal version with the Jan Hammer Group on the album Melodies; Jeff Beck did an instrumental version on his album There & Back, and you did your own instrumental version on your album Snapshots. The video for your version was incredible, because it featured Jeff Beck, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour and Ringo Starr, all pretending to snatch the guitar, bass and drums from your hands!
That was astoundingly fun to do. To have those three people on the soundstage was unbelievable. I was speechless when it all came together. It was just an idea my manager Elliott Sears had, and he just called around. All these giants said ‘Sure, we’ll be there.’ It was amazing.
You’ve described your first solo album, The First Seven Days, as being closer to classical than jazz.
That’s part of it – it was basically a grab-bag of things. At the end of the Mahavishnu Orchestra I wasn’t writing; I was so immersed in playing live and improvising that I stopped composing. When the band fell apart, all of a sudden, all this came out, like things had been held up by a dam – the dam burst. There are parts that are classical; there’s a piece that is South Indian influenced.
The track ‘The Animals’ has an African influence with its African percussion.
The percussion part yes, but the playing is much more influenced by a South Indian [string] instrument called the veena. I was listening to the legendary [Indian musician Sundaram] Balachander who blew my head off; it’s just hypnotic music.
Jeff Beck once said that your playing on The First Seven Days really inspired him.
I read that. That was beautiful; it blew my mind.
You had a very long association with guitarist Al Di Meola.
I played many times with him, including tours. It was so unexpected because he’s just a maestro. He’s a very serious musician – I take it a little lighter than that -but we were able to combine it. There was some great stuff.
What works stand out for you with Al Di Meola?
I really like the studio session with a tune called ‘Sequencer’ [from the 1983 album Scenario], where we used a Fairlight [CMI – a digital synthesiser, sampler, and digital audio workstation] and Linn drum [drum machine]. It was a big turnover into digital music.
Phil Collins and [ex Yes drummer] Bill Bruford also played drums on that album.
We never played together at the same time. I remember when we were rehearsing for the long tour in the San Francisco area and I got my friend Victor [Godsey], who is a great singer and keyboard player, to join the band. I needed someone to play rhythm keyboard, because I’m a solo instrumentalist, and I don’t have time to play the chords. He was happy to come along. As you know, Al’s compositions are very Spanish-influenced and I remember Victor walking out at the end of the first day and he said: ‘I think I have Phrygian poisoning!’ It’s very much a musician’s joke [the Phrygian scale is widely used in Flamenco music] – I cried laughing!
I want to talk about Jeff Beck and in particular, the album Wired. First, a personal story. In 1976 – when Wired was released – I was a 19 year-old student. I remember being on a summer break back in my home town of Liverpool, listening to the radio. The DJ played the tune ‘Play With Me’ and I was knocked out by it. I raced into the town centre and went into a then famous record store, called Probe Records, and purchased Wired. I took it home and it hardly left my turntable. Almost 50 years on, there’s barely a day when I don’t play some music from that album, and it remains one of my all-time favourite albums.
I’ve always felt that you should have got more credit on that album. Many solos and overdubs were done at your studio [Red Gate in upstate New York] and you mixed five of the eight tracks. George Martin is credited as producer but I know he was very much hands-off later on in the project.
What happened was that Jeff wasn’t one hundred percent happy with the mixes, especially once we added solos. I did new mixes and then Jeff went back to London and George did new mixes on those. In the end, Jeff liked the rough mixes I made while we were working on it – they just came alive more to him. I agree I should have got more credit.
While Jeff was at your studio, he recorded a new tune composed by you, ‘Blue Wind.’
You came up with the main riff on an acoustic guitar and then showed it to Jeff. There’s a wonderful section in the documentary on Jeff’s life [Still on the Run] where he recalled first hearing the riff and not being impressed – he said it was kiddie’s stuff! But he added after hearing the finished track, he was knocked out. And as you state in the documentary, it remained in Jeff’s live repertoire decades on.
Apart from guitar, you played everything on ‘Blue Wind’ including drums. What I love about the tune is that from the first bar, you know what’s coming up. It’s got such a memorable drum intro, with that great open hi-hat beat. It’s as identifiable as the drumming at the start of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’ or Isaac Hayes’ ‘Shaft.’
That was done on purpose – this signature. I had this beautiful sounding hi-hat and I thought I should feature it.
What are your thoughts about the album Wired?
I would compare it to Spectrum. It’s fusion/jazz-rock, but done the right way.
After Wired, Jeff toured with your group and a live album was released. Jeff’s next studio album was There & Back. Three of your tunes are on it, but were there plans for you to produce the whole album?
I don’t remember that at all. We recorded about three other tunes that didn’t make the cut.
Will any of the unused tunes be released one day?
We only did the basic tracks – there are no solos on them.
Do you recall the titles of any of these unused tracks?
Cozy Powell later recorded two of them, ‘Cat Moves’ and ‘Hot Rock’ [they are on the 1981 album Tilt – Jeff Beck plays guitar on both of them]. I also recorded a tune from my first solo album, The First Seven Days, called ‘Oceans and Continents.’ I recorded it with Simon Phillips on drums. It was amazing how Simon played on it; it was just staggering drumming.
Was Jeff interested in recording it?
Yes, but then somehow he wavered; he wasn’t sure what to do with it. So, I said, ‘Let me finish it.’
‘Oceans and Continents’ is also on your solo album Seasons Pt. 2 [released in 2022]. Is the music on it from the There & Back sessions?
It’s such a good track. Why did you wait so long to release it?
I repeatedly tried to get hold of the multi-track [recording]. What I basically finished in the studio were the overdubs and solos. All I had was a seven-and-a-half inch [tape] version of the rough mix, which I had to digitally build up to speed.
On There & Back, the track ‘Star Cycle’ also features your drumming and it’s another Jeff Beck signature tune.
As much as I love Ken Scott, there’s one thing he did to my drum part on ‘Star Cycle’. There’s a very intricate drum pattern, and unfortunately, Ken destroyed it with a synth snare which he put on every backbeat, where it doesn’t belong. That’s the version that came out. All is forgiven now, but I wish people could hear the original drum pattern as I played it.
Other tunes composed by you appeared on Jeff’s later albums.
There was ‘Escape’ on Flash, which won a Grammy [in 1985 for Best Rock Instrumental Performance] and ‘Even Odds’ on Who Else!
Are there any unreleased tracks you did with Jeff that might get released one day?
There are things, but they are not totally finished. There are tracks that were laid down, to be worked on later, which we never got to do.
I saw you join Jeff onstage at the Royal Albert Hall in 2004, celebrating Jeff’s 60th birthday. What are your memories of the night?
Some of it now seems like a blur, but I have a DVD of it. Every once in a while I look at it; it’s beautiful.
We’re talking just months after Jeff’s sudden death. What are your thoughts on him?
I’m still in shock. He was the only musician that I ever worked with that felt like a family connection – you could say brother-to-brother. We were like made from the same material, and it just tore me apart.
You were one of a number of musicians involved in the experimental sessions for Joni Mitchell’s album Mingus, dedicated to Charles Mingus [others involved included John McLaughlin, Gerry Mulligan, Stanley Clarke and Tony Williams], but who never played on the final album release. What do you recall about those sessions?
As much as I admire Joni, it was confusing stylistically. I didn’t know what to do and I ended up doing nothing! I remember [bassist] Eddie Gomez was on the sessions, but I just did not get it.
What did you think of the finished album?
I never heard it. I have eclectic listening tastes. At the moment I’m listening to Beethoven; it’s not always pop.
You also played on two Steve Grossman albums, with Gene Perla and [percussionist] Don Alias, Some Shapes to Come and Terra Firma. What are your thoughts of Steve Grossman as a musician?
I don’t know any other horn player who could evoke Coltrane as much as Steve did. I mean evoke without just being a blind copy. The power that just came out of his horn was staggering – I just loved his playing. The record [Some Shapes to Come] was really just throwing things around – it wasn’t exactly organised or written – it was very visceral.
What are your memories of playing with Tony Williams?
Tony was the master of the space-time continuum and the disrupter of such. What he could do with time, nobody ever attempted. I remember listening to him when I was fourteen in Prague on the early Miles and how he got cheeky and playful – he just toyed with you. I really fell in love with his playing. If it came down to my absolute favourite hands-down drummer, it was Tony. I first met him when John [McLaughlin] was playing in Lifetime and years later I got him to come over to my house to record The Joy of Flying album [Williams’ first solo album for twelve years]. We recorded a tune of mine called ‘Eris’. And it’s got a light Indian structure. I don’t know how he did what he did with my composition, but we took it and it just clicked.
You formed a band together and played at the 1991 Montreal Jazz Festival.
I was at the NAAM show [National Association of Music Merchants, a major music industry trade show, held each year in the USA] in LA and we just bumped into each other, and sat down and talked. He said, ‘Would you like to do something?’ so we just did it.
I could ask you so much more about your long and extensive jazz/jazz-rock career – your work with Stanley Clarke, Jeremy Steig, Horacee Arnold, Harvey Mason and many others, but I’d like to end by talking about your later solo albums. Your album Drive [released in 1994] featured several guest musicians: Michael Brecker on ‘Peaceful Sundown’ and ‘Curiosity Kills’; Jeff Beck on ‘Underground’ and ‘Drive,’ and Stan Harrison, sax on ‘Lucky Jane’ Do you ever write for a specific musician? How much guidance do you give to a guest musician – do you have a firm idea in your head of how you want them to play or is it fairly loose?
It’s different for each player. With Jeff, I just sent the multi-track tape to London – this was before the internet – and he added his parts. The great, great Michael Brecker came over here [to my studio]. I had these existing tunes that I thought would be fantastic for him to play on, so I just wrote out his parts. It was the same thing with Stan – I also wanted to have a different tone [Brecker played tenor sax, and Harrison, soprano sax]. The tune [‘Lucky Jane’] was originally written for the [British] Milk Marketing Board for an advert featuring Bob Geldof [there were two versions of the advert, both aired in 1988/9; and featuring Jan’s music]. I just extended the music into a complete tune and dedicated it to my daughter.
Your next solo album, Seasons Pt. 1 wasn’t released until 2018 – why the long delay between solo albums?
I was doing a lot of scoring; things like [the British TV series] Chancer and the BBC series Red Cap [another example of Jan using elements from his previous works to inspire the creation of a new piece can be found at the very beginning of the first episode of Red Cap – the synth pad used for the scene where the character picks up a red military beret and places it on her head, can also be heard at the intro of the tune ‘First Light’ on Jan’s 2020 EP Sketches in Jazz. Note that the single edit of this track omits the opening pad.].
Season’s Pt 1 is an eclectic mix of jazz, pop, new age, rock, Latin, classical and Eastern music. What I find fascinating is how you also manage to seamlessly mix different genres of music within the same tune. For example, ‘Ocean Drive’ starts with Indian-type sound followed by South American pan pipes, then another section has a strong rock element, and at the coda, a classical guitar sound created on a keyboard. You really do like to mix up your music and yet it remains sounding coherent.
That’s pretty much the idea and all happens very much organically. When I was scoring music for Miami Vice, there was such a mix, a mélange of different sources, and that basically stayed with me. My first solo album, The First Seven Days was like that too.
On the track ‘Seasons’ it’s hard to believe that the sound and phrasing is being created on a keyboard and not a real electric guitar.
I think some of it was to do with the mutual influence of Jeff [Beck]. I obviously influenced him and he also influenced me too.
‘Suite European’ is a beautiful tune and very much infused with the sound of classical music. Have you ever considered composing a complete classical work?
I don’t think so. I grow impatient – I like a little bit of classical, but then all of a sudden, I have to rock! So that takes care of that!
Sketches in Jazz saw you return to your jazz roots and play a lot of acoustic piano. You are obviously well-known for your playing on electronic instrumentation, but I suspect many people don’t realise that you are also an accomplished acoustic piano player. Your good friend Gene Perla told me that if you had focused a little more on the piano, you could have taken jazz piano to new places.
I’m afraid I don’t hold the same opinion. I was rescued by electronics because the piano wasn’t pliable enough for me. In my head, coming from Europe, I heard melodies that had slurs and slides and bends, not to mention electric guitar and violin. I just heard all of the bendy, snaky melodies that were impossible to execute on a piano. I am at heart a soloist, a lead voice, and that’s why I graduated from piano into my world. The piano on ‘Magic Theater’ [a track on Sketches in Jazz] I like.
Are you planning a Volume 2 of Sketches in Jazz?
Not at the present time. But there is Seasons Pt.2!
On the Seasons Pt. 2 album, there’s a track called ‘Empathy’ which I think would have been ideal for Jeff Beck, especially after hearing his recording of ‘Elegy for Dunkirk.’
Exactly. It was one of those tunes that came out as a complete piece.
You’ve recently been releasing new works every two years, does that mean we can expect something new from you in 2024?
I have no idea; nothing is planned yet.
Ever thought of writing your memoirs?
Other people have thought about it, but I’m not into it.
Looking back at your jazz career so far, you must be very proud of what you have achieved and who you have played with.
I’m very proud. The only problem is that people keep asking me to go out on the road and play live. But the curse of the variety I’ve been involved in – with all different and disparate styles of music – means I don’t know how I could ever put it into a performance – you would need a two-week festival!
With thanks to Elliott Sears, Gene Perla and Matt Phillips.