The Village VOICE
by Luke Y. Thompson
October 24th, 2006
Directed by Billy Corben
Recounting the true events that inspired Miami Vice and De Palma's Scarface, Billy Corben's documentary one-ups the recent big-screen Vice by actually getting the TV show's composer, Jan Hammer, to do his soundtrack—see, Michael Mann, that shouldn't have been so hard! Corben's so intent on getting the whole story that he devotes perhaps a bit too much time to the early traffickers, who ferried bricks of cocaine from Colombia on small private planes. But about halfway through the movie, the focus shifts to a convicted killer named Rivi, who began as a small-time car thief and eventually found himself in the employ of "Godmother" Griselda Blanco, a fascinating and temperamental character whose mercurial moods jacked up the violence levels in Miami during the '80s. Much of the archival footage is from old TV news, and the transfer to the big screen does the image quality no favors, but the story is fascinating, if a little overlong, and makes you want to see a high-profile, big-name Griselda Blanco movie happen, like, tomorrow.
Jan Hammer's musical career is as firmly rooted in the fundamentals of classical, jazz and rock as it is committed to the future of electronics, synthesized sound, the possibilities of interactive media, television, film and animation. His walls are lined with Grammy awards and gold and platinum plaques from around the world. His name is found on scores of recordings spanning the 1970s to the '90s -- solo albums, collaborations with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jeff Beck, Al Di Meola, Mick Jagger, Carlos Santana, Stanley Clarke, Neal Schon, Elvin Jones and many others.
Jan has composed and produced at least 14 original motion picture soundtracks, the music for 90 episodes of Miami Vice (which spun-off four soundtrack albums and its worldwide #1 hit theme song), 20 episodes of the popular British television series Chancer, and the music for BEYOND the Mind's Eye, one of the all-time best-selling music videos in Billboard chart history.
Jan Hammer was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia. He began playing piano at age four; formal classical instruction began two years later. By 14 he was performing and recording throughout Eastern Europe with his own jazz trio. He entered Prague Academy of Muse Arts, but with the Russian invasion in 1968, he came to the U.S., to attend the Berklee School of Music in Boston (on a scholarship) and become a citizen.
Jan spent a year as keyboardist/conductor with Sarah Vaughan. In 1971, he became a member of the original Mahavishnu Orchestra, (then) the most successful group ever to record and tour in the jazz-rock fusion genre, selling over 2 million records worldwide, and performing 530 shows before their December 31, 1973 farewell concert.
Jan's solo career began with The First Seven Days (1975), produced and recorded at Red Gate Studio in his upstate New York farmhouse. Over the next decade Jan produced and performed on nearly 20 albums with his own bands (the Jan Hammer Group, and later Hammer), and such musicians as Beck, Di Meola, and Neal Schon (of Journey), among others. In 1983, Jan joined Beck, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker and others for a series of benefit concerts for Ronnie Lane's ARMS (Action Research into Multiple Sclerosis). Into 1984, Jan played on Mick Jagger's She's The Boss and Jeff Beck's Flash -- which included Jan's Grammy-winning song "Escape."
That same year Jan scored three major motion pictures, a number of documentaries, "made-for-TV" movies in the U.S., commercials, and station identifications. But his greatest challenge came in the fall '84, when the producers of Miami Vice enlisted him to commence the rigorous weekly schedule of scoring the series.
In 1985, "Miami Vice Theme" (MCA Records) hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart and, in so doing, became the first and only original version of an instrumental theme for television to reach this pinnacle of success. "Miami Vice Theme" became a top 5 international hit and earned Jan two Grammy awards: “Best Pop Instrumental Performance” and “Best Instrumental Composition.” The Miami Vice Soundtrack album stayed #1 in Billboard for 12 weeks, hitting quadruple-platinum and selling over 4 million copies in the U.S. alone, with worldwide sales in excess of 7 million as of this writing.
Miami Vice II and Escape From Television were both million-selling albums for Jan in 1987, both featuring “Crockett’s Theme,” which had become a smash European hit, topping the charts in six countries. The following year found Jan bowing out of full-time scoring duties for Miami Vice. He was free to spend six full months building the new Red Gate Studio on his property in upstate New York.
Several film and television projects from the new studio followed immediately, including HBO's Clinton and Nadine with Ellen Barkin and Andy Garcia. Snapshots was the first full album from the new Red Gate studio, with Jan composing, performing and producing every track. The promo video for "Too Much To Lose," the album's first European single, featured Jeff Beck, David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, and Ringo Starr.
The '90s brought a renewed focus on scoring for film and television, starting with I Come In Peace (with Dolph Lundgren); Curiosity Kills (with Rae Dawn Chong and C. Thomas Howell); all twenty episodes of the British tv series, Chancer (starring future Academy Award nominee Clive Owen); several episodes of HBO's Tales From the Crypt; a thought-provoking television spot for Amnesty International, featuring Czech president Vaclav Havel, which was aired worldwide; two pilots for NBC television, Knight Rider 2000 (starring David Hasselhoff) and News At 12; The Taking of Beverly Hills (Columbia Pictures), Ken Wahl's first post Wiseguy vehicle; and New Line Cinema's Sunset Heat, (starring Dennis Hopper, Michael Pare and Adam Ant).
Jan's next project was a giant step forward into the world of computer animation as the composer and performer of the original score for the Miramar Productions video album, BEYOND The Mind's Eye, released in October '92 on Miramar/BMG Video. Scored note-to-frame with visuals that broke the 'virtual reality' barrier, the video was described as “breathtaking" by Roger Ebert (on "Siskel & Ebert At the Movies"), who named it his "video recommendation of the week." On his syndicated CBS Radio program, Leonard Maltin called it "a dazzling showcase for computer animation... mesmerizing... ‘BEYOND The Mind's Eye’ reflects a maturing of the [computer animation] art."
BEYOND The Mind's Eye was one of 1993’s top five best-selling music videos, according to Billboard's Top Music Videos chart. It went on to spend 112 consecutive weeks on the chart (through March 1995), and was certified triple-platinum.
1994 was dominated by Jan’s recording of Drive, his first full-fledged album of original new non-soundtrack material under his name in several years. Jan was reunited with longtime partner Jeff Beck on “Underground,” reminiscent of their supercharged collaborations of the past; while the title track blended Beck’s flamenco style with Jan’s keyboard funk. Michael Brecker’s tenor sax was heard on the smooth, jazzy “Peaceful Sundown” and on the edgy cybertech R&B of “Curiosity Kills.”
Jan returned to his scoring and soundtrack work with renewed passion and creativity as 1995 arrived. He began with the one hour Universal drama Vanishing Son (starring Russell Wong of Joy Luck Club), then went on to compose the theme and score for 13 episodes of the series. He composed and performed the original music for two feature films, both released in 1996: A Modern Affair (with Stanley Tucci, Lisa Eichorn, Caroline Aaron and Tammy Grimes) and In the Kingdom Of the Blind the Man With One Eye Is King (starring Will Petersen and Paul Winfield). Jan wrapped up the year scoring Beastmaster III - The Eye of Braxus, the long-awaited sequel to the sword-and-sorcery favorite (starring Mark Singer and Lesley-Anne Down).
In 1996, Jan’s output continued to thrive. His scoring assignments included the NBC Movie of the Week, The Babysitter’s Seduction (with Phylicia Rashad, Stephen Collins and newcomer Keri ‘Felicity’ Russell); The Secret Agent Club, a feature film starring Hulk Hogan, Richard Moll, Barry Bostwick and Lesley-Anne Down; and The Corporate Ladder (Orion Pictures), starring Anthony Dennison, Ben Cross, and Jennifer O’Neill.
Also in 1996 (and through 2000) Jan was commissioned to compose all the original music for TV Nova, the first commercial television network in Eastern Europe, based in the Czech Republic. Jan composed everything -- including themes for 23 original shows produced by the network, no less than 50 separate station ID’s, the music for all of the network’s special broadcasts, plus the music for all the news, sports and weather programs.
In 1997, Jan also composed the hard-driving rock soundtrack for the new CD-ROM game, Outlaw Racers (MegaMedia). His next project was the theme and original music score for the pilot and the series of Prince Street (NBC-TV) starring Vincent Spano and Mariska Hargitay. On another interesting note, 1997 saw six separate compilation CDs released in the U.S. containing compositions and performances by Jan. One of these, Pure Moods (Virgin) spent 49 weeks on the Billboard Top Pop Albums chart and sold nearly four million copies worldwide, a true phenomenon for such collections.
Throughout 1998 Jan continued with his prolific work for TV Nova, commenced work on a new CD-ROM computer game and took some needed time off with his family.
Jan started off 1999 by writing, performing and producing a tune, “Even Odds” for Jeff Beck’s latest album Who Else? (Epic). Also, 1999 saw the release of The Lost Trident Sessions, the third (and last) studio album from Jan’s former group, the Mahavishnu Orchestra. The album was recorded in 1973 just prior to the bands highly publicized breakup. Its release was temporarily put on hold but the masters were somehow lost and only resurfaced in December of 1998 (25 years later). The album is considered the “Holy Grail” of fusion music. This is when Jan, John McLaughlin, Billy Cobham, Jerry Goodman and Rick Laird were truly pushing the envelope. The album has met with worldwide critical and commercial success. Among its tunes is Jan’s classic “Sister Andrea”.
Just when Jan thought his chores for TV Nova were winding down, the station changed ownership in 2000. The new management team, wanting to establish their own identity (station logo, IDs, promos, etc.), called upon Jan to compose new music to compliment the new visuals and to accompany an aggressive campaign of newly created programs. Also in 2000, after months of preparation, Jan’s official web site (www.janhammer.com) was officially opened. In the fall Jan released Snapshots 1.2 on One Way Records. The CD, a special reissue of his 1989 album Snapshots which was never released in North America, was digitally remastered by Jan and featured all new artwork and two original bonus tracks.
In January, 2001, reruns of Miami Vice began airing on TNN. Traffic to Jan’s web site increased dramatically and immediately Jan noticed a renewed interest in the landmark soundtrack he had created 15 years earlier. Visitors to the site began to ask about the possibility of releasing much of the previously unreleased material. Said Hammer, “Fans would make reference to themes that I had forgotten about after all these years, so I went back, watched the shows for myself, and realized how much music there was that cried out to be released.” Jan sat down and began to record many of the previously unreleased compositions. In order to maintain continuity with the show’s original sound, Hammer utilized his vintage 1980s equipment, along with more current state of art digital gear.
In 2002, Miami Vice: The Complete Collection was released. The first of the set’s two CDs contained all 20 of Hammer’s compositions previously featured on five separate MCA releases: the soundtracks Miami Vice, Miami Vice II, Miami Vice III, and Jan Hammer’s Escape from Television and Snapshots. The second CD featured 22 tracks never released or heard anywhere but on the television show. In the fall of 2002, and through the end of the year, Jan commenced work on Red Cap, a six-hour mini series produced and broadcast by the BBC. The popular series features Tamzin Outhwaite, the star of the long running British series EastEnders.
In 2003, responding to the continued demand for Jan’s earlier body of work, Sony Records gave the green light to release Jan’s 1975 debut American solo album The First Seven Days. Jan, along with producer Bob Belden, went into Sony’s New York Studios and digitally remastered the entire album. Jan was elated that after 25+ years he was finally able to hear his work as it was meant to be heard. This marks the first time the classic album will be released on CD and the expanded package will feature a 12 page booklet, extensive liner notes and never before seen photos from the era. The First Seven Days is scheduled for release on the Columbia/Legacy imprint in July of 2003.
Also in 2003, Jan’s music, including special mixes “Miami Vice Theme” and “Crockett’s Theme”, was featured throughout the entire taping of the 2nd Annual American Dance Music Awards. The event took place on March 18, 2003, in Miami Beach, Florida, and was broadcast throughout the UK, Europe, India, China, Southeast Asia and Australia.
2004 brought with it the exciting news that Jan Hammer and Jeff Beck would be reuniting live for the first time in nearly 18 years. Despite continued studio collaborations over the years, most have never forgotten the live magic and indisputable Beck/Hammer chemistry of those early days. To the delight of fans, when Jan and his long time friend & musical collaborator joined forces again for a UK summer tour, including two memorable nights at the famed Royal Albert Hall in London, it was magic all over again.
Still in 2004, Jan produced a debut solo album for his son Paul Hammer who, like his father, is a talented multi-instrumentalist. Entitled “19”, and recorded during his sophomore year at NYU, Paul wrote and performed the entire album, including all instruments and vocals.
In the fall of 2004 Jan released the album The Best Of Miami Vice on the Reality label in the U.S. An exclusive release through the Transworld Record chain, the album is sold at FYE, Strawberry, Coconuts & Specs stores, and through special arrangement at Jan’s own online Gift Shop. The Best Of Miami Vice contains newly recorded versions of “Miami Vice Theme” and “Crockett’s Theme”, as well as one bonus track never before released on CD.
In February 2005, after years of anticipation, Universal Studios Home Entertainment finally released the first season of Miami Vice on three double-sided DVDs. One of the package’s discs contained bonus material, including an extensive interview with Jan and archival footage of him creating music for the show back in 1985.
To coincide with the release of the DVD, Reality Records released a newly recorded version of “Crockett’s Theme” to AC (Adult Contemporary) radio in America. After 20 years, not many would have expected it to do well but, much to everyone’s surprise, the single was a hit (again). For each of its first 4 weeks in release, “Crockett’s Theme” was among the top 3 most added tracks on AC radio and, in week five, it made its debut on the AC Top 40 Radio charts at #32 - the highest debut that week. By its 11th week of release it climbed into the top 15 where it eventually peaked at #13.
On June 1, 2005, long awaited by Jan Hammer fans throughout the world, 1978's Black Sheep and 1979's Hammer were released as a two CD set on Wounded Bird Records. The two classic albums, recorded for Elektra/Asylum Records, have received a constant stream of requests for their release through Jan’s official web site and the new package brings together both albums, completely remastered by Jan Hammer, as well as a special bonus track.
In the fall of 2006 Jan scored Cocaine Cowboys, billed as “the true story of how Miami became the drug, murder and cash capital of the United States, told by the people who made it all happen”. The hard-hitting, feature documentary showed how, in the 1980s, ruthless Colombian cocaine barons invaded Miami with a brand of violence unseen in the U.S. since Prohibition-era Chicago
Jan Hammer has earned his place as a formidable voice in the arena where modern music meets the state-of-the-visual-arts. From the neo-psychedelic heyday of the Mahavishnu Orchestra to the heady breakthroughs of Miami Vice, up through his post-modern forays into film and television, Jan Hammer has consistently proven himself a front-line musical warrior. As he is inspired to reach further into his treasury of ideas, the world of music and art is always the richer.