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Interview | Jan Hammer



This is an abbreviated version of the interview – mainly sticking to his experiencs with Tommy. For full interview go to The Tommy Bolin Archives


... Staying within that 1971 period that is probably when you first met Tommy?

Yeah, right about then I met him along with Jeremy Steig. And at first, Jeremy would just come from Boulder from a tour, and he would bring tapes, and we just sit down and listen and go, “Holy shit! Who is that?” He would have all the tapes of all the gigs that he played with Tommy.

He was just coming right out of Zephyr then.

Right, exactly. Eventually, Tommy showed up in New York, so we had to get together and start playing. Really it was amazing. I think at that time, Hendrix had just died. Hendrix had come over to some of our sessions when we were recording with Jeremy. And he was like very interested where we going with the improvisational approach. It’s a combination of the modal, harmonic approach, combined with much more of a rock sound, more of an aggressive sound, and he really liked it and he was interested in really doing something. Unfortunately he never lived to see that day, and for us to have a chance to play with him.

Since Hendrix, I think Tommy was the first person and one of the very few that I have seen to play that way. Which is sort of... there is no effort involved. Where he just let’s the thing happen, it just comes out, you know what I mean? It sort of... the best way of playing is just to get out of the way and let the stuff happen. And he was just a perfect example of that. That’s what I remember the most when I first heard him.

One of your great quotes from a radio special marking Tommy’s thirty-fifth birthday, back in 1986, you had said that he moved the guitar at least ten years ahead of time.

Yes, I would stand by that definitely.

That moves us up to your collaboration with Billy Cobham, which also included Tommy, and that more or less blew the door wide open. Do you remember how that all came about?

How I got Tommy to meet Billy was way before then, when we just did a demo session with one of my tunes, with Gene Perla, it was a version of Sister Andrea. That was the first time that Tommy met Billy Cobham, which eventually led to him playing on Billy’s album.

Now, that album stands as a landmark for the purists of the actual jazz/rock fusion. How did you set about recording that? I know it was Billy’s album, but you had quite a bit of input yourself, were these songs mapped at in the studio, and you just did it live, or were they overdubbed?

Oh no, the best stuff, all that you hear was all playing live in the studio.

I don’t think many people know that.

Yeah, you don’t expect that anymore after all these years and years of people polishing things to death. That was all played live at Electric Lady Studios. They were just simple vamps, you know the writing is not as important as to how the people who are playing, play together, how they clicked and where we took it with improvisation.

With Tommy not being a structured musician, it was all natural talent, he couldn’t read music in the traditional way if I remember correctly.

Well, those were all “head” charts, there was nothing to write really, you know what I mean? The things were so simple, that you could sort of learn it by ear, and then again the crucial thing was to just grab it and run with it and take it to another place.

Where do you place your Mahavishnu work, and the Spectrum album in relation to musical history now? Do you see it as the groundbreaker of fusion music?

To my ears, those two records... the band Mahavishnu, and the Spectrum record, I think those albums for me are the high point of that type of music. Which is improvisational jazz/rock combination, fusion, whatever you want to call it. But really what makes it work is the improvisation.

You were talking about going through all of your archives, do you have any of the Spectrum outtakes yourself?

No, I’m talking about things right now just under my own name, so basically that’s what I’m going through, and I’ll be re-mixing some stuff and re-mastering. But you never know what you find once you really get going.

Well, for us fans, that’s just as good too! Do you keep in contact with any of your former band-mates from the old days?

Unfortunately, no. I do talk to Jerry Goodman once in a while as Elliott Sears (Jan’s longtime and friend and manager) is also his manager, so sometimes he will phone conference us together just to talk. Billy Cobham and I were planning a project together a few years back, but it never materialized. Billy lives in Switzerland now. John, I have not really spoken to in twenty years, the last time being a quick hotel conversation in 1981. John lives in Monte Carlo now. Rick Laird got out of the music business, and he is now a highly successful photographer in NYC.

OK, that moves us up to into the mid-seventies... are you comfortable talking about Jeff?

Sure, absolutely.

Well one of my questions here, and you have already answered partly in regards to Spectrum. When Blow by Blow and Wired came out, and I know Jeff is a good friend of yours, but he always is held up as the person who broke through with fusion, but yet you and Billy and Tommy were doing this type of music two years ahead of time. Does that annoy you or does it annoy other people?

No, not all! I was glad somebody finally broke through! His commercial appeal was so much wider, because he had established a huge base from the Jeff Beck Group, and TheYardbirds, and whatever, you know he was one of the holy trinity (laughing). So obviously there was a ready made situation for him, but he really made the most of it. He really listened with the right attitude, and he obviously listened to Tommy and he listened to me, and he would be the first to admit it, and he just you know, took it in his direction. And it does sound like him... he has his definite distinct tone, and a vocabulary, but at the same time, he really made it work again within that improvisational jazzy sort of rock beat.

What was it like working with George Martin? He’s listed as producer, but I think over the years, his role on Wired has become accepted more of a “coordinator”, as opposed to Blow by Blow, where George actually did “produce” the album.

Actually, I only spoke to George Martin on the phone, I was never in the studio with him.

Really? (surprised by Jan’s answer)

Some of the basic tracks for Wired were done in London, and then Jeff came over to my studio, he brought the tapes over from England, and we did the soloing and overdubs here. And then I did final mixes on four of the tunes.

So a good portion Wired was actually more in your hands.

Right, exactly.

Well, that brings us to 1975 and the Teaser album. Obviously, you knew Tommy for going on six years now, and he invited you to be on the album, what stands out for you from those sessions?

Again, it was the same studio, back at Electric Lady (bit of a chuckle from Jan). Why go somewhere else? The studio just worked. We did Birds of Fire there, Spectrum was recorded there, all of these good things were done there. But for Tommy, it was a bit more loose (laughing). There was a more of a sense of a... at least the things I was involved in, you know it was not very structured. I don’t know what it was, it was a different lifestyle, wasn’t Tommy playing with Deep Purple then?

That was in the works, it was coming. He had just come from the James Gang and was looking to break out as a solo artist.

Oh right, yes. I remember the funniest thing we were all set to record the one tune, the reggae number (People, People), and we are all ready, everything is wired, everything is miked up, and Narada Michael Walden didn’t show up, because he was stuck in traffic over the bridge in New Jersey.

And that’s how you ended up playing drums!

Yes! And I said, “Let me play!” (laughing heartily) You know, we just sat down and started playing, and the tape rolled, and that was the take that ended up on the record.

Were you using Narada’s kit?

Oh yeah, it was all miked up from the previous day for him. So there was nothing to set up, nothing to test, we could just roll tape.

Actually, I spoke with Narada in December, and he told me that story, it’s funny to hear your version.

Yes, that’s how it happened.

Did you get paid double?

I don’t think so, probably not! (laughing still)




... OK, getting back to the Teaser sessions. Tommy was at a major crossroads in his career, and really all of you were — Narada, yourself, Jeff across the ocean. Did you give him any advice in regards to what was about to happen with Deep Purple? I mean it was a dramatic change of music from what you were all recording, and he was looking to go solo then in early 1975, and suddenly Deep Purple came along. Did you talk about where he should be going musically or career wise?

I don’t recall anything that specific... we just really enjoyed playing together. But you know, things just have a way of happening, and I guess going with Deep Purple at that time was a good idea. I don’t know how well it worked out ultimately for him, I never got to talk to him about it, but I thought it was good idea to get as wide as possible of exposure for somebody that talented.

I have a few more questions for you, but one more question about these times. With all the time you spent with Jeff, what did Jeff really think of Tommy? We all know the Spectrum album influenced him, and they had met on different occasions.

Well, we were on the road together when he died.

Right... but there was no jamming, no hanging out after shows, anything like that?

No, it was just the opening band for the main band. Again, I couldn’t tell you, I don’t recall any specific things said.

Other than mutual musician’s respect.

Yes! Definitely musicians respect, where Jeff would stand in the wings off stage and just listen, and go “Wow!” And just really appreciate what he was doing.




... If we can go back again to the ’70s and ’80s for a minute, you have worked with the world’s best guitarists in the business over the years. Where would you place Tommy in that hierarchy? Not that one is better or worse than the other, but in comparison to styles and techniques, was he more jazz, more rock?

God, it’s so hard. I think calling him just a guitar player sort of limits what he did... his appeal was I think even broader. If you think about it, a lot of the stuff was the whole kit. Including the Echoplex, his tone, and the sound that came out of him, was so much further, that judging it as just guitar playing sort of limits his contribution to the whole scene, because I think it was much bigger than that.

If Tommy lived, where do you think he would be now, what do you think he would be doing musically?

Wow... I mean, I know where it took me, eventually to quite a cynical stage,
right now where I’m very much fed up with the way the business has gone. Where any kind of sign of passion in music is sort of frowned upon. Everything has to be sanitized for your protection, you know we’re all getting “Kenny G’d” to death. I really don’t know.

It’s hard to say. Some people like to think he would have had the big breakthrough album like Santana did.

Listen, anything could have happened, but having talent like that, I couldn’t imagine having all of that talent wasted and not heard by very many people




... In Sioux City, there is a Tommy Bolin Music Festival held every August in honor of his birthday. If your schedule permits, would you want to fly out and participate? Come out and jam and have a good time?

Well ... (Jan pauses here to think about his answer) I don’t think that’s going to happen. I’m so far removed from live playing anymore.

That kind of answers my next question, do you ever get the feeling on the weekends to just go to a bar or little club and jam with the band on stage?

No, I go out and ski (laughing)! We have a nice ski slope about ten minutes from my house here. But really, like I said, live performing has no interest for me now.

In a bit of different vein, there has been talk of trying to put together a Tommy Bolin Tribute album, getting recognized artists and maybe some artists that have been very influenced by him to record his songs. Would you be willing to participate in something like that, maybe re-doing People, People or Marching Powder?

Ah... that all depends on the framework. If it’s like contributing a tune, or taking a solo or something, that’s all possible, it can all be done.

Great! The Foundation directors would love to hear that. A few more questions and I’ll let you hit the slopes. This will be kind of like word association, but I’m going to do decade association. I’ll say a decade, and you just tell me what you think.

OK ... sounds good.

Starting with: the ’60s ... ’70s’ ... 80s ... ’90s ... the new millenium.

(Answering very earnestly and sincerely) Freedom ... Fun ... Work ... Home... Sky’s the limit!

Jan, I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed our talk; you are a wealth of information. On behalf of the Tommy Bolin Foundation I’d like to thank you and wish you and your family all the best for the coming year.

My pleasure, I hope I was help. It was interesting to talk about those times again, if you need anything more, just call back during day or leave a message. You take care.


Jan Hammer, interviewed by Art Connor, 7th February 2001. Jan & Tommy featured on Billy Cobhams's 1973 Spectrum. Jan was a guest on Tommy's Teaser and met Tommy the night he died (Tommy was playing support to Jeff Beck featuring Jan).

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