Jan Hammer: Manic Depression
Jan Hammer (synthesizers)
Black Sheep / Hammer (Wounded Bird 2-CD set)
Jan Hammer (synthesizers),
Colin Hodgkinson (vocals), Fernando Saunders (bass), Tony Smith (drums).
Composed by Jimi Hendrix.
Recorded: Kent, NY 1978
Rating: 92/100 (learn more)
I had a chance during this period of Jan Hammer's career to see him perform with his new band at Shaboo, which was a club in Willimantic, CT. I went with much trepidation. I had recently heard Hammer's new album Black Sheep. I hated it. That record confirmed my worst fears about Hammer's developing musical direction. Every song had vocals. I loved Jan Hammer and still do. But those vocals were not good. There is no other way to put it. I have always posited that it is a rare fusion song that can accommodate vocals. The different time signatures and odd meters usually required of the best fusion numbers make it virtually impossible for vocals of any kind to succeed.
There is one tune on Black Sheep that is worth your time. Jan Hammer had been pushing his role farther and farther into that of lead guitarist. Keyboard synthesizer technology was growing in leaps and bounds, and the latest advances not only allowed Hammer to get very close to an actual electric guitar sound, but the revolution in miniaturization and design was now allowing him to strap his synthesizer around his neck just like a guitar. So it was no surprise that he decided to play a Jimi Hendrix piece. "Manic Depression" was the perfect Hendrix cover for Hammer to show off his new instrumentation and rock attitude.
I'll never forget hearing Hammer's band kick into the number during that live show. You have to remember that just getting that sound out of this strange-looking keyboard that nobody had ever seen before was a thrilling experience. But to see Hammer swinging the device like a guitar and bending notes like you never thought possible on such an instrument was mind-blowing. He had every aspect of Hendrix down. The topper was that he could still add a fusion sound to the performance. Naturally you don't get the visual with the record. But the experience of listening to it the first time was pretty much the same. You wondered how Hammer was doing it. Colin Hodgkinson also did a yeoman's job with the vocals. It was the one vocal track on the whole album that worked. In my fusion-biased opinion, "Manic Depression" was the lone jewel among the Black Sheep rubble. This performance marked an important transition in Hammer's career that I am not a fan of. But it also marked an important milestone in the development of synthesizers, of which he was a towering figure.
Oh, by the way. That show at Shaboo was a killer. As I recall, the band did not once raise its voice in song. I have been told by some that they probably did on "Manic Depression." I don't remember it. But I would have approved anyway.
Reviewer: Walter Kolosky