Chuck Hammer: Ornette, Lou Reed & the Art of Improvisation

An Overdue Ovation profile of the genre-bending guitarist, composer and Bowie alum

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Chuck Hammer (photo courtesy of the artist)

The musical path traveled by Chuck Hammer, a forward-thinking player who fits neatly into the niche of “most influential guitarists you’ve never heard of,” has been chock full of twists and turns. From his beginnings as an improviser in the 1970s, under the influence of Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman, to high-profile sideman gigs with Lou Reed and David Bowie and, later, a lower-key career as a composer for TV documentaries, Hammer’s life has been nothing short of memoir-worthy. And his narrative is still very much in progress, with two new albums since 2016 and one in the can.

His work on two 1980 LPs, Reed’s Growing Up in Public and Bowie’s Scary Monsters, solidified his place in the rock history books, and the roots of those contributions can be traced to jazz. As an improviser playing in free-fusion groups during his early college years, and with John Coltrane, Davis and Coleman on heavy rotation, Hammer experienced the ultimate eye-opener while attending the University at Buffalo: a class in the black studies department taught by free-jazz pioneer Archie Shepp. “That was a rude awakening for me,” recalls Hammer, now 62 and based in New Jersey, about an hour outside New York City. “I was walking in there as a kind of blues guitar player. It was the first time I got exposed to the black studies perspective of things and the music and art side of it. I learned a lot from him.”

With Jimi Hendrix as his first love and exploratory jazz on his radar thanks to Shepp and Trane’s A Love Supreme and Ascension, Hammer was intent on converging the two styles into his own vision. “When you’re younger, you make connections between different art forms and people that just aren’t obvious but are natural to you,” Hammer explains. “I saw a connection between Hendrix and Coltrane from my perspective as a young guitarist—Coltrane trying to get those layers in real time out of the horn, with one note trying to create the illusion of a chord. Then Hendrix is doing it in a non-real-time way, with layering by using multi-track. That to me was a very natural connection, and those were my influences. It was all about improv and I just carried that forward.”

That amalgam of styles landed Hammer a job playing beside Reed from 1978 through 1980. The punk pioneer steered Hammer further into free-improvisational territory through deep talks on tour and onstage. “Back­stage, Lou often spoke about his admiration for Ornette,” Hammer recalls. “The idea of group improvisation is what Lou was shooting for. He spent hours talking about how to further develop that aspect within the band while playing large venues. Especially with the stuff from [Reed’s trailblazing band the Velvet Underground] that we were doing, he really wanted to push the group-improvisation aspect. His thing about Ornette wasn’t about Ornette specifically, but it was really about that band with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell and how they improvised as a group at the same time.”

Touring with Reed provided clinics in improvisation and interplay, with the texture-based twentysomething guitarist learning on the fly. “Virtually every dynamic and arrangement within each song changed night to night live,” Hammer says. “Lou would often not end a concert until he felt that something authentic occurred onstage. He kept pushing the ends of songs into extended improvised guitar sections.” Hammer’s credibility and profile were on the rise. He had already studied under Shepp and become a go-to sideman for Reed, and he was about to share a stage with another legend. “When I got into Lou’s band, the album that he just was working on was The Bells, which had Don Cherry on it,” Hammer recalls. “That was a completely different extension, because Don Cherry was playing things that were so abstract to the music itself. It was definitely a window, a learning point for me.”

As Hammer tells it, the watershed moment in which he fully understood Ornette’s concept of improvisation took place at the Bottom Line, a long-defunct downtown New York club where Reed gave a legendary run of concerts. “When I sound-checked with Don Cherry at the Bottom Line is when I actually grasped what that music was. He stood on the other side of the stage from me, playing pocket trumpet, and he seemed to be shooting Morse code over and outside the band. The band was playing ‘Sweet Jane’ or something, but I’m hearing, like, Morse code being woven inside the music. The weaving line thing was like a balance. That hit me and gave me a window into what Ornette and Lou were selling.”

After a years-long dry spell following a groundbreaking stint with Bowie—on Scary Monsters, he introduced the guitar synthe­sizer into the icon’s palette—Hammer eventually found his way to a career as a score composer, soundtracking documentary TV series including A&E’s The First 48 and TLC’s Trauma: Life in the E.R. But about five years ago, he got the itch to make a comeback of sorts. “At some point I did everything I could in that [film-scoring] zone,” he says. “I became interested in making albums again.”

The experience and wisdom culled from the likes of Shepp, Reed and Cherry, combined with “Guitarchitecture,” his signature process of layering multiple improvised guitar tracks, has so far resulted in two excellent albums. They find Hammer traversing similar sonic planes as guitarist peers Nels Cline, David Torn, Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot. On 2016’s self-released Blind on Blind, Hammer joins forces with pianist/keyboardist Jamie Saft, of John Zorn’s groups; bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma, of Ornette’s Prime Time; and drummer Billy Martin, of Medeski Martin & Wood. The album is a marathon 80-minute set of free-ambient vibes and monolithic soloing, all guided by downtown funk and bluesy boogie.

Just last fall he released a follow-up. Path Heart Traverse, featuring Saft with bassist Andy Hess, an alum of Gov’t Mule and John Scofield’s Überjam Band, and drummer Steve Decker, stands at a more compact 38 minutes but is no less thrilling. Throughout, Hammer showcases his masterful ability to craft airy, slow-burning jams that are still somehow groove-intensive and harmonically complex; think a hybrid of MMW’s cosmic trips, the lyricism and warmth of John Abercrombie and the avant-garde edginess of Zorn.

For Hammer, Path Heart Traverse was about avoiding genre, paying tribute to his heroes and finding the perfect tone. “I felt that the current community of guitarists was overly focused on pedals, genres and looping, and had lost touch with hand-played tone,” he explains. “In terms of tone, [the album] can be viewed almost as an homage to some of my earliest personal influences.” While Hammer namedrops Hendrix and Reed, he also credits B.B. King, Brian Eno, Charlie Christian, Mike Bloomfield, John McLaughlin and Cream.

With Blind on Blind and Path Heart Traverse still fresh, Hammer’s late-coming career as a solo artist is at full throttle. In February he reconvened Saft and Tacuma with drummer Gene Lake for live sessions that he’ll take back to his studio, fine tune with his Guitarchitecture elements and release as the third and final installment in his trilogy. Like Hammer’s previous two efforts, Miles Davis looms large over the recording. “It’s wilder and hits harder because everyone is playing together at the same time,” he says. “We went in thinking we were going to do something close to On the Corner. That’s kind of where it’s headed. A very live, funky, badass thing.”

Recommended Listening:

David Bowie Scary Monsters (RCA, 1980)

Lou Reed Growing Up in Public (Arista, 1980)

Blind on Blind (Chuck Hammer, 2016)

Path Heart Traverse (Chuck Hammer, 2017)