Never was an album more aptly named. Jan Hammer (keyboards/drums) and Jerry Goodman (strings/guitar/bass) behave like infinitely curious children wandering through Music Land, picking up some country here, examining folk rock there, scampering over the rock ‘n’ roll boulders, playing hide and seek in the meadows of classical music, crossing the swift stream of fusion, and peering into the avant guarde gorge.
The first track, Country and Eastern Music, is a case in point. The track starts out with a stately declamation of the A section on piano. Without warning, we’re plunged into a rock ‘n’ roll version of the same theme on guitars, drums and bass. Then we get the B section, rendered by a string quartet — I’m not kidding. Jan Hammer then takes an synthesizer solo over the A section, studiously avoiding any hint of the jazz tradition, making ingenious use of pentatonic scales. There’s no grandstanding in his solo, just incisive melody, completely devoid of cliche. But Hammer and Goodman aren’t through surprising us. In the A section that follows, Hammer and Goodman sing, if that’s the word, sounding like drunken fratboys at a kegger belting out football fight songs. That’s before they soften their voices into a lullaby, their quavering voices reaching for high notes and going ever, ever so slightly out of tune. Country and Eastern Music ought to be a train wreck, but somehow it works beautifully.
And now for something completely different. The next track, appropriately titled No Fear, starts out with a fearsome gonging sound. Then an obviously sequenced rhythmic pattern fades in, joined by an another interlocking one. Hammer riffs over the top on synthesizer before joining in on an ensemble section that climbs steadily, building the tension until it’s released into the main, impossible to play rhythmic pattern. Except for Jan’s synthesizer, all of this was done on an Oberheim Digital Sequencer.
To appreciate this to the fullest extent, you have to remember that in 1974, sequencers had something like a hundred jacks on them and almost as many dials. To get the sounds you wanted, you needed to do endless patching and experimenting. And there were all sorts of limitations. For example, the Emu Modular Sequencer had 50 channels on which you could save as many as 512 tones, along with basic sound presets. You had to be as much a mad scientist as a musician to get good results. Music history is littered with cheesy synth sounds, but the sequencer work on No Fear still sounds fresh and exciting almost 35 years after it was recorded, which is a tribute to Hammer’s persistence, good taste and enormous ears.
Then we have I Remember Me, an eerie ballad in some insane time signature that I can’t even figure out. Goodman plays the lovely melody on violin while Hammer gently provides the harmonies with arpeggios on the acoustic piano. In the overdubbed background, Goodman bows supporting harmonies on viola and violow. Then an amazing thing happens. The piano drops out and Hammer improvises over Goodman’s strings. Without any rhythmic assistance, Hammer is counting out this crazy time signature in his head and soloing at the same time like it’s nothing!
If the rest of Like Children had been similarly inspired, it would not only be a five star album, it would be probably be somewhere in the top 20 jazz albums of all time, but the quality drops a little over the rest of the album, although it’s still a lot of fun.
For example, Earth (Still Our Only Home) is kind of a funky rockish tune, with a pretty nifty violin cadenza, reminiscent of the one at the end of Faith, off of Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Visions of the Emerald Beyond date. But the vocals are another story. In the chorus, it sounds like Hammer and Goodman are singing “Passion scented hoo-hoo.” The whole thing comes off as kind of ridiculous, really.
Topeka, while in the same vein, fares a lot better, probably because it’s an instrumental piece, with Goodman and Hammer trading fours over a funky vamp. The theme section is pretty cool, too.
The rest of the album follows a similar pattern, throwing different music genres against the wall and seeing if they stick. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t, but even the failures are entertaining.
Just when you think you have Like Children figured out, Hammer and Goodman throw one final curveball. Giving In Gently/I Wonder is their version of folk rock, with a surprisingly pretty melody sung by Goodman. His phrasing is excellent, making the best possible use of his limited vocal abilities. Of course, the rhythmic structure of Giving In Gently is way more sophisticated than we are accustomed to in these sorts of tunes, but it feels natural, not forced. Jan’s solo on synthesizer has a surprising country flavor to it. After a final chorus, the tune segues into I Wonder, a relatively heavy vamp along the lines of the Beatles’ She’s So Heavy, off of the Abbey Road album. Giving In Gently/I Wonder is a surprisingly effective closer to a unique recording.
Listening to Like Children makes me nostalgic for a time when record producers not only tolerated experimentation by their artists, they actively encouraged it. Those days may be long gone, but we have CDs of great recordings such as Like Children to help us remember. Or, in the case of musicians who weren’t even born when Like Children came out in 1974, these recordings will expand their ideas of what’s possible, which gives us all hope for the future.