Category Archives: Great Performances

Great Solos: Omar Hakim on “I Burn For You”

Song: I Burn For You

Solo performed by: Omar Hakim

From the movie Bring On the Night

Drum solos are tricky things. In rock music, they tend to be geared toward an audience that just wants to scream and hold up lighters/cell phones, which usually translates to drummers playing really loud and/or really fast. They are almost non-existent in pop music. In jazz, drum solos are common. They are usually very intricate, but often sail over the heads of the audience, occupying a space just above the bass solo in the hearts and minds of the listener.

In most cases, alas, drum solos are performed unaccompanied. I hate unaccompanied solos.

The trouble with unaccompanied solos is, in the absence of any harmony or melody to play off of, the solos tend to veer toward extreme displays of technical ability. This is true of all instruments, but especially drums. It is rarely impressive, and almost never any fun. After a few seconds, it’s obvious what level of technique the player is at, and from there it gets boring real fast. The exceptions are usually in those players that are so technically gifted that it boils down to spectacle, a “holy shit how does he/she do that” kind of awe. Dennis Chambers comes to mind; Steve Smith and Victor Wooten too. But even then, after a few minutes I always find myself just wanting to hear some music.

So how to combat this and transform an unaccompanied solo into a musical moment? One word: ostinato.

An ostinato is a musical phrase or riff that is repeated over and over, creating a sort of musical “bed” over which additional rhythms and melodies can be layered. The ostinato can often create a hypnotic effect, and sets the mood for the soloist. Anything can be an ostinato – a simple bass line, a vocal phrase, a piano or guitar chord sequence.

Thankfully, Sting is a thoughtful musician with a tremendous ear for melodic sensibilities. He gets extra credit here for setting up the structure of this arrangement to give maximum emphasis on the music and the musicians. Sting always plays with the best musicians around and he always finds ways to spotlight them, to highlight their strengths. And the bass/vocal ostinato is key to this song’s success.

On its own, “I Burn For You” is a nice song with a cool, mysterious, almost vengeful tone. But in this performance it is elevated to greatness by two masterful solos – the first by Branford Marsalis, and the second by Omar Hakim.

This essay is specifically about Omar Hakim’s drum solo, but I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the beautiful soprano sax solo that Marsalis plays leading up to Hakim’s tour de force.

Branford’s solo is an excellent example of both tension/release as well as theme/development. Using short bursts of three- and five-note clusters, Marsalis gradually ratchets up the tension by playing angular polyrhythms and wonderful harmonically dissonant scalar passages over the solid groove set up by Hakim and bassist Darryl Jones (Sting plays guitar on this one, then switches to “Brian” the upright bass during the ostinato section), punctuated with impossibly long sustained cries.  Hakim’s drumming under Marsalis builds as well, until Branford drops back down and let’s Hakim take over. And that’s where things really take off.

Now, I’m not a drummer, and I know almost nothing about the technical aspects of drumming beyond the basics. But listening to and watching this solo quickly modulates from an intellectual to a visceral emotional experience. What I love most about this solo – well, both solos really – is that it begins by lighting up the technical side of my brain, with Branford’s beautifully dissonant melodies and rhythms playing against the groove set up by Hakim and Jones, and then it morphs into such a pounding, hypnotic, emotional experience that just washes over me and leaves me wanting to start primal screaming.

The solo is crafted beautifully, with a perfect attention to dynamics. As the solo proceeds, the tension and emotion builds to an impossible crescendo, ready to burst. Hakim ends it at the perfect moment, with a cathartic barrage of triplet snare hits, leaving us delirious and wanting so much more.

Have I seen and heard more technically impressive drum solos? Certainly. So why does this solo in particular affect me so much? I think it’s because every time I listen to it I am struck by how musical it is. For me, Max Roach was always the most musical drum soloist around, and I think in Hakim’s solo I hear the next evolution of his approach. It’s not just a show off moment – it’s a complete part of the song. I’ve always said a great solo can elevate a good song up to a great song, and this solo is the perfect example of that. This is one of the great solos, and also one of the great moments in music.

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Great Performances: Joe Walsh Plays “Desperado” on Howard Stern Show

I’ve been a fan of Howard Stern’s radio show for many many years. The show certainly has a huge number of memorable moments. However my favorite moment is one most people probably won’t remember at all.

It was back in the K-ROCK days, before satellite, during one of the F-Emmy awards shows. The award was for Best Musical Performance, and Howard was playing clips of the nominees. When Howard played a clip of Alanis Morisette (I forget what song it was for), he was silent for a brief moment, and then said “Dammit, I love musicians. Music is the only thing that stirs any emotion in my soul anymore.” He said this loudly, passionately, and for the most miniscule moment you could almost hear his voice crack with emotion. And then his tone changed slightly, veering off to a self-mocking tone that seemed to attempt to mask what a true statement it was.

Maybe it’s Stern’s almost Svengali-like ability to pull such great performances out of the artists; maybe it’s simply the fact that he’s been on the air for so long that he’s bound to collect a number of great performances over so many years. Whatever it is, there is no denying that Stern has in his collection an incredible array of stellar musical performances.

While there are many to choose from (the Alanis performance was indeed fantastic, and fans picked Dave Grohl’s performance of Everlong as the best), for me the best of the best is Joe Walsh’s performance of the Eagles tune “Desperado”. There’s a long story behind the performance, which I’ll try to relate here, but I may be missing some details. Hopefully someone out there can fill in if I miss anything.

This was back in 1989 or 1990. Walsh was on the show when Stern asked him to play something. Walsh had no guitars, just a crappy Casio keyboard that was hanging around the studio. He set it up and started playing, and turned out the best rendition of the song I’ve ever heard.

Now apparently, at the time the Eagles were just beginning discussions about reuniting for the first time since they broke up in 1980. And apparently Don Henley, who wrote the song (Glen Frey co-wrote some of it), is (or was) very sensitive about other people performing this song. So when Walsh left the show that day, it seems he had a change of heart about playing the song, and tried desperately to get Gary Dell’Abate (the show’s producer) on the phone to pull it from the air.

Unfortunately for him, Gary had already left for vacation for the weekend, and Walsh left several increasingly violent and angry messages on Gary’s phone. So the song aired, and of course Henley heard it and exploded. Shortly after, the reunion was off, and it was not until 4 years later that they reconciled long enough to do the Hell Freezes Over tour.

Now, there’s some confusion on my part on one point. There are actually two performances of Walsh singing “Desperado” on Stern’s show – one solo, and one with Sam Kinison on guitar. Now, I believe the incident with Henley was over the version with Kinison, which aired on Stern’s infamous Channel 9 show. However the version I’m referring to as the best ever was the solo version. Unfortunately Kinison just ruined the other version with his unending, meandering guitar lines. I love Sam as a comedian, but he was not a musician. Anyway, I am not clear on when the two performances took place. I know the Kinison version was around 1990, but I’m foggy on when the solo version happened. I think it was a little earlier than that, but I’m not sure. Hopefully someone can shed some light out there.

So enough of the drama and back to the performance. What makes this one so special? Well for me it was an eye-opener. Truth be told I was never really a fan of Joe Walsh. I had always heard his name mentioned among the periphery of great guitar players, but I never understood why. He always seemed like a decent guitarist, but nothing special. I thought he was more of a spectacle sideshow for the Eagles rather than a true musician.

To begin with, “Desperado” is a great song. It’s a timeless melody with evocative lyrics of loneliness, sadness, pain, and a little hope.  The stark instrumentation of Walsh’s version – just a keyboard – provides an intimacy that matches the song perfectly. The cheap organ sound also lends an almost plaintive, gospel/spiritual tone to the overall sound.

But the thing that makes the performance special is Walsh’s voice. On his solo records, his voice always sounded like a whiny drawl to me. Not a pleasant sound. Here, however, his voice is gravelly and nuanced. The original recording of the song sounds far too polished by comparison. In Walsh’s voice you can hear the late nights, the booze, the depression and sadness that embody the song.

While it’s a shame that this performance caused Joe Walsh so much anguish, I’m glad it happened. I will forever be grateful that he did it, and that I was able to hear it. I sincerely hope that this performance, and the other great performances from the Stern show, will be available in some form for all to hear for a long time.


Great Performances: Wes Montgomery Live in ’65

This is why I love modern technology, specifically YouTube.

One day a while back I was noodling around online when I decided I wanted to listen to some music. Being lazy, I didn’t want to spend the few extra seconds opening up iTunes on my computer, so I zipped over to YouTube. I was in the mood for some jazz, and I realized that I had never seen any video of Wes Montgomery playing live. None. I knew there was some video out there, but I also knew it was pretty rare to see him in action, most likely due to his untimely death in 1968 at the age of 45.

So I typed in Wes Montgomery in the search box and let ‘er rip. And sure enough, within seconds I was watching Wes play, with that inimitable technique, right before my eyes. I was actually a little stunned. That’s Wes, I thought. Holy crap, that’s Wes. Had I seen this in my younger, practice-guitar-for-hours days, I would have grabbed my guitar and attempted to cop his thumb technique by starting and pausing the video on every frame until my eyes hurt. Instead, I just sat dumbfounded, watching a legend at work.

The video itself is a bit of an oddity. It is actually three separate sessions from 1965 while Wes was touring in Europe. Some of the dates are from London, some from Holland. The tunes run the gamut from up-tempo burners like Impressions and Four on Six, to mellow ballads like Here’s That Rainy Day. And of course there’s some blues.

The actual tunes don’t matter so much to me though. What matters is that it’s there. Wes Montgomery has influenced just about every modern guitarist in the world, and that’s not hyperbole. And I’m not just talking about jazz guitarists – consider Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai. Pat Metheny has called Wes the greatest guitarist of all time, and it’s hard to argue.  The fact that it’s possible to watch Wes play, play anything, is such a gift.

Metheny wrote the excellent liner notes for this DVD (wherein he calls him the greatest). You can read them on his website here.

Links

YouTube: Impressions Live

Amazon: Jazz Icons: Wes Montgomery Live in ’65


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