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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