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 Solos: Machine Gun

Song: Machine Gun

Solo performed by: Jimi Hendrix

Album: Band of Gypsys

Recorded live at the Fillmore East, December 31, 1969 and January 1, 1970

It’s THE NOTE.

Thousands of words have been written about Jimi Hendrix and his guitar playing. We can talk about the man, the guitars, the amps, the effects, the tone, the style. But it all comes back to THE NOTE. Those of you who know the Machine Gun solo know exactly what I’m talking about. It is the very first note of the solo, the single greatest rock guitar note ever played. THE NOTE comes at about the 3:59 mark, a huge, sustaining scream that lasts for the first 10 seconds or so of the solo (the note is picked only twice in that time). Hendrix probably could have ended the solo after that note, and the emotions behind the music would have been fully conveyed, but thankfully he didn’t stop there.

There is a kind of mythology surrounding the recording of the Band of Gypsys album, and this song in particular. The details vary and are a little vague, but the gist of the story is this: at the time, numerous sources had been giving Hendrix a hard about the nature of his live shows. The argument was that he jumped and writhed around so much in concert that his actual guitar playing suffered in the process. Some versions of the story attribute the criticism to Bill Graham, famed promoter and proprietor of the Fillmore. So Hendrix decided to show them what he was truly capable of, and when he went out on stage that night he stood in one spot the entire show and did not move, and gave us the best playing of his life.

The song itself is deceptively simple. Like Voodoo Child (and many other Hendrix tunes), it’s basically a jam in E that provides a framework for Hendrix to hang some brilliant solo work on. It starts off slow, with a short intro solo leading up to some sparse guitar licks interspersed between vocal verses. The first thing you really notice in these sections is the guitar tone. Full, round, glassy and shimmering, the tone is classic Hendrix tone even at the low volume of the intro. To get the tone Hendrix employed his usual cadre of effects like the UniVibe, Fuzzface, Vox wah wah, and Octavia.

The solo itself is basically a jam, and for the most part Hendrix remains above the 12th fret on the guitar throughout. He stays in the familiar “blues box” for the first minute or so (after THE NOTE, that is), and then at around 5:18 he embarks on some extended whammy bar manipulations. While doing a slow trill between two notes (hammer-ons and pull-offs to you guitar geeks), he raises and lowers the pitch with the whammy bar, creating an otherworldly fluid sound. This may sound tame compared to more modern whammy bar craziness from the likes of Brad Gillis, Adrian Belew, Steve Vai , and Joe Satriani, but at the time this was innovative stuff. Consider that most whammy bar usage at the time was limited to simple dive bombs and noises, but Hendrix incorporates the bar into the solo, creating and weaving new melodies that at the time were never heard before.

Hendrix caps off the whammy bar section with some wrenching double stop screams and howls, enhanced by a wide vibrato courtesy of more whammy bar usage. He returns to the main theme, only this time an octave higher, then continues with the wails. This is the emotional high point of the solo for me, a catharsis of screaming anguish.

Just when you think the solo must be winding down, at around 7:20 Hendrix launches into a manic legato flurry of notes. At the same time he flips the pickup selector on his Strat to the neck pickup, resulting in a warmer, slightly fuller, slightly fuzzier sound, which blends perfectly with the more legato playing. The effect is exhilarating.  He sticks with the neck sound until the solo finally does wind down, ending in a plaintive feedback cry.

As with any great blues-based solo, it’s never so much about what specific notes are played, but more about the feeling conveyed. This is a fascinating solo to me because it starts on such a high emotional level (THE NOTE), and then stays there, even going higher, throughout the entire solo.

After the solo, but before continuing the vocals, Hendrix plays a short little interlude pentatonic riff. I have always been fascinated with this section. The main riff played by the guitar and bass is the exact same as the end of the main riff played by Jimmy Page in Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter”. I have always wondered if Page was “inspired by” (i.e. stole) this lick, but I’ve never seen it mentioned in any interviews or official story. If anyone out there knows please don’t keep it to yourself.

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