With a long and varied list of credits that reads like a Who’s Who in Rock and Jazz (Weather Report, Miles Davis, Madonna, Sting, Dire Straits, David Bowie, Daft Punk, among countless others), Omar Hakim has long been regarded as one of the elite drummers on the scene. And because his services have been so in-demand since the ‘80s, his own solo projects have been few and far between. He debuted in 1989 with the aptly-named Rhythm Deep and followed up in 2000 with The Groovesmith, both of which showcased his writing-arranging skills along with his irrepressible prowess on the kit. Now, 14 years later, comes Hakim’s crowning achievement to date. A powerful, genre-defying high energy concept album, We Are One boasts an all-star cast including keyboardist Rachel Z (Wayne Shorter, Peter Gabriel, Al Di Meola), guitarists Chieli Minucci (Special EFX) and Jimi Tunnell (Trilateral Commission) along with keyboardist, co-writer and arranger Scott Tibbs, bassist Jerry Brooks, vocalist Angel Rogers and special guests Gregoire Maret on harmonica and Bob Francheschini on tenor sax. For a few songs on the album, Omar also acts as multi-instrumentalist, performing on guitar, keyboards, bass and vocals.
From the epic opener “Transmigration” (which draws favorable comparisons to Return To Forever’s Romantic Warrior or Chick Corea’s To The Stars) to the breezy, catchy pop flavored “Carpe Diem,” the aggressively burning, crunchy metal-jazz of “Walk The Walk,” the ultra-funky “Listen Up!” and the mellow, lyrical title track, Hakim and his crew traverse a myriad of styles on this ambitious outing. And drum aficionados take note: there are plenty of examples of Omar digging deep and slamming with rare authority throughout this powerhouse session. “I used to get a lot of criticism and flak from the fans because they would always say, ‘You don’t play enough drums on your solo records.’ So this time I wanted to make sure I play some serious drums. And I think this project really captured a lot of different aspects of my drumming style on one record — the funk stuff, the rock stuff, the jazzier stuff. It’s kind of all there.”
Fans should be suitably stunned by Omar’s remarkable drumming on “Transmigration,” “Walk the Walk” and particularly “Listen Up!,” which features some of his most ferocious soloing on the record. And yet, this is hardly an album about chops for chops sake. There is a thoughtful undercurrent of meaning that ties these ten tracks together in a thematic way, with the sound of Hakim’s crisp, quick-handed fills and signature beats providing the common ground. “With this record, the idea was to discuss spiritual truths, kind of like Old Age spiritual ideas that are at the basis of every world religion. A lot of religions basically talk about the same thing, just in different languages and in different time periods. But they always get back to the Creator, the Oneness of creation, the fact that we are all connected as a spiritual organism. And so, I wanted to thematically deal, in the song titles for the album, with this idea of spiritual oneness, of spiritual connection with people.”
The epic opener, “Transmigration,” addresses the soul’s arrival to the Earth plane. “It’s big, exciting,” says Omar, “but at the same time, when the soul makes its entry into the physical realm it is also filled with hope for what this particular life is going to be for it. And once it’s here, it’s time to deal with all that information that it brought with it from the other side. So this piece is about the journey that the soul is going to have on this trip.”
“Carpe Diem,” which means ‘seize the day,’ is about the soul making the most of the journey here. “The idea with the sound of Carpe Diem was to create almost like a vibe where it’s the sound of positivity and potential for what the day could be.” Maret’s buoyant harmonica playing adds to the uplifting quality of this upbeat tune. “My ideal is that this song comes on in your car and it just puts you in a great mood for the rest of the day,” says Hakim.
The relaxed “With Every Breath” summons up memories of Stanley Clarke’s “Quiet Afternoon” from his landmark 1976 album, School Days. Guitarist Jimi Tunnell adds a legato solo that imbued with liquid soulfulness while guitarist Chieli Minucci provides the haunting melody. Says the composer, “One of the things that happens is we arrive and then we get caught up in all of the stuff that life sucks us into — desires and hopes and fears and dreams and problems...all of the stuff that we do. And sometimes it’s easy to forget who we are and people get pulled away from kind of their center. So my idea on this tune was that it’s my own personal aspiration to remember with every breath my gifts and the fact that I’ve been given an opportunity to be a musician; to kind of share this positive vibe with fans and friends around the world and not take it for granted.”
“Remember to Remember” opens with a stark solo piano intro by Scott Tibbs that segues to a grandiose, cinematic theme addressing the idea of remembering who you are. “It’s about remembering what you really are,” says Omar, “and giving yourself the opportunity, if you can every day, to have a moment of solitude for that remembrance of whatever name you give to the Creator or the higher power. And it’s about connecting with the energy so that you can come back to what you’re doing in the world with a renewed energy every day.” The mantra “Know your true self and be free” is repeated over Minucci’s distortion-laced guitar licks on this expansive number.
The dynamic “Walk the Walk” is brimming with rapid-fire unisons and crunchy, distortion-laced guitar by Minucci. “It’s probably the highest energy tune on the record,” says Hakim. “On the one hand it’s a challenging, crazy rhythm for my drummer fans to check out but at the same time, from a spiritual perspective, it represents the ego part of our existence. We develop ego so that we can deal in the physical realm. Some people look at that word as a negative thing but actually it’s just individuality. Of course, the negative aspect of ego makes certain individuals difficult to get along with. But it is part of our mechanism here that lets us deal in this world. So somehow when I was trying to come up with a title for this high energy thing, the line...this old saying, ‘You talked the talk, now it’s time to walk the walk,’ definitely applies here.”
“So There” is a laid back groover created with Omar’s longtime friend and collaborator Jerry Brooks. “We’ve been friends since we were 14 years old, and we’ve been playing together just as long,” says the drummer. “For some reason, he’ll walk into the studio and he’ll just know what to do with my music. And the bass line that he came up with on this tune reminded me of Miles Davis’ ‘So What,’ and Jerry said, ‘So why don’t you call it ‘So There.’ And when he said that, I knew I had my title for that song. I also equated that with being ‘there’...in the moment. And that’s also part of what our spiritual journey is. So the question is, how can we remember to be always in the moment? We spend so much of our existence regretting things that we’ve done in the past or being worried about the future that we’re rarely in the present anymore. And I think part of being a musician, dancer, artist or writer is that process of being in the moment, just so that they can create. So for me, title-wise and mood-wise and musically, this tune speaks to the process of being in the moment.”
“Listen Up!” is an intricate funk-laden tune that has Scott Tibbs stretching out on piano and Omar erupting on the kit for a mondo drum solo. A surprise here is the reprising of “Molasses Run,” a tune that Hakim originally wrote for Weather Report’s 1982 album Procession. Saxophonist Francheschini also unleashes on this potent number from last century. “This song is considered by a lot of my fans as a signature Omar beat,” says the drummer-composer. “So I needed to include a version of the composition that was a little closer to what I was hearing in my head in terms of the harmonic density. When we did it in Weather Report, Joe Zawinul actually made the harmonic part of it very stark and very open sounding. This particular version is a little more lush harmonically. And there’s a lot of ear candy in there as well.”
“Forever Friend,” co-composed with keyboardist Scott Tibbs, came together very quickly. “I came up with the bass line idea and we just started jamming a melody,” says Omar, “and an hour later we had this tune. It’s some nice pocket funk but it also points to the idea of some mystics believing that the human body is the church, the temple, the synogogue, the mosque, whatever structure that you relate to as a house of worship. And really, the human body is that temple. Your creator/god or whatever name you give the higher power is actually in your own temple, within you and even as close to you as your own breath. And that energy or that power is actually your real friend, you forever friend. So that’s kind of where I was coming from with that title. And also it points to my camaraderie with Scott as well.”
The final track, the mellow “We Are One,” is kind of a synopsis of the whole concept record. “I wrote words to that one which are very simple, almost like a state of meditation: ‘View the world in a glance/take the time to watch creation’s dance/feel His grace, the power of the One/with every breath, remember His love/open your heart, remember we are one.’”
Says the drummer-composer of his third recording as a leader: “I always try to play from a spontaneous emotional place so that the tunes feel like they’re happening at that moment, that they’re not planned at all. And as a result, in a live performance, they’re always going to be different. And I guess that’s really what the spirit of jazz is at the end of the day. And though it wasn’t my goal to make a jazz record, per se, I think that my jazz upbringing kind of informs everything I’m doing whether I’m playing rock or funk or whatever. The part of jazz that makes you explore possibilities of a musical idea, that ‘in-the-moment-ness’ of jazz, gives you a wider palette to work with musically and technically. My career has been about doing a little bit of everything. That was very much intentional for me. I wanted to get myself in a position where people would call me to contribute and hopefully enhance their musical experience. But all those experiences, for me, where also informed by that spirit of in-the-moment-ness that jazz is all about.”
With Omar composing all the tunes as well as arranging and playing on every track, and also engineering a bulk of the album, We Are One stands as the great drummer’s magnum opus in a long and illustrious career.
Omar Hakim has two CD release shows in March:
March 10th - The Blue Note New York
March 12th - The Howard Theater Washington DC