Omar Hakim first grabbed the attention of the world at large when he and bassist Victor Bailey replaced the legendary rhythm section of Drummer Peter Erskine and bassist Jaco Pastorius in Weather Report. Hakim wowed audiences with his energy, chops and musicality, recording ‘Procession’, ‘Domino Theory’ and Sportin’ Life’ with the fusion pioneers. Upon leaving Weather Report, he became the drummer in Sting’s first post-Police project, recording Sting’s solo debut ‘The Dream Of The Blue Turtles’ and subsequently recorded a string of hit albums including Dire Straits’ ‘Brothers In Arms’, David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’, John Scofield’s ‘Still Warm’ and Miles Davis’ ‘Tutu’, ‘Amandla’ and ‘Siesta’. In the 90s, however, after an eight year stint with Madonna, Omar seemed to disappear from view. As Omar explains, he continued to be very busy but less visible and closer to home. In more recent times, his visibility has thankfully increased again, touring with a variety of groups including Chic, The Trio Of OZ, Pino Daniele and Jerry Douglas. After his terrific performance at the recent London Drum Show, Drummer spoke to Omar and was excited to learn that his third solo album ‘We Are One’ will be released in 2014. Omar began, however, by talking about the jazz trio, The Trio Of OZ, that he co-leads with his wife, pianist Rachel Z.
“It’s probably the first time I’ve done a jazz trio project as a bandleader and it’s really great for me to get out there and let people see the kind of jazz/bebop side of my playing, which most people don’t even know I can do. It’s with Rachel Z on piano and the album was recorded with Maeve Royce on bass, who was originally a member of the Rachel Z trio, but Solomon Dorsey, who is a fantastic young bassist, is now with the band. The idea was to take some of our favourite pop songs and kind of put our spin on them. It’s definitely not a new concept of course; so many bands and jazz legends have done it in the past, from John Coltrane doing ‘My Favourite Things’ in the early 60s to Miles Davis covering the Michael Jackson’s ‘ Human Nature’. Jazz musicians covering pop is nothing new at all but a lot of young people have lost interest in jazz because of the old songbook. You know what I mean? You sort of get tired of your mother’s and your father’s jazz. I grew up in the jazz tradition but I played with a lot of rock stars, including Sting, Madonna, Dire Straits and David Bowie, so when I mesh my background in jazz with my love for pop music, it gives me somewhat of an edge with a project like this because I’m not a jazz drummer who tries to play rock or a rock drummer who is trying to play jazz. I’ve actually done both professionally and I love this music. When I connected with Rachel, she had already been doing it with the Rachel Z Trio. So when we connected together it was like, ‘Wow! This is going to be really fun to tackle songs by Depeche Mode, Coldplay, Death Cab For Cutie, The Killers, Morrissey and put our spin on them.’ It’s primarily tunes from English bands on our first recording and we just chose songs we love with strong melodies and a good lyric concept that would inspire the mood and the arrangement; songs that we had an attachment to as fans and listeners. It was that simple.
BK: Did Rachel already have the arrangements and just present them to the trio?
OH: Rachel had quite a few of the arrangements ahead of time but when she and I got together with Maeve, we started to give them a different shape and added a few more songs to the repertoire. The Trio Of Oz project actually started out as me helping Rachel out on another project. I don’t know if you know the story. Rachel had a contract to do a solo record for a Japanese label but the original drummer in the Rachel Z Trio transitioned out of the group. Then she called Marcus Gilmore but Marcus couldn’t do her entire record for some reason. In 2009, Rachel and I had reconnected on a country music session. I’ve known Rachel for 20 years or more but when we reconnected, we actually reconnected romantically. We reconnected in July 2009 and started hanging out in August and have been inseparable ever since and we got married a year after our reconnection. Anyway, in August 2009, we were hanging out and having fun dating and not really thinking about a musical collaboration and she told me that she was going to be working with Marcus Gilmore. I said, ‘Wow! That’s going to be amazing getting a new Rachel Z Trio project. That should be a lot of fun. Say ‘Hi!’ to Marcus for me.’ Fast forward to September and, for some reason, the scheduling wasn’t working out between her and Marcus because of other projects he was doing and the rehearsal schedule that she wanted in terms of getting the arrangements together. So, at that point I get the call from Rachel saying, ‘Please can you help me out with this project? I’ve got to finish it.’ So I said, ‘No problem Rachel. Come by with Maeve. Let’s knock this out.’ So we had a rehearsal and there were five songs left to record and when we started the rehearsal I noticed we had a really fantastic chemistry. The five songs that I did with her came out so well that Rachel and I were thinking, ‘Wow! Maybe we need to think about how to work together or do something musically together.’ Then she said to me, ‘Look, I have some gigs coming up. Are you interested in playing them?’ and I said, ‘Well, my agent is starting to book concerts for the Omar Hakim Band and it would kind of be a conflict for me to go out as a sideman in your band.’ Then I thought about it and suggested, ‘What if we made it a co-leader band and it’s not the Rachel Z Trio? Let’s bond together, rebrand it and then do it as co-leaders.’ Rachel loved that idea so we started kicking around names for the trio and we came up with the name The Trio Of OZ, with the ‘O’ standing for Omar and the ‘Z’ for Rachel Z. As soon as we made the announcement that we were doing it, everybody went crazy; we started getting bookings and our debut as a group was in at Ronnie Scott’s in London in March 2010. So it’s been a really interesting partnership for us as musicians and also as husband and wife now.
BK: Were the tracks recorded at your studio?
OH: they were recorded at my studio. Another interesting part of this story was that after we finished the Rachel Z Trio album for Japan and we loved the way that those five tracks came out, I said to Rachel, ‘Let’s talk to the Japanese about licensing those performances so that we can put them on a Trio Of OZ record. We can add five more songs and then we can repackage it.’ However, the Japanese didn’t respond to us so we just decided to re-record everything. Rachel’s Japanese album is called ‘I Will Possess Your Heart’ and it features both Marcus Gilmore and I on different versions of the songs. For The Trio of OZ record we re-recorded everything at my studio and I would say that we got a better recording sonically and more refined performances of what we did.
We weren’t sure initially because we became attached to the original performances but ultimately it ended up that we were happy that we re-recorded everything. We have plans to record another album with Solomon on bass but Rachel and I are leaning more towards writing original music for the next record; we’ll probably still do a few covers though because they’re fun to do. We would have hoped to have done our second album by now but we have been touring a lot. We get home and then the tour gets extended or somebody else calls. Also, The Trio of OZ has been the backup band for the Italian singer Pino Daniele and we were out on his tour for 6 months. I also played drums on the last few Pino Daniele albums. Last year was a crazy year for me because I was on tour with four bands; The Trio Of OZ, The Jerry Douglas Group, Pino Daniele and a Miles Davis tribute group called Miles Smiles, which I left in March this year. I was exhausted when that was over. It was fun but it was exhausting.
BK: The Jerry Douglas Group, being a country/bluegrass group, isn’t a group I would have expected to see you in. How did that come about?
OH: I’ve been friends with Jerry’s agent and manager for many years and he’d been saying, ‘You need to get together with Jerry because I think something will happen if I can get you two guys together’ and he was right. I made a record with Jerry called ‘Traveler’ with Viktor Krauss on bass. To get pulled into that world was just a gas for me and a surprise but it was a lot of fun.
BK: how did you approach that gig? Did you ever listen to a lot of that type of music?
OH: Not really. I’ve listened to some of it and I recorded with LeAnn Rimes in the 90s. The one thing about Nashville and bluegrass and country music is that it’s still all about the musicians. They are still making records with people. They are not making records with machines and, even if they are, there is a sensibility there that they are still connecting it to people. But the thing is, it’s about the people and the players. If you go and hear these guys play man, they will blow you away. There’s a pride, tradition and craftsmanship there. From that standpoint, it feels like jazz, in terms of the culture and a commitment to the style; these people are serious players and you have to be on your game.
BK: Was that a learning experience for you?
OH: Yes, it was a huge learning experience and the learning experience was in the listening and interpretation and then making it feel good but, at the same time, they hired me to be me, so they wanted me to do what I do too. There is that thing that I need to connect to but I think the reason I was there was to kind of bring something to it that made it different. Like, ‘What is this trio about?’. It intrigued a lot of people that Jerry put this interesting band together was this drummer from another planet, as far as they were concerned.
BK: You made your mark and became known worldwide from playing with Weather Report in the 80s and subsequently worked with Sting, David Bowie, Dire Straits and did about eight years with Madonna and then you almost seemed to disappear. What happened? Where did you go?
OH: (laughs) interestingly enough, I didn’t go anywhere because I was still quite busy; I just wasn’t touring as much. I had a pretty heavy family transition with divorce at the end of the 90s and the passing of my father, so it kind of made me slow everything down and take stock of where I was at the time. I was still doing clinics, gigs and recording sessions and I spent a lot of time being the weekend dad with my kids and hanging out with them. I was just close to home. It was a conscious decision but, interestingly enough, while I wasn’t touring with rock artists, I was still quite busy doing recording sessions with both pop and jazz artists and I was doing a lot of touring with Nile Rogers when he did the reunion with Chic. I was also doing a lot of clinics for Roland on the V-Drums, so I wasn’t with artists but I was very busy. Then in 2010, I got sucked back in to being on the road again and it’s been fun for me.
BK: You released ‘Rhythm Deep’ for GRP in 1989 and ‘The Groovesmith’ in 2000 but your third solo record is also now on the horizon.
OH: It’s been a long time coming. It’s taken me years! (laughs). The album, ‘We Are One’, will be released on March 3rd, 2014 and I feel good about it. It’s an instrumental album and a fusion of who I am; fusion of rock, jazz, funk and R&B. It represents my whole thing as a drummer. On my previous two albums, I mixed vocal and instrumental music but, for this one, I decided to make instrumental music and focus on the drumming and my composing of instrumental music. I’m not really trying to compete in the pop circles and do that whole thing. I just want to go out and play good music that I enjoy and explore my chops as a composer of jazz. There is some vocalising in the music but I’m not singing songs. We did a small European tour with the Omar Hakim Band in 2010 and we had a blast and the people really loved what we were doing. Around 70% of the record was actually done before I went on the road with The Trio Of OZ and I just wrote a couple more songs for it before I left home last week. It will contain mostly new music but I also revisited ‘Molasses Run’, which Weather Report recorded on ‘Procession’. I completely redid that track and I’m really happy with it. The only other track that people may have heard is ‘Listen Up’ which hasn’t been formally released but it was part of a sampler that was commissioned by DTS (Digital Theatre Systems) back in 2006 or 2007, when HDD and Blu-ray discs were about to be released. They needed HD multitrack surround content to show off their software encoding for audio, so I went into this lovely studio in Belgium and we cut ‘Listen Up’ and I thought that was a good place to start for an instrumental record. I’m going to call the band The Omar Hakim Experience and it features Scott Tibbs on keyboards, Jerry Brooks on bass, Chielli Minucci on guitar, Gregoire Maret on harmonica, Bobby Franceschini on saxophone and flute and I’m also going to get Jimi Tunnell and Rachel Z to play some guitar on these newer tracks.
BK: presumably it will be available from your website?
OH: It will be available online from my website and also on the usual platforms such as Amazon and iTunes. It seems like that’s the way right now. There aren’t many retail stores anymore and the majority of sales are downloads. CDs have pretty much become souvenirs people take home from gigs right now. That’s where we sell most CDs as I think the older fans still prefer the CD format. I might also release this album on vinyl for the serious collectors. In the interim, I also released a CD called ‘Reflections’. My previous two albums combined instrumental and vocal music and ‘Reflections’ is a compilation that gathers together all of the instrumental music from my other records along with three tunes from ‘We Are One’. I’ve mainly sold it at gigs but I might also release it as a retrospective to kind of get everybody caught up and then we can move forward with the new record. We will also be going out on the road to promote the album but haven’t booked dates yet.
BK: You recently appeared on the hit Daft Punk album ‘Random Access Memories’. What were the sessions like? I spoke to JR recently and he said it was more like a sampling session.
OH: That’s exactly what it was like. We went in the studio and Thomas had ideas for a melodic passage or a group of chords that had a nice feel to them and we would just sit on that groove for five minutes and then work on another groove or idea. They were creating a loop of an entire band multitracked and on ‘Giorgio By Moroder’, for instance, the first half of it is JR and the second half of it is me. You know, when you record things in that way, you can mix and match and put stuff together and I’m sure that they gathered all this material and then made sense of it on the fly. I first heard ‘Get Lucky’ on the radio.
BK: did they give you much direction?
OH: All they had to do was play the thing and you knew what to do. The only thing that Thomas was specific about was on ‘Giorgio By Moroder’, where he kind of sang this thing to me and I just took what he sang and had fun with it and kind of expanded upon it.
BK: When you heard ‘Get Lucky’ on the radio did you remember it from recording it?
OH: I didn’t actually but I recognised my hi hat stuff, so I definitely knew it was me playing.
BK: it sounds to me like an 8 bar loop for most of it.
OH: Maybe it is.
BK: either that or you were extremely consistent and played the same thing over and over.
OH: I was definitely doing that, like I said, we would play the same grooves over and over.
BK: Even down to the specific hi hat variations? The Hi hat embellishments seem to repeat every 8 bars.
OH: maybe. I haven’t really analysed it yet but I like the record and it’s fun to hear yourself at the beach and see kids dancing to it. That’s cool.