Great Recorded Solos in Jazz and Other Styles of Music

I was talking to a friend about music the other day, and a thought occurred to me: If he asked me for specific examples of a great jazz solos, I think I might have a hard time answering that. As a jazz fan, I’m a bit disappointed in this. I really have made a mental or physical catalog of great solos. But I thought I’d start doing that here. I will also expand this endeavor to include great solos, including non-improvised and from other styles of music.

Before I begin here are a few thoughts, off the top of my head, on what makes a great solo. I’m inclined to start by comparing jazz solos from solos often hear in pop and rock music. The former are akin to stories. If listeners don’t follow a story, from beginning, middle, to the end, then they won’t be able to appreciate it. The same is true for most jazz solos. Guitar or keyboard solos in pop/rock are rarely like that. Indeed, if listeners try to follow a story, they likely will end up disappointed, as there really isn’t much of a story there. My sense is that the solos mostly add rockin’ feeling to the music. Sometimes catchy riffs will be a part of the solo, which makes them enjoyable to listen to. I tend to think pop/rock solos that are stories or developed melodies is pretty rare. In summary, a great solo tells a good story or is well-developed melody–one that sounds good, but takes you somewhere. For the listener, such a solo is like starting at one point then going on an interesting journey and then arriving at another point or back at the start.

Swing (or a good groove) and the interplay between the musicians are two other important parts of a great solo in my opinion. Generally, musicians have to be in a good groove. (Maybe that’s not as true for ballads, though.) When this happens can feel a different type of energy elevating the music. Without this energy, the notes may be appropriate and even good, but the music will feel flat. My sense is that swinging depends on strong interplay between the musicians, where what each individual plays fits well with everyone else. I don’t think a music will swing or groove without this.

OK, I think that’s enough for now. The next time I come across a good solo or if I remember one, I’ll put down in this thread.

7 thoughts on “Great Recorded Solos in Jazz and Other Styles of Music

  1. Looking forward to this. If you can, share some of the YouTube songs.

    I suspect that if someone said he or she doesn’t hear stories at all in jazz solos, you would acknowledge the response, then share that listening to jazz often requires a different approach, and that the patient listener is rewarded with a better appreciation for the intention of the musician and the artform.

    Your ideas about rock solos aren’t wrong, but I think they demonstrate a similar lack of identifying with and appreciating the form. Saying a rock solo mostly adds a rocking feeling is kind of like saying a jazz solo mostly adds a jazzy feeling to a song. I totally see why you’d say this, but you (specifically you) approach jazz differently from how you approach rock. Totally fine and legitimate.

    There is a definite general form of a typical pop/rock song, and a solo is often part of this form. Given this structure, what would the musician say is the role of the solo? Sure, sometimes it’s to add a rocking feel, but the good musicans are certainly going for more than that. An Angus Young solo, nearly always in a blues form, is different from a Brian May solo, something a little different.

    The solos in “Bohemian Rhapsody” are full of longing and sadness. When I was in high school I thought May was making his guitar cry, a non-lyrical expression of the sadness and regret the song’s persona is singing about.

    The purpose of some pop/rock songs is to make you get up and shake it. Good solos in such songs extend the vibe (or present it a different way). When it’s really good it becomes part of our memory of the song, sometimes a defining part. If you’ve ever sung the notes of Junior Walker’s sax solo in Foreigner’s “Urgent” or the long guitar outro in “Hotel California” you know what I mean. In both cases the solos are practically lyrical (in fact some guitarists are known for their lyrical solos, like Joe Satriani). I don’t think they tell a story by themselves, but they’re like another point of view or another voice in the story of the song.

    In bands with twin lead guitars, such as Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, solos are often further development and variation of the musical themes the songs explore, and the dual leads adds a cool dynamic, where one guitarist contributes one way, then the next adds a further thought, sometimes similar and sometimes different. Within an individual song it can be neat. Across a band’s body of work it can give you a sense of who the musicians are.

    Not the best example (and you absolutely are not obligated to check it out), but one that comes to mind because I was just listening to it last week is Iron Maiden’s live recording of “Flight of Icarus” on the Live After Death album. Listen with headphones: the album is mixed so one guitarist is mostly in the left speaker and the other guitarist is mostly in the right speaker. For this reason I recommend listening on whatever you stream from. I don’t know how YouTube handles stereo. (EDIT: It handles it terribly, but if you’re looking at an actual live video you can see the guitarists rather than rely on placement in the mix).

    The first solo begins at 1:40. The second solo comes right after at about 1:54. Obviously, there are a lot of different ways to hear the solos, and I could be projecting my own thoughts of the song onto these solos. What I hear in the first solo is a kind of joyous, looping amazement Icarus must have felt on first taking flight. I feel him dipping and diving, then soaring upward. In the second solo, I hear him steadying his trajectory, now mostly going straight up. There’s a little bit of hesitancy at about 2:02 where I picture him having second thoughts but continuing upward.

    There’s another solo in the left ear at the end; I don’t have nearly the same kind of interpretation there. The song’s lyrics don’t really get as far as Icarus’s fall, so I think we leave him still in flight, as if the band wants to remember him still in the sky, which the solo kind of conveys.

    Anyway, that’s a long bit of ranting at 3:30 in the morning when I’m supposed to be writing something for work. I think I’m sharing these thoughts mostly to emphasize that musicians have an artistic purpose and sometimes it’s to make you feel whatever vibe the song is expressing (such as a rocking feeling) and sometimes it’s to express something in the context and framework of the song as art. A solo in a lullaby, for example, may simply wish to lull you into relaxation. A solo in a lullaby about the warmth of a mother’s embrace may wish to stir feelings of love and physical safety as well. They can both be memorable, effective, and sticky.

    1. I have a feeling you’re going to correct me about the jazz storytelling. I know you’re not talking about stories in words or events, but musical stories where individual notes and phrases refer to each other within the order of the solos.

  2. I suspect that if someone said he or she doesn’t hear stories at all in jazz solos, you would acknowledge the response, then share that listening to jazz often requires a different approach, and that the patient listener is rewarded with a better appreciation for the intention of the musician and the artform.

    Yep, and my own path to jazz would have informed this response. My experience with rock/pop were obstacles to appreciating jazz, and if I didn’t approach jazz differently (which occurred because of better understanding of jazz) I would never have become a big fan.

    I know you’re not talking about stories in words or events, but musical stories where individual notes and phrases refer to each other within the order of the solos.

    Yeah, but I don’t know if this quite captures the concept. To some degree, I think this can apply to rock/pop solos, too. And what exactly is a musical story? I remember hearing great jazz musicians described as great storytellers, and it took me a long time before I had a decent understanding of this….

    …I just thought of another analogy: A jazz soloist might be like a guy who gets behind the wheel and takes them on an interesting route–or at least she hopes the route will be interesting and enjoyable for the passengers. If multiple musicians solo, each gets their turn behind the wheel.

    Saying a rock solo mostly adds a rocking feeling is kind of like saying a jazz solo mostly adds a jazzy feeling to a song.

    My description was too limiting. I didn’t mean to exclude different types of emotions. Rock/pop solos can offer a variety of emotions and colors, but ultimately, I feel like they’re more embellishments or ornamentation, or a change-up to add some variety or another layer to the song. Jazz solos on the other hand, are the central part of the songs–the meat and potatoes so to speak, while rock/pop solos are the gravy or some garnish.

  3. Here’s a solo I like:

    I also like Lagrimas’s tone on uke, and the guitarist deserves some props, too.

  4. At the 39 minute mark in this Pat Metheny interview, Metheny defines a good melody, which is relevant to this topic. He says some really good things, especially the “Happy Birthday” example.

    Metheny doesn’t talk about telling a story, but he talks about developing an idea. That is, introduce a musical phrase, then do a variation on, and then do another maybe more interesting variation, and then return to the original idea. I guess this is closely relate to storytelling and both involve linear process where the musician connected ideas in a logical and coherent way.

    Metheny also points out that the musical ideas need not be pretty or catchy. They can be abstract, dissonant, and even composed of sounds that aren’t proper notes played by instruments. As an example of the latter, he mentions that the sound of boxes falling down a stairs can be a melody. I would expand on this by saying one could organize these similar to fit the “Happy Birthday” structure, and that can be satisfying. This is what often distinguishes a good Noise piece from a bad one.

    Finally, Metheny briefly touches on the way harmony and rhythm are tied to the melody. I think he means that harmony and rhythm can be developed, like a single note melody. He doesn’t say that explicitly, but I that’s what he means, and I agree.

    Anyway, I really liked the entire interview. Metheny is one of the most articulate musicians, generally, but especially when talking about music. I must also say that I really liked the interviewer. He really limits his speaking–he rarely interrupts, and he often relies on nodding or facial reactions, rather than response verbally, to convey his understanding or affirmation of Metheny’s words.

    Side note:

    I haven’t really posted any examples, and I wanted to discuss the reason for this. When I’ve looked for examples of favorite solos, particularly ones that fit my initial development, I think that standard I had mind served as a stumbling block. I could find solos I liked, but almost none of them met the standard I had in mind.

    I actually wondered if I needed to modify my definition or modify my expectation. The development of the solo (single notes played by the lead musicians) may not be outstanding, but I could enjoy solo for some other factors. For example, the energy, dynamics and sense of swing may emerge; musicians in the rhythm section may add variation to their playing.

    The solo below (starting at 1:40 minute mark) is an example of this. I like the drummer (Johnny Vidacovich) as much as the guitarist (Steve Masaskowski). (I wish I could hear the bassist [James Singleton] better.) I don’t think Masakowski’s solo, in terms of the melody is great, but I still like it, and the overall playing.

  5. Here are three good solos from the tune, “Laverne Walk,” off the Ron Carter (b) album Golden Striker, with Russell Malone (g) and Donald Vega (p). (Note: The embed link wouldn’t work.)

    Several comments about this performance:

    1. I like the tune.
    2. The overall interplay is really good (although I wished Vega and Malone laid out a bit more when the other was soloing, as they seemed a bit too busy at times. Additionally, Carter sounded good and his accompaniment alone would have been sufficient).
    3. The entire performance is really good. I like the variations in the tempo and dynamics. At the end of the last solo, there are several points where I thought the performance would end, but the three musicians kept extending the song–in interesting ways.
    4. Finally, I would recommend thinking of Pat Metheny’s comments about “Happy Birthday”–specifically, the format of starting with an idea, adding one variation to it, then another even more significant variation, and then recapitulating the original idea. All three musicians do this fairly well when they solo in my opinion–although they don’t just build off one idea, but have several ideas that the apply this approach.

  6. The following clip makes me feel foolish for the way I described rock solos above (although in my defense I would ask if they’re exceptions that prove rule). In any event, these are some good solos. #1 is a surprise, but a worthy choice.

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