The Gig: Lew Soloff, 1924-2015

Consummate lead player, a surefooted improviser, an impeccable technician and a generous mentor

Lew Soloff image 0

Lew Soloff

He’s best remembered, out in the world, for 35 seconds of fire-breathing ingenuity on an epochal pop song. But Lew Soloff meant much more than his immortal trumpet solo on “Spinning Wheel,” which led off Side B of the 1968 LP Blood, Sweat & Tears.

A consummate lead player, a surefooted improviser, an impeccable technician and a generous mentor, Soloff occupied an important place in the New York jazz firmament for more than 40 years. He did this despite releasing fewer than 10 proper solo albums, and maybe just one-With a Song in My Heart (Milestone, 1999)-that saw widespread release. His legacy rests largely on the glowing work he did in large ensembles, typically as a first chair: a short list would include the Gil Evans Orchestra, the Carla Bley Big Band, the Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Among the earliest responses to his death was a tribute posted to Facebook by his fellow trumpeter and Jazz at Lincoln Center honcho Wynton Marsalis, who summed up by writing: “Tragic loss for music, irrecoupable loss for trumpet.” Soloff died in the early morning hours of March 8, after a massive heart attack. He was 71.

Word spread quickly among musicians, and social media made it possible to outline a crude topography of his influence. I learned of his death on Twitter, where alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw had recalled playing alongside him in the Mingus Big Band. Ambrose Akinmusire memorialized him as “one of my favorite teachers and one of the baddest trumpeters ever.” Guitarist Jimmy Vivino, bandleader of choice for late-night talk show host Conan O’Brien, tweeted that “Gabriel will have to play 2nd chair now,” given that “Lew Soloff is on the job in Heaven’s Band.”

Another television bandleader-keyboardist Paul Shaffer, of Late Show With David Letterman-was among Soloff’s closest friends. “He could play anything with authority and credibility,” Shaffer said when I reached him. “And his ambition was always to be an artist, a soloist. But he had the kind of training that enabled him to become a number-one, first-call studio musician.”

Born in Brooklyn and raised in New Jersey, Soloff began playing the trumpet at age 10. As a teenager he spent his summers working at resorts around the Catskills, before studying at the Eastman School of Music, followed by Juilliard. His breakout gig in New York was with Machito, the first of many salsa and Latin-jazz legends who would seek out his services, including Mongo Santamaria and Tito Puente.

Soloff had a bright, clarion tone that he could harden at will, and his fluency on the horn was nearly absolute. He also had the ability to give a written line the breath of life, setting the pace for a section and, by extension, an entire band. By 1966 he was working not only with trumpeter Maynard Ferguson but also with the Gil Evans Orchestra. He played on a succession of Evans albums, including The Gil Evans Orchestra Plays the Music of Jimi Hendrix (RCA, 1974), and later hailed the wizardly composer-arranger as his “musical godfather.”

Few self-identified jazz musicians ever worked in as wide an array of settings. Soloff backed Frank Sinatra and Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon and Philip Glass. He played on countless television commercials and movie soundtracks. He was a founding member of the Manhattan Jazz Quintet, which released more than 30 years’ worth of albums on Japanese labels. And for the last decade he was a stalwart in Manhattan Brass, an acclaimed, broadminded classical quintet.

Soloff had been increasingly intent on his solo career in recent years, and one thing that stings about his loss is the sense that for all of his expansive accomplishments, he had something new to give. The only albums of his that I know well are With a Song in My Heart, with a rhythm section led by pianist Mulgrew Miller, and another Milestone release, Trumpet Legacy, co-credited to his fellow trumpeters Tom Harrell, Eddie Henderson and Nicholas Payton. Until I began writing this column, I’d never even heard of Soloff’s 1987 King album But Beautiful, with pianist Kenny Kirkland, bassist Richard Davis and drummer Elvin Jones.

The fact that Soloff is still most famous for his five-year tenure in Blood, Sweat & Tears should hardly be dismissed as the product of a glib cultural memory. “He downplayed it, but it was monumental,” said Shaffer, “and it opened up the boundaries of rock ‘n’ roll. It made people say, ‘Hey, there can be something called jazz-rock, where you incorporate more sophisticated elements but don’t lose the soul or the edge.’ He pioneered that.”

Soloff’s “Spinning Wheel” solo-which was edited out of the single version, but probably had something to do with the song’s Grammy Award for Best Arrangement Accompanying a Vocalist-is a compact tour de force. And it conveys his personality as a soloist, with a row of off-the-beat accents that melt into boppish swagger, and finally a stratospheric fanfare.

In the wake of Soloff’s death I stumbled across a clip on YouTube: video from Woodstock, where Blood, Sweat & Tears was the second-highest-paid act, after Jimi Hendrix. The trumpet solo in this “Spinning Wheel” is completely different; there’s hardly a lick in common with the album version. It’s less punchy but more searching, full of ideas, not remotely touched by compromise. In the end, it represents him well.