Essential Solos: 40 Great Improvisations

Jazz artists and critics pick their favorite solos from the music's past and present


I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to Freddy Robinson’s perfectly designed guitar solo on “Good Time Boogie,” off John Mayall’s 1972 LP Jazz Blues Fusion, but it feels like a million. As you might deduce from the album’s title, the music is an exercise in smartening up simple forms and grooves. And during those impeccable choruses, Robinson plays along the dividing line between roots music and bebop to thrilling effect: He’s got the comfort-food phrasing plus the deeper sense of harmony that allows him to unspool a narrative, with a cool, dry hollowbody tone that makes his showier licks stand out in sharper relief than if he were plugged into an overdriven Marshall. It isn’t a canonical solo, by any means, but it’s on my short list of recommendations.

That’s pretty much what this undertaking is about, as opposed to a countdown or a compendium of jazz’s received wisdom. I asked JT contributors and top musicians to give me a list of between five and 10 improvised jazz solos they consider to be their favorites. “And note that I said your favorites,” I wrote in my pitch email. “I’m looking for the choruses that you have worn out on vinyl and cassette and painstakingly transcribed, the lines you’ve been humming for years.” (Musicians were also asked to refrain from voting for any recording they appear on.) The tallied results, from over 100 ballots, are fascinatingly diverse. Some jazz-school staples made the cut, but just as many are missing, in favor of solos from recordings you might need to dust off. Again, and with one exception—Miles on “So What,” which “won” the poll by a country mile—this isn’t a countdown but simply an alphabetized list of great solos any student of this music needs to hear, fleshed out with commentary from artists and writers. Happy listening.  EVAN HAGA, Editor

Soloist: Miles Davis
Miles Davis
“So What”
Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959)
It is the first improvisation on the best-selling classic jazz album of all time. It is recognized as a paradigm of soloing over minimal harmony—and prized as a harbinger of modal jazz, a perfect balance of sound and space.

What it is not is a “look-at-me” leap of technical prowess. Miles’ “So What” solo is brief—two unhurried choruses long—and goes by in no time at all. It features that laconic, behind-the-beat phrasing of his skinny-tie period, unfolding in call-and-response patterns faintly echoing the opening theme, without calling attention to itself. If there’s a grand statement being made, it’s one of minimal gesture and insouciance, perfectly reflected in the tune’s title.

Today, the solo serves as a primer on improvisation for first-year music students, revealing “how creative they can be, how much emotion they can get to, even at the beginning,” says Paolo Fresu, one of Europe’s premier trumpet and flugelhorn players and an educator at Università di Bologna. “It is so easy and so clear. Most solos jump up and down octaves. Miles keeps it simple, like it’s a new melody [draws his finger horizontally].”

You can see what Fresu means: There’s a moment around 1:45 into the tune (00:15 into the solo) when Miles plays five straight, stuttering D’s in a row, tying together one phrase with the next across a huge pause, defining a straight horizontal line: so simple and so rhythmically hip. So, as Miles would call it, what. ASHLEY KAHN

Soloist: Cannonball Adderley
“Milestones”
Miles Davis
Milestones
(Columbia, 1958)
Cannonball jumps right out of the gate with a perfect alto sound and complete command. He is able to play melodically, both within the mode and also by flirting with playing outside the changes. There are so many memorable phrases in this solo; it’s simple yet sophisticated, and his energy and the “happy feel” of his beat are infectious. Wouldn’t change a note. FRED HERSCH

Soloist: Louis Armstrong
“Potato Head Blues”
Louis Armstrong & His Hot Seven
“Potato Head Blues
” (OKeh, 1927)
This is an incredible track from the very beginning—with a blistering Johnny Dodds solo—and yet, when Louis’ stop-time chorus begins, time seems to stand still. It’s like that moment when you arrive at the edge of a cliff after hiking through a forest, and the entire vista just suddenly opens up and it takes your breath away. The solo is a masterpiece of rhythm, harmony and melody, but what comes across the most is joy—just pure joy in living. SCOTT ROBINSON

Louis Armstrong (photo by William Gottlieb c/o Library of Congress)

Soloist: Louis Armstrong
“West End Blues”
Louis Armstrong & His Hot Five
“West End Blues”
(OKeh, 1928)
The heraldic leadoff cadenza; the theme statement like a Platonic ideal; the breathtaking ascension of arpeggios climaxing in a high B-flat; the final chorus opening with that same B-flat held for four dramatic bars; an eruption of glorious free phrasing; out. In 1928, Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues” began modern jazz history. THOMAS CONRAD

Soloist: Paul Bley
“All the Things You Are”
Sonny Rollins/Coleman Hawkins
Sonny Meets Hawk! (RCA Victor, 1963)
Transcribing soloists on instruments other than your own is essential for musical growth, and this Bley solo from one of Rollins’ most daring albums has been studied by dozens of my non-piano-playing friends. It features traditional melodic phrases twisted in unique and surprising ways, and adds rhythmic and harmonic displacements to an overall sense of humor and bravado. Essential. JON IRABAGON

Soloist: Charlie Christian
“Swing to Bop”
Charlie Christian
Various compilations
(rec. 1941)
Recorded at a jam session at Minton’s, this 1941 improvisation by one of the earliest electric guitarists in history still stuns me. The interplay between Charlie and drummer Kenny Clarke is electrifying and in the moment, with a sense of rhythm and phrasing that would sound modern if played on a gig today. Yet it has that old-school sense of narrative structure and dynamics that is more rare now than then; there is real storytelling here. So adventurous and unique—and that tone! It has everything. I come back to this one often. NIR FELDER

Soloist: Ornette Coleman
“Chronology”
Ornette Coleman
The Shape of Jazz to Come
(Atlantic, 1959)
The song strikes the listener as being so familiar, very much like the kind of small-group bebop heads that no doubt influenced Ornette. It’s as if everything makes perfect sense yet all the customary rules for soloing are being broken—not for belligerence or whimsy, but because this is the only way he knows how to play. Bar lines are shattered; intonation is in its own world. Still, his playing swings like crazy. He darts in and out of the F-major key center, adding a touch of blues here and there. And one can’t forget the conversational spirit Ornette shares with drummer Billy Higgins. STEVE KHAN

Soloist: John Coltrane
“Chasin’ the Trane”
John Coltrane
Coltrane “Live” at the Village Vanguard
(Impulse!, 1962)
Listening to “Chasin’ the Trane” still gives me a sense of what Maestro Coltrane was all about: From his first phrases, which seem to be an improvised melody, to his extended trio exploration, his improvising here is stunning. On the original LP, it was a full side of the record and would capture you from start to finish. I came to realize he worked everything out on the blues. JOE LOVANO

Soloist: John Coltrane
“Crescent”
John Coltrane Quartet
Crescent
(Impulse!, 1964)
This solo is so well balanced—between fast and slow figures, different dynamics and energy, and lyrical phrases versus more chromatic ideas—that it could pass any compositional-review process with flying colors. Add to that some of the most relaxed yet intense swinging achieved by this stellar rhythm section and you have jazz perfection. DAVID LIEBMAN

John Coltrane’s “Crescent”

Soloist: John Coltrane
“Giant Steps”
John Coltrane
Giant Steps
(Atlantic, 1960)
With “Giant Steps,” Coltrane supplanted “Cherokee” as the litmus test for aspiring improvisers, packing so many harmonic substitutions into one progression that at first blush, consummate pianist Tommy Flanagan could barely eke his way through the changes. Coltrane’s vertiginous solo outlines as many arpeggios as it has launched doctoral dissertations into the architectonics of hearing Trane build a house in under five minutes.
AIDAN LEVY

Soloist: John Coltrane
“My Favorite Things”
John Coltrane
My Favorite Things
(Atlantic, 1961)
Much of Trane’s work on “My Favorite Things” sounds like his usual tenor and not the soprano he’s actually playing. But after each repeat of the melody, he tantalizes with ever-lengthening high-note phrases that finally burst into an ecstatic frenzy, just before he draws the quartet back together for the close. MICHAEL J. WEST

Soloist: John Coltrane
“Resolution”
John Coltrane
A Love Supreme
(Impulse!, 1965)
Here Coltrane creates an incredible arc that incorporates the melody within soloing—as if it is all composed, or perhaps all improvised. The energy at the beginning of the movement is already quite high, and he reaches unbelievable heights in emotion and intensity as the tune progresses. All the classic Coltrane motivic development is there and then some. He gets otherworldly sounds out of the tenor saxophone that connect with the depths of your soul; I love the apex of his solo, where he goes for this screaming high note in the exact right place. BOB MINTZER

Soloist: John Coltrane
“Transition”
John Coltrane
Transition (Impulse!; rec. 1965, rel. 1970)
What is not amazing about Coltrane’s solos on this tune, after the head and then his return following McCoy Tyner? For me, 1965 was a special year in Coltrane’s trajectory. That year was the connective tissue between the ideas expressed on Impressions, A Love Supreme and Crescent and the futuristic, far-reaching albums that followed. This solo is simultaneously virtuosic and visceral, intellectually stimulating yet emotionally resonant. The improvisational vocabulary put forth is astounding and requires a lifetime of study. And all the while, the pacing and lyricism are that of the best novel you’ll ever read. A life-changing solo for me, and maybe for you. RUDRESH MAHANTHAPPA

Soloist: Chick Corea
“Matrix”
Chick Corea
Now He Sings, Now He Sobs
(Solid State, 1968)
I often cite Chick’s solo on “Matrix” as a perfect example of motivic development and storytelling whenever I do clinics or master classes. The way he connects his ideas is a perfect example of what a great solo should be, and it is also very representative of Chick’s unique sound, touch and phrasing. It has incredible momentum, originality, clarity and subtlety. And the interplay between Chick, Miroslav Vitous and Roy Haynes is always fresh and unpredictable. Just great all around. ANTONIO SANCHEZ

Soloist: Israel Crosby
“But Not for Me”
Ahmad Jamal
At the Pershing: But Not for Me
(Argo, 1958)
Rather than only play the bassline in the first chorus, Crosby adds solo fills that have become standard repertoire for the bass world—and Ahmad Jamal gives him the space in which to do it. The other brilliance happens in the walking basslines that follow. People ask how to play melodic basslines? Here’s the answer, folks. JOHN CLAYTON

Soloist: Bill Evans
“Come Rain or Come Shine”
Bill Evans Trio
Portrait in Jazz
(Riverside, 1960)
I love the subtle, organic shifts of groove and the emotionally charged, continuously developing melodic line, spanning theme-solo-theme; it makes me hear “Come Rain or Come Shine” and, simultaneously, a completely new composition. Evans washes away any sense of difference between chord and melody as they complement and support each other. This solo is like receiving a candid letter from a good friend. LASZLO GARDONY

Ella Fitzgerald in November 1946

 

Soloist: Ella Fitzgerald
“How High the Moon”
Ella Fitzgerald
Mack the Knife: Ella in Berlin
(Verve, 1960)
What you hear in the Berlin recording of “How High the Moon” is the blossoming of Ella’s artistic maturation. In the freedom of her phrasing and the smile in her sound, you can hear her love for the audience and the sense of playfulness she enjoyed with her band. She sings the solo she recorded on her 1947 studio version of the tune and continues to develop more ideas, among them band hits, quotes and the comedy routine at the end. This performance is the perfect representation of her ideas and hard work, and of the magic that happens on the bandstand when you have the crowd in the palm of your hand. KRISTIN KORB

Soloist: Paul Gonsalves
“Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue”
Duke Ellington
Ellington at Newport
(Columbia, 1957)
The phrase that Gonsalves states to begin his solo in “Diminuendo” has a boldness, a swagger, an elegance, a deep traditional stamp and a curiosity about it. He manages to keep these attributes alive and threaded together through 27 choruses. Everything can be traced to how he sets this solo up. DAN WEISS

Soloist: Dexter Gordon
“Cheese Cake”
Dexter Gordon
Go
(Blue Note, 1962)
Gordon’s solo on “Cheese Cake” was the first improvised jazz solo I ever learned, and, almost 25 years later, I can still sing it note for note. What makes it so memorable? The fact that he plays great melody after great melody for over two minutes of melodic perfection; this is a study in what makes a melody a good melody. Some of those qualities include Gordon’s logical melodic development, his rich harmonic vocabulary (without resorting to complex chord substitutions) and his relaxed yet deep rhythmic feel. RYAN KEBERLE

Soloist: Charlie Haden
“Ramblin’”
Ornette Coleman
Change of the Century
(Atlantic, 1960)
Haden’s gorgeous double stops had already become famous by the time “Ramblin’” was released. His short solo begins as a double-stop sonata, the bassist applying the technique to sumptuous melody, with a bluesman’s sense of suspense. But the solo is a twofer, ending with another Charlie Haden signature: an extensive quote from the folk tune “Old Joe Clark,” his favorite song.
MICHAEL J. WEST

Soloist: Herbie Hancock
“Actual Proof”
Herbie Hancock
Thrust
(Columbia, 1974)
An iconic track with a legendary solo. I’ve been listening to it since age 13, and it has been very significant for me: a roiling, circular obstacle course, with bassist Paul Jackson and drummer Mike Clark spurring Herbie on to a grippingly digressive improvisation. He keeps upping the ante, chorus after chorus, a wellspring of invention, head-shaking in construction and catchiness, with a touch of psychedelic production to add to the ear candy. MATT MITCHELL

Herbie Hancock’s “Thrust”

Soloist: Coleman Hawkins
“Body and Soul”
Coleman Hawkins & His Orchestra
“Body and Soul”
(Bluebird, 1939)
A few people I’ve known—Dizzy Gillespie included—saw tenorman Coleman Hawkins not only as one of the giants of the swing era, but also in some ways like a very early bebopper. His exuberant solo on “Body and Soul” sounds almost like a perfectly built through-composed classical piece—without losing the candid freshness of improvisation. PAQUITO D’RIVERA

Soloist: Freddie Hubbard
“Birdlike”
Freddie Hubbard
Ready for Freddie
(Blue Note, 1962)
I remember the day I finally made it through Freddie’s brilliant blues excursion. I was living in Chelsea and was determined to make the transcription happen. And yes, my neighbors were thrilled when I finished it! Chorus after chorus, nearly 20 in total, it feels like one big groove-driven story to me. Badass riffs connected to melodies with clear and distinct direction, leading to perfectly swinging lines that I’ll be striving for forever. Not a second of unwarranted high notes or easy-out moments of false-fingering “whatevers.” Who knew B-flat could have so many possibilities? INGRID JENSEN

Soloist: Freddie Hubbard
“One Finger Snap”
Herbie Hancock
Empyrean Isles (Blue Note, 1964)
The best Freddie Hubbard solos had it all. They were profoundly melodic, harmonically complex, swinging and soulful, full of fire and passion and of course always contained what I called pyrotechnic feats of strength; he did things on the instrument that were seemingly impossible and would leave us all stunned. “One Finger Snap” is a perfect example of this. He begins his solo so melodically that we all thought for years that the first chorus of his solo was actually the melody of the tune—it’s even in some Real Books that way—only to find out otherwise through the alternate takes released later on CD. This is also Freddie’s first recording with Miles’ then-current rhythm section of Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, and I’m sure he was aware of this and was even more determined on the date. If my informal poll of all my trumpet-playing colleagues over the years is any indication, this is Freddie’s most transcribed solo. I think part of the reason is that while it is amazing and difficult to play along with, one can actually master it with a lot of work and effort—unlike most of Freddie’s solos, which are just impossible to master in their entirety. DAVID WEISS

Soloist: Elvin Jones
“Monk’s Dream”
Larry Young
Unity (Blue Note, 1966)
This solo is a masterpiece for many reasons. Elvin’s unique ability to stretch and expand the feeling of time while maintaining form and structure is on full display. He not only maintains the form but also references the melodic phrase of the tune. For a long time, I was under the impression that Elvin turned the beat around during the solo; however, upon further study and the improvement of my own time, I began to see that he would play through entire sections of the tune on what seemed like the wrong side of the beat, then suddenly make the phrase correction needed to land on his feet. RALPH PETERSON

Elvin Jones in 1957 (photo by Francis Wolff/Mosaic Images)

Soloist: Rahsaan Roland Kirk
“C Jam Blues”
Charles Mingus
Mingus at Carnegie Hall
(Atlantic, 1974)
This solo is the entire history of the jazz tenor saxophone in the space of about four minutes. Kirk enters with an amazing retort to George Adams’ own virtuosic display of extended technique, and then gives a backwards-chronological catalogue of tenor saxophone stylings, ranging from John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme through bebop to the guttural growls of Ben Webster. It is jazz legacy in sound. JEFF LEDERER

Soloist: Pat Metheny
“Bright Size Life”
Pat Metheny
Bright Size Life
(ECM, 1976)
I love how Metheny dives right into his solo with no hesitation. There’s a lightness and fluidity to it all that I respond to: The ethereal nature of some of his upward-spiraling lines landing right on these bluesy riffs—while locking in with Jaco Pastorius and Bob Moses—makes me giggle and sing along every time. THEO BLECKMANN

Soloist: Hank Mobley
“Remember”
Hank Mobley
Soul Station
(Blue Note, 1960)
This solo features Hank’s trademark melodicism and unapologetic enjoyment of the changes. The phrasing and use of space make it feel as though he’s having a dynamic and entertaining conversation with someone just out of ear’s reach. I also enjoy the rainbow-shaped arc of the solo. He develops themes in an unhurried way, letting them expand and blossom, and then guides us home via the blues. Perfection! KATE MCGARRY

Soloist: Oliver Nelson
“Stolen Moments”
Oliver Nelson
The Blues and the Abstract Truth (Impulse!, 1961)
The relaxed pacing and motivic development make this solo a strong, bold statement that offers a stark contrast to the preceding solos by Freddie Hubbard and Eric Dolphy. I love all the solos on this track, but there is something special about Nelson’s statement that makes you lean in and listen. Holding long tones, at times over more than one chord, Nelson says a lot with not a lot of notes while also utilizing a wide span of the pitch range on the instrument. The hint of augmented sound at the end—also a nod to “Hoe-Down,” another of Nelson’s compositions on the album—is like a brief brushstroke of contrasting color. LINDA MAY HAN OH

Soloist: Charlie Parker
“Embraceable You”
Charlie Parker Quintet
“Embraceable You”
(Dial, rec. 1947)
Parker’s improvisation on “Embraceable You” bears the mark of both his compositional thought process and his seemingly effortless extemporaneous flow. It is a new melody, and its development is perfect: The harmonic clarity and innovation and rhythmic invention are flawlessly navigated, and he’s always telling a story. Add to that Parker’s glorious alto saxophone sound and the vocal nuances that come through his horn and you have one of the greatest recordings in history. Duke Jordan’s piano introduction is also a classic, and the alternate take is equally brilliant, soulful and … different! BILL CHARLAP

Charlie Parker in August 1947 (photo by William P. Gottlieb c/o Library of Congress)

Soloist: Charlie Parker
“Just Friends”
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker With Strings (Verve, rec. 1949)
“Just Friends” is one of those recordings that exemplify the genius of Charlie Parker. He was, obviously, a complete player: His tone, his time, his articulation, his understanding of harmony, his almost extrasensory ability to listen—these were some of the things that made him who he was. He transcended the saxophone and went to pure music. Listen to the fluidity in his playing and the lightness and transparency of his sound. It makes me think of what butterfly wings would sound like if we could hear them. JEFF COFFIN

Soloist: Charlie Parker
“Ko Ko”
Charlie Parker’s Ri Bop Boys
“Ko Ko”
(Savoy, 1945)
A book editor once told me he thought the best books are always strong and strange. Parker’s “Ko Ko”—all of it, not just his solo but the composition from the first emphatic “one”—is strong and strange and also clear. There are open spaces and long tones amid Parker’s fast, forceful, off-centered language. Jazz operates on paradox, and Parker’s two choruses sound like some kind of off-the-cuff law; their spontaneity is matched only by their careful preparation. BEN RATLIFF

Soloist: Jaco Pastorius
“Donna Lee”
Jaco Pastorius
Jaco Pastorius
(Epic, 1976)
Overall the architecture is uniquely witty, with bold use of extensions/upper structures—not commonly associated with bass solos—as well as phrasing that pushes over typical groupings of measures and choruses. Add to that Jaco’s impeccable time feel and technique; his diverse choices in range, rhythm and articulation; the slick and unexpected key change to E; and the refreshing instrumentation (which allows for that freedom to explore those upper structures). LINDA MAY HAN OH

Jaco Pastorius’ self-titled debut album

Soloist: Jaco Pastorius
“Havona”
Weather Report
Heavy Weather
(Columbia, 1977)
“Havona,” by Jaco Pastorius, is a remarkable study in contrasts. The melody’s long notes soar majestically atop the swirling “Florida beat” (Jaco’s term) of the bass and drums. Jaco’s bass solo starts with stately melodic components, including an homage to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, but then he whips out the chops while somehow never losing any sense of the elegance and melody that were the hallmark of his best playing. And he does it all on the fretless bass with perfect intonation and tone. And time. One of the finest Weather Report tracks ever. PETER ERSKINE

Soloist: Sonny Rollins
“Blue 7”
Sonny Rollins
Saxophone Colossus
(Prestige, 1956)
On “Blue 7,” what Rollins derives from a simple minor-blues theme is so vast yet so relevant to the melody, so imaginative yet so logical, it is astonishing that he made it up on the spot. Arnold Schoenberg said the best written music sounds improvised and the best improvised music sounds written. “Blue 7” is proof. THOMAS CONRAD

Soloists: Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt
“The Eternal Triangle”
Dizzy Gillespie/Sonny Rollins/Sonny Stitt
Sonny Side Up (Verve, 1959)
This track is a great example of the right way to approach a “cutting contest”—no grandstanding, no cheap tricks, just constant invention and musical focus. Both Sonnys are clearly inspired and motivated by the other’s presence, playing individual solos and trading sequences full of rhythmic, tonal and harmonic surprises. KEN PEPLOWSKI

Soloist: Wayne Shorter
“On Green Dolphin Street”
Miles Davis
The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965

(Columbia/Legacy, 1995)
I’m not an academic (and there’s probably not enough room here to get academic, though one could with this solo). For me, it’s the counterintuitive choices Shorter makes in this solo that really get me. By counterintuitive I mean: Shorter seems to use the unusual notes in a chord or voice-leading moment to connote other harmonic areas, keys and scales, and somehow always manages to resolve the dissonance tunefully but almost never in the way you expect. It helps that his dialogue with the rest of the band is telepathic, with each interesting harmonic, melodic and rhythmic choice leading to an intelligent and emotive response. The deeper you listen, the more profound those choices seem. That makes a great improvisation, no matter the music or style. DAVE DOUGLAS

Soloist: Lennie Tristano
“Line Up”
Lennie Tristano
Lennie Tristano
(Atlantic, 1956)
Tristano’s “Line Up” is a tour de force demonstration of soloing in the bebop idiom. Learning that he had crafted it over a prerecorded rhythm section doesn’t lessen the beauty and power of his lines, which showcase striking syncopation, incisive melodies and phrasing and daring harmonic excursions. Tristano plays “all” of “All of Me”—and then some! HELEN SUNG

Soloist: McCoy Tyner
“Passion Dance”
McCoy Tyner
The Real McCo
y (Blue Note, 1967)
When I first heard McCoy’s solo on his iconic “Passion Dance,” I remember being exhilarated and fascinated. Having started playing jazz only a few years before, I was amazed at how he was able to play over one chord with the same directional energy and inevitability he’d use to solo over changes. His phrasing, the shapes of his lines and how he navigates harmony are uniquely his own: compelling, irresistible, a game-changer. HELEN SUNG

“Sarah Vaughan With Clifford Brown”

Soloists: Sarah Vaughan, Clifford Brown
“September Song”
Sarah Vaughan Sarah Vaughan With Clifford Brown
(EmArcy, 1955)
Vaughan delivers an interpretation of this melody that displays her wide range in sonority, including low husky tones, a velvety midrange and shimmering high notes. Her voice soars beautifully over sparse horn riffs and the relaxed, warm rhythm section. Brown’s solo is also memorable: Upbeat, repeated rhythmic figures on the muted trumpet fuel forward motion and exemplify his personal style. This solo is a remarkable example of his phrasing, inflections, articulation, dynamics and ornamentation. JARED SIMS