Let It Breathe

What makes a jazz solo great? Why do musicians keep coming back to certain master players for inspiration in developing their own skills and style? Is there any single quality common to the most admired (and most transcribed) solos in the jazz tradition?

Rhythm, whether it is a sense of swing or groove or an individual player’s use of rhythmic elements, is crucial, of course. Note choices (the “melody” or pitch content) is also critically important. Dynamics, articulation, style… all of these factors contribute to the overall quality of a jazz performance. But I would argue that none of these elements, taken separately, inevitably makes for a great, memorable solo.

It seems to me that, to be effective in a deep way, a solo must breathe. There must be a dynamic sense of phrasing where all of the individual musical elements converge in a convincing way. The oft-mentioned balance between the expected and the unexpected is certainly a part of this, but it is more than toying with the listener’s expectations that gives a solo that certain something that makes it all but unforgettable.

Jazz musicians spend a lot of time working on fundamentals – scales, arpeggios, transcribing, ear training etc. If you’re reading this you no doubt know exactly what I’m talking about. Becoming an effective soloist with something to say takes a lot of effort and time.

Here’s a suggestion for the coming year’s practice sessions: put some of your attention on phrasing and breathing regardless of what instrument you play. Listen not only to the great instrumentalists but also to the great vocalists. Pay attention not only to when they breathe, but also why they chose to start or end a phrase where they did. Experiment with varying lengths of your phrases. You can do this while working on your fundamentals as well as when you’re soloing.

Let it breathe.

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