Wednesday, 31 October 2012

What's in a jazz solo, and why not play solo?

One blog that I read from time to time is Sam Newsome's blog. He's been one of my favourite players since way back, his playing in the early formations of Terence Blanchard were for me great models of intelligent soloing that was clearly musical and original. He really developed his solo lines, not just finger twiddling and high class plagiarism that we mostly hear, including great players even. Listen to the early recording of the Terence Blanchard's 5tet - 'Simply Stated', 'Terence Blanchard' and 'The Malcolm X Jazz Suite' to hear how Sam often took very simple ideas and moved them, either transposing, or developing his idea in such a graceful way. For me it was a very logical (and not unsurprising) step for Sam to make when he started working on solo performance, and also the soprano sax, although I always found his tenor playing particularly good.      

Photo taken from Sam's blog (Copyright to ??)
Recently one of Sam's posts was about playing solo, as in solo performances - totally unaccompanied. The short but interesting article titled 'Me, Myself and I : Reflections on solo playing' brought up a very interesting point which was : why don't more jazz players play unaccompanied performances? So, why is this? Here's the reply (comment) I posted on Sam's blog, although for it to make complete sense read the blog-post first which I've linked just above this. 

I wrote :

"Interesting idea Sam. You're of course quite right when pointing out the difference between classical and jazz solo performances. However, I would suggest that Steve Lacy's solo concerts are an exception to the rule, in fact I find some of his work akin to the Bach Cello suites (comparison wise that is). But most jazz performers do not play original melody when improvising, that is to say most players play the same thing BUT it's the way they do it which makes it original, and so interesting. Lacy, was a true original and played improvisations that were certainly well rehearsed - he practised ideas which used and developed in his solo work - and extremely individual for each performance. He also had a highly original approach melodically, another comparison to Bach.

There are a few players such as yourself and Evan Parker (as an example) who work more on the performance and construction, which means it's more solid as a listening experience. Classical music is composed and thought over so that it will be interesting, likewise folk music also which are again compositions.

What's probably most interesting is that when we realise that jazz doesn't translate to solo playing so easily, we can identify (probably), why jazz is less interesting to the general public. It may also make jazz players reassess their work as not real art, but a form of plagiarism. But that's moving away from the subject.

Thanks again for the blog."

And Sam's response :

"I agree that 'jazz does not translate to solo playing easily.' And not that it should, being that they are two very different formats, each requiring a very different sensibility from the performer. Just speaking to solo playing, the reason why Steve Lacy and Evan Parker recordings are engaging and don't make the listener feel that something is missing, is because of the thought and planning that goes into the construction of the piece as a whole and not just being focused on the improvisational component of the piece. This holds especially true with regards to Lacy, whose performances are akin to a classical composer using the jazz vocabulary as a resource. And also as you succinctly put it: "Classical music is composed and thought over so that it will be interesting."

And I appreciate your thoughts on this matter. Maybe it will spark further discussion from like- and maybe, not-so-like-minded individuals.


And indeed it does make one reassess what jazz musicians and jazz music is actually about now? I don't think it was so much different in the past, one just has to listen to Hank Mobley, Dexter Gordon, Clifford Jordan to name three brilliant players, to hear that they all used the same vocabulary/patterns. There is nothing strange in this, that's the nature of jazz, and to be honest if we compare this with language we understand that we all use the same words and phrase constructions (in any one language), but this doesn't make us any less an individual. What did interest me though is that musicians that go out of their way to be creative. Or try melodic possibilities that are maybe not so accessible on first hearing and also develop areas of their instruments possibilities that are less used.

However, I can think that it's interesting to think of a few solo recordings that I've found particularly interesting over the years. Probably the BIG four for me have been - Lee Konitz 'Lone-Lee', Anthony Braxton 'Alto Saxophone Improvisations 1979'(*), Steve Lacy's 'Snips (live at Environ)' and also Evan Parker's Six of One which just the first track alone has kept me hypnotised each time I listen to it! What would be interesting would be a listing of all solo saxophone records. Unfortunately this won't be happening on this blog for obvious reasons concerning time and space. Just to think of a few more interesting soloists (not their records) that come to mind are Joe McPhee, John Butcher, Louis Sclavis, Roscoe Mitchell, John Surman, Daunik Lazro, Ab Baars, Sabir Mateen, David Ware, Dave Liebman, Lol Coxhill to name a small number. Naturally I can't include everyone who's made a solo recording, and I certainly haven't heard all of them! If you're interested to check out a limited list of recordings look at this list on the free jazz blog (some of which I've heard as I write for the blog).

Here's Roscoe Mitchell playing 'Ericka' from the album 'Nonaah' apparently a truly remarkable recording. I haven't heard the 'whole' record, so I didn't put him in my top 4. I've heard (from people) that this is one of THE recordings to hear. I'll be checking it out one day soon ..... finances/time permitting.

Sonny Rollins and Coleman Hawkins .... weren't on my list, why? Well, I certainly think they are great saxophonists (read : giants), but somehow I don't find what they recorded 'solo' as pushing the limits in terms of the saxophone. Yes, it's true that Coleman Hawkins was doing something truly original when he recorded 'Body and Soul' solo - nobody had even thought about that medium AND, he was also harmonically ahead of his time. But, he didn't do any other solo recordings from that period, probably because it was completely 'non-commercial'? However, it seems more of a historical document, rather than a true sax solo record. As for Sonny, he just does what all jazz musicians do when they're practising. They blow round chord progressions in their little apartments, on street corners, practice rooms etc, Sonny just went onto stage/studio any recorded the same thing.

Lastly what makes a solo recording/performance relevant? I think a true solo recording/performance should be a piece or performance specially thought out as for that instrument, and not 'oh well, I'll just pretend there's a rhythm section here' and play a jazz standard in 4/4 or whatever. What makes Lee Konitz recording 'Lone-Lee' so interesting is his approach to playing without a rhythm section, almost (to my ears) like a Bach Cello suite.

Anyhow, thanks Sam (Newsome) for bringing up the point about solo performances. I hope to look into this a little further and see what else can be deemed from working on, or listening to, such music.        
*= Strange that this seminal album doesn't have a more interesting summing up on any musical website. AMG - shame on you!
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