Elements of a Great Jazz Solo

Listed in Order of Importance:

Tone Quality - Your sound must have warmth, clarity, resonance, spirit, energy. 

Rhythmic Vitality and Accuracy - Your rhythms MUST groove with the rhythm section. Listen, play in time, "play with the people you are playing with." Rhythms must be appropriate for the style, use rhythms from the song or chart. Rhythms must be articulated clearly and accurately for the style you are playing. This is learned by listening to great jazz artists.

Correct Notes - You must play notes that fit the chords and scales of the tune. 

Leave Some Space -  A pause in your solo is an invitation to the rhythm section to interact with you. You want to build a solo together and have a musical conversation.

Pause for reflection -
You - yes, junior high and high school students - can play a great solo by observing the elements listed above, even if you play only one note. Start by playing only the root (name) of the chords - If you play with a great tone and rhythmic accuracy and vitality, it will sound good. When you can do this, limit yourself to 2 notes per chord, the root and third. When you are successful with this, add one more note, the 7th of the chord (the 3rd and 7th are the tones that best define the sound of the chord). THENyou can proceed to the following elements.

The following two elements define the depth of your jazz artistry:

Chord/Scale Knowledge and Skill - A great soloist knows how to spell every chord in the song, and what scale choices are available for each chord. Most chords have one scale that best defines it. Dominant chords have several scale options that the soloist can use to create intensity through subtle dissonance. 

Vocabulary - As you listen to great jazz artists, you will notice certain phrases and patterns that are commonly used over certain types of chords. These sounds have become the vocabulary that jazz artists use to communicate with each other.  Vocabulary is learned by copying (transcribing) great jazz solos played by the masters. Serious jazz students will listen to an artist whom they admire, find a phrase they like, perhaps a melodic line that sounds good over a ii-V7-I chord progression, and learn it in all 12 keys. When the student can convey this sound in any playing situation, the phrase has become part of his/her vocabulary. Acquiring vocabulary and learning to communicate with like-minded musicians is a richly rewarding, life-long endeavor. It keeps me practicing every day!

Lots to learn, that's the joy of it!
-Mr. Jacobi

How to Prepare for a Solo Feature
  • Memorize the chord changes. Outline the chords daily with iReal Pro and this will come naturally.
  • If there is a written solo, memorize it. There may be useful parts.
  • Write out your own solo, carefully following the chord changes, and send it to me, both written and recorded. I will edit and send it back. Notion is an inexpensive writing tool. You will be amazed by how much you learn about rhythm as you try to write down the ideas in your head. Feel free to take ideas from recordings of these pieces and transcribe them, incorporating them into your vocabulary. Fragments of the melody also work well.
  • Repeat these steps.
Your goal is to have 3 potential solos memorized and at your fingertips in time for the performance. If you're wondering about spontaneity, here's how it works. 

Pros select melodic phrases from the vocabulary that they have developed over the years to fit the chord changes that they are playing. The more experience they have, the greater their vocabulary, and number of options to draw from. The procedure outlined above will give you 3 options for any given part of your solo. It will also give you a foundation to build upon and carry over to other tunes as you learn them.  

Major jazz festivals include a final performance by the top bands at the end of the day. It is not uncommon to hear the soloists in these bands play the exact same solo in the finals that they played in the first performance. Or slight alterations to the solo. THE most important thing is a convincing delivery in the correct style with accurate chord/scale choices. This comes from lots of listening.