Solos versus composed melodies?

Discussion in 'Music Theory [DB]' started by Tom Lane, Nov 23, 2022 at 1:30 PM.

  1. Tom Lane

    Tom Lane Gold Supporting Member

    I've been working on my solos, trying to make them more sophisticated, and I've fallen into composing over the changes to So What, which I find works well for this because it's simple enough to force me to focus more on the melody than the changes, but the two changes gives me something to aim for. Because of my studies, I've been once again pondering the differences between a solo and a composed melody.

    And, yes, I did a search and went through the first page of results but didn't find anything on point, plus, I reason that if it's been a while since the last time this question was asked, there are different folks here now, so... but, if you're better with the search engine than me, or can point me to the previous discussion, I'll appreciate it.

    I think you can argue that a solo is just a spontaneously composed melody and in many cases that is correct. Certainly, back in the swing days of jazz it was, what, mostly true? but, solos moved away from just simple melodies back in the late 30s and now there's a lot more technical and harmonic pyrotechnics than Louie played. Additionally, a solo usually spans more than a single chorus and the melody isn't usually recognizable between the choruses of the solo, so, they're fundamentally not the same even if that's your approach.

    In many ways, I think a modern jazz solo is more like the movements of a symphony, about contrasts leading to a series of climaxes with the most emotionally charged climax about 2/3s or 3/4s of the way through the last chorus, when the solo trails off to set the stage for the next event. the head or the next soloist.

    I've been focusing on building the climaxes between the choruses, making the last climax the most dramatic and I'm getting a handle of the different devices I can use but I thought I'd ask the hive-mind for comment.

    What say you?
  2. Jmilitsc

    Jmilitsc Gold Supporting Member

    Sep 22, 2013
    Fairfield County, CT
    this is how I hear every Wes solo - melody with intent at all times.
  3. AGCurry

    AGCurry Supporting Member

    Jun 29, 2005
    St. Louis
    Stating the obvious: A solo may be written, improvised, or some of both. All solo means (literally, "alone") is that it's played or sung by one person. And it need not be a melody... a drum solo does not involve melody unless maybe it's on pitched instruments, and some solos may use one or two notes, like Big Jay McNeely's famous one.

    Unless you're playing with a true jazz group (assuming that jazz is inherently improvisational), not everyone will be able to improvise, or improvise well enough. If that's the case, composing a solo passage is kosher. I've done that for players who couldn't improvise, and it can turn out well. I would rather sound good than insist on "authenticity" and sound not-so-good.

    Ideally, I think you're correct. Few are good enough to do that without at least a lot of planning beforehand. Kudos to you when you get there, or even if you don't!
    Jhengsman likes this.
  4. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator Gold Supporting Member

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    I agree that at the highest level, improvisation is just spontaneous composition. It is a well known fact that some of the greatest composers were also excellent improvisers.

    I am absolutely drawn to this kind of improvisation not only as a soloist, but also as an accompanist. From the bass chair, we help orchestrate and shape a great solo (also not so great ones, but that’s not as much fun). The global awareness of where a solo is going and the collective shaping of it is the hallmark of the best rhythm sections, in my opinion.

    There are also soloists who are known to compose their solos to a large extent. Getz was famous/infamous for doing this, and there are others. Personally, I don’t really care as a listener, since a great solo is a great solo. If I were in a touring band and a soloist played the same solo every night, it might bother me, but this has been done with pop/rock records from the beginning and some of those solos are iconic. It’s just a different aesthetic.

    But I think there’s great value in composing solos in the practice room, because it helps wire the brain to think more globally. In my jazz theory/improv class at the U, the final project is to write a solo using centered motifs, then to record that solo and improvise another chorus in the style of the one you wrote. It’s always interesting to see which students are better at which task.
    Papageno, Lee Moses, Joshua and 2 others like this.
  5. Bruce Calin

    Bruce Calin

    Oct 15, 2002
    I worked with a keyboard player who was excellent technically and could play great improvised solos but as part of our touring show would play the same solos every time. He knew they worked and didn't want to take chances. I'm sure most of us have also played with people who were predictable enough that we knew what they were going to play before they played it, even if it was supposedly "improvised". I've made an effort in the last several years to be as "in the moment" and non-judgmental of my own playing as I can be. It seems to be working to the extent that players I respect have commented on my good solos. Now the question is "What about the other 95% of what I play?". :)
  6. So these are guitar related, but here's a great solo intro that was improvised:

    And here's one that wasn't - with elements that got reused for entirely different songs with a different act altogether (skip to 4:12 mark):

    In my mind, a solo is about an instrument being elevated above the others. Whether it is pre-composed or impromptu is a secondary concern...and sometimes it feels like a pre-meditated solo is cheating, but at the same time perhaps it's not about composition but about the playing that is demonstrated.

    For example the video below contains a piece of music that was composed by somebody else...but yet it doesn't take away from the skill on display...errr...the skill that is heard while someone is miming playing it.

  7. gerry grable

    gerry grable

    Nov 9, 2010
    And then there's Phil Woods on Just The way You are.