16 must-hear jazz solos and improvisations

It’s one of the defining elements of jazz.

The art of improvisation is integral to the form, and it’s an essential skill for any musician who plays it. While most musical genres tend to stick to a musical score as it was written by the composer, jazz gives more priority to the interaction and collaboration between performers and their interpretations of a work.

In short: A jazz musician never plays a tune the same way twice.

“Improvisation is the only art form in which the same note can be played night after night but differently each time,” saxophonist Ornette Coleman once said. “It is the hidden things, the subconscious that lets you know you feel this, you play this.”

The history of jazz is filled with famously marvellous soloists and improvisers: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Freddie Hubbard, Hank Mobley, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Sarah Vaughan, Jaco Pastorius, Ahmad Jamal and so many others are revered for their shared ability to compose incredible music at the speed of sound.

Dozens of improvised jazz solos have become fundamental documents of the art form. Here, the experts at JAZZ.FM91 dig deeper to share some of their favourite solos and improvisations.

Guido Basso: Portrait of Jennie, by Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass

Those who know this song speak of it with a reverence usually reserved for religion. They may even be jealous of anyone who has yet to discover the wonder of Guido Basso’s solo. It’s the perfect marriage of one of the greatest arrangers of all time and one of the most lyrical soloists of all time. The iconic Canadian horn player’s tone is already one of the most celebrated and emulated in the musical world, and it’s showcased beautifully on this tune. In eight and a half minutes, Basso tells a beautiful and personal story through his flugelhorn. For the opening few minutes, he invites you in quietly with whispers, almost as if he is telling you a secret. Then, as the band kicks in with a gentle swing, Guido finds the pocket and rides it along with the band. He then takes to the high range of his horn — crystal clear and vibrant — before settling back into the groove and giving us the full showcase of his staccato and rhythmic style. This isn’t a solo based on scales and patterns, but on a love of melody. Every line masterfully creates a beautiful new melody that complements the harmonic structure. This is truly one of the best solos ever recorded.

—Heather Bambrick and Brad Barker

Bill Evans – All About Rosie, by Bill Evans and Orchestra

This track was recorded at Brandeis University, a private research university outside of Boston, in 1957. All of Bill Evans’s playing is totally immersive, but this solo that arrives at the 6:43 mark is completely stupefying. The right hand sings, bounces, crunches a bit of blues, and then soars into an endless, exploratory romp through the most imaginative passages. You can see why Miles Davis hired Evans to play on Kind of Blue only a couple of years later.

—Bill King

Louis Armstrong: West End Blues, by Louis Armstrong

On June 28, 1928, a 26-year-old Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five made one of the most important jazz recordings of the 20 century. Jazz critic Murray Horwitz described the opening bars of West End Blues as “the most important 15 seconds in all of American music.” The trumpet solo is cinematic, an effortless whirlwind of arpeggios that build and build to a high concert C. This opening cadenza has probably been discussed more than any other solo in the history of jazz. In his 2001 documentary series Jazz, Ken Burns devoted an entire segment to it. While it was just another day in the studio for Louis Armstrong, that session in 1928 marked the beginning of modern jazz.

—Ronnie Littlejohn

Vince Guaraldi: Linus and Lucy, by the Vince Guaraldi Trio

The theme of the Christmas classic Linus and Lucy is infectious enough. But when the rhythm changes and Vince Guaraldi’s distinctive piano solo begins, it unlocks one’s inner child. Complementing the playful rhythmic section, the lyrical solo is like a hand reaching out to encourage you to join in the dance. In an already fun track, this brief solo will get you feeling so giddy you’ll want to dance like Snoopy and the Peanuts gang.

—John Devenish

Jaco Pastorius: Bright Size Life, by Pat Metheny

The melding of Pat Metheny, Bob Moses and Jaco Pastorius is already something totally resonant and special — and then comes Jaco’s solo. It’s understated for his usual style, as he seems to be squeezing the notes out of his fretless bass. It feels like he’s soaring melodically.

—Brad Barker

Ella Fitzgerald: Mack the Knife, by Ella Fitzgerald

There is perhaps no greater example of the playful genius of jazz than the scatting and improvisation done by Ella Fitzgerald in February, 1960, while performing in Berlin. She wowed the audience as usual, getting about halfway through without a hitch. Then, she forgot the words — a nightmare for any singer, seasoned or not. Without a stumble, she scatted herself into a creative frenzy of freestyling. The result is an unparalleled performance highlight that won her a Grammy Award for the live recording. Fitzgerald’s staggering skill, professionalism and playfulness combined beautifully to make jazz history.

—John Devenish

Sonny Stitt: I’m Beginning to See the Light, by Sonny Stitt

My immediate example of a perfect jazz solo is Ahmad Jamal on Poinciana, but that seems too obvious. Instead, here’s a typical (and perfect) solo from Sonny Stitt. I’ve always loved his solo work, which is entirely musical and more playful than boastful. He was compared to Charlie Parker when he started, but he developed his own sound and played on more than 100 recordings. On this song, recorded in 1960 in Los Angeles, Stitt is in the pocket and a little bit outside. It’s a simple but excellent example of a jazz solo that works — and is never boring.

—Jaymz Bee

Paul Desmond: Greensleeves, by Paul Desmond & The Modern Jazz Quartet

One of the most exquisite alto sax solos in jazz appears on a little-known recording of Greensleeves by Paul Desmond & The Modern Jazz Quartet. The performance at New York’s famed Town Hall on Christmas Day, 1971, is the only recorded instance of them having played together. It’s arguably the greatest, most beautiful thing Desmond ever recorded.

—David Basskin

Cannonball Adderley: Milestones, by Miles Davis

When Cannonball takes off with the first solo on this Miles Davis classic, it’s like he’s running a 100-yard dash. The notes cascade and tumble from his horn like a waterfall. It’s filled with interesting twists and turns that demand the rhythm section to keep up.

—Brad Barker

Bill Harris: Bijou (Rhumba a La Jazz), by Woody Herman and the First Herd

Trombonist Bill Harris looked nothing like your stereotypical jazz musician in the late 1940s. Tall, thin and balding with wire-rimmed glasses, he more readily resembled a college professor. His somewhat shy demeanour didn’t even hint at the irrepressible practical joker who lived within. Harris’s idiosyncratic playing employed elements of both swing and bebop and, as one critic has said, “was based on great, if unorthodox, technique.” That technique is best heard on the 1945 recording Bijou, subtitled Rhumba a la Jazz, which was written and arranged for Woody Herman’s First Herd by the band’s piano player, Ralph Burns. It is a marvellous setting for the full-chorus trombone solo that only Bill Harris could have delivered. (For the definitive piece on Harris, including many examples of his zany sense of humour, see “Bill Harris, trombone surrealist,” by noted Canadian jazz historian and bassist Steve Wallace.)

—Glen Woodcock

Darmon Meader: Giant Steps, by New York Voices

Giant Steps is one of those “rites of passage” for jazz musicians of all instruments and all levels. It certainly isn’t something that most vocalists want to attack … at least not often or willingly. But Darmon Meader isn’t like most vocalists. As tenor vocalist, tenor sax player, and music director for the Grammy-winning New York Voices, Meader has done his share of improvising, both on sax and as a vocalist. While his solos are rather mind-blowing, there are few scat solos that compare to the job he does on Coltrane’s harmonic monster Giant Steps. Meader’s notes, lines and rhythmic attack show an understanding of harmony that few singers ever master, and he displays it all with creativity and artistry: not only on the group’s 1991 recording Hearts of Fire, but also each time they perform the piece live, as they’ve done several times, including in an outstanding concert with the Metropole Orkest.

—Heather Bambrick

Houston Person: Moonlight in Vermont, by Joey DeFrancesco

This performance should have an entire music course devoted to it. This sax solo is an example of what every soloist should try to achieve. Here, Houston Person transforms from a horn player into a preacher delivering his sermon. He starts out with a mere whisper, building and building until he eventually brings the congregation to its feet in a state of spiritual ecstasy. I have listened to this solo more times than I can remember, and I’ve always thought of it as the perfect example of the perfect solo.

—Ronnie Littlejohn

Camille Bertaut: Lingus, by Snarky Puppy

Cory Henry represents the future of contemporary jazz keyboard, a new generation exploring the fertile ground laid by Herbie Hancock with Head Hunters. Lingus is a unique solo that traverses many zones. French university student Camille Bertaut does the near impossible with her voice, tracing the snaking improvisational lines as if implanted in her brain. It’s a remarkable reading of a brilliant slice of contemporary jazz.

—Bill King

Jerry Gonzalez: United, by Jerry González and the Fort Apache Band

Jerry González and the Fort Apache Band were one of the most outstanding Latin jazz ensembles ever. González’s fluid and uplifting trumpet solo in this reinterpretation of the Wayner Shorter composition United is subtle yet striking, melodic yet adventurous. He played with the band, not despite it; his solo floats smoothly over the backdrop while rhythmically capturing the beats. The clave and percussive texture in the background is the perfect contrast to what González is playing, and the combination is addictive and exhilarating. 

—Laura Fernandez

Keith Jarrett: The Köln Concert

This entire tune from the acclaimed album The Köln Concert was improvised on the spot, but Keith Jarrett still manages to create song structure within this segment of off-the-cuff solo piano. The beauty and freshness make it so memorable. It’s a piece with which you can definitely sing along — as Jarrett kind of does.

—Brad Barker

Frank Zappa: Inca Roads, by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention

Straddling the line between jazz fusion and prog rock is Frank Zappa’s stunning guitar solo in Inca Roads. It originated in a live recording of that song captured in Helsinki in 1974. When Zappa produced the studio album One Size Fits All (1975), he incorporated the live solo into the much longer Inca Roads that leads off the LP. That track also includes a spectacular, virtuosic solo by George Duke on electric piano. This is spectacular solo work by two musicians at the top of their form.

—David Basskin