Every great saxophonist was a thief!!
...Ok maybe thief is too strong of a word, but every great saxophonist has taken ideas and concepts from older, more established artists in their own quest for personal greatness. Don’t be alarmed at this news, however. artists have taken cues from each other throughout the course of history.
From Frank Sinatra intensely studying Billie Holiday, Lee Morgan memorizing the music of Clifford Brown, to Benny Golson and John Coltrane obsessing over Charlie Parker to the point of literally following him around town as he went from gig to gig, every accomplished musician has had someone they chose to imitate.
The act of imitation (the “theft” I was referring to) is actually the most important part of studying Jazz. Imitation of previous jazz greats is how one can come to understand why the solo that they love so much can sound so good.
Learning to play the solo is just scratching the surface however, as once you’ve learned to play it you can analyze the specific note choice and how it relates to the harmony. This can help you understand how it works not only in that song at that moment but in any song that contains that harmony.
Studying jazz is like learning a new language, and like learning a new language one must immerse themselves in this language if they want to become fluent. It was towards this end that this list was compiled, and this article written.
Most often the first type of song that a young jazz soloist learns how to play over, is the blues. Consisting of only four different chords, and typically only dominant chords at that, this song form is about as basic as they come and is perfect for practicing early jazz vocabulary.
This simplicity made it a popular form to use during the early days of professional jazz music as well; meshing well with the heavily riff-based song concepts in vogue at the time. There was song after song that used the blues form as their basis, enabling many masterful saxophone solos to be recorded much to our good fortune.
Here are some of what I would consider to be the best blues sax solos of all time.
Charlie Parker - Parker’s Mood
Starting off the list, we couldn’t have anyone else except for the man Mr. Charlie Parker himself. This solo, in contrast to many of his other solos, is on a tune that actually is at a tempo that most people can play.
Slow and swinging, Parker weaves his way from chord to chord, idea to idea, and has a perfect mixture of his patented speed demon lines and gritty blues licks.
Cannonball Adderley - Au Privave
This Cannonball classic is assuredly the perfect representation of his soloing style. His great feel and short articulations are used in tandem with witty and clever phrases make for a solo that you can’t help but bob your head and tap your toe to.
Hank Mobley - Dig Dis
We couldn’t make a sax solo list without the most underrated tenor player of the post-bop era Hank Mobley. Sounding like a combination of Dexter Gordon and John Coltrane, Mobley’s solo on this tune is a must listen for those that want to transcribe a blues solo that has perfect lines that would help to perfect their swing feel.
Joe Henderson - Isotope
Less underrated yet still not given the spotlight quite like he deserved in my opinion, Joe Henderson wrote this tune and I have yet to hear anyone understand it quite as well as he did.
Not for the faint-of-heart, Isotope can easily be mistaken as something other than a blues due to its reharmonization of the usual blues form, but make no mistake, at its core it still follows the basic tenets of a blues solo.
John Coltrane - Bessie’s Blues
To round off the blues list we have a solo with the intensity of Henderson’s Isotope solo, however, we have a much more clearly blues form laid out underneath. Containing the usual John Coltrane-isms that gained him a cult-like status in the music world at large, Trane’s solo shows his mastery of the bebop language and his search for a truly original sound he could call his own.
The perfect book for new and old jazz players striving to make steps ahead in their musical ability. Contains all of Bird’s most popular and influential solos already transcribed.
After learning the blues, the next vital piece of the jazz puzzle, are some tunes with some real changes. Much to a musician's chagrin, songs that have much more complex voice leading and faster tempos can be a huge challenge if all you’ve played before them were blues tunes.
However challenging they might be, I can attest that when studied properly, they can be the most satisfying songs to play as well as listen to. Following the flow of your solo go from chord to chord with picture-perfect accuracy supported by a group of fellow musicians that you trust is one of the most freeing feelings that an artist can experience, and it’s the reason that most keep striving forward in their musical development.
Let’s check out some solos that show what mastery over the saxophone sounds like!
Lee Konitz & Warne Marsh - 317 E 32nd
I couldn’t list just one or the other for this song as they are both equally masterclasses in the minimalist style of Lennie Tristano.
A contrafact of All The Things you Are, 317 E 32nd became a jazz standard after the release of this recording, due mostly to expectation-subverting and beautifully bird-like solos of both Warne and Lee on it.
John Coltrane - If I Were A Bell
Recorded during Coltrane’s first stint with the Miles Davis Quartet, I would call his solo on this song the swan song of his bebop playing days. Soon after this, he would be fired from the band and led back into the limelight after his fall from grace by Thelonius Monk, helping him to find his true voice.
Although recorded right before a dark spot in his career, this solo is personally my favorite Coltrane solo of all time and contains a perfect solo. Every phrase is perfectly voice-led, and every articulation only serves to propel the melodic line forward.
Charlie Parker - Donna Lee
This article wouldn’t be taken seriously if I didn’t include one of Parker’s most popular tunes. Truly a tour de force, Charlie Parker plays a commanding solo over changes that are by no means easy to play.
For any serious sax player, this sax solo is essential jazz language to learn, so study up!
Ronnie Cuber - Moanin’
Finally a BARI SOLO! We don’t have enough stand out bari players in this world unfortunately and I truly believe if we showed this song to more sax players in elementary or middle school that problem would start to go away.
Benny Golson - Along Came Betty
A little known fact about Benny Golson, is that he and John Coltrane were best friends all the way back to when they were young kids. While not exploding on the scene the same way as Trane, Benny was an amazing soloist in his own right and also a great composer.
This being his own tune, his solo over it shows off his distinct, highly intervallic style.
More than 50 Coltrane classics. All including transcribed solos from the original recordings themselves. A perfect book for a developing soloist.
Without a doubt, the hardest type of song any musician can tackle is the ballad. Make a wrong choice and there is no hiding it, as most ballads go far slower than other tunes. Make a mistake in the form? Welp, what could be construed as a simple tension point in a fast song such as Oleo or Giant Steps just sounds awkward in a ballad.
Ballads demand deliberate note selection and great feel and playing anything less is as exposed to the audience as a cow in an open field.
That being said, when a saxophonist plays one with feeling and soul WOO! Watch out! Below are some amazing sax solos in ballads that I’ve definitely put on repeat over the course of writing this article.
Michael Brecker - Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight
Possibly the prettiest sax solo of all time, Michael Brecker took the mantle of best saxophonist in the world when he arrived on the scene and this solo shows exactly why.
A distinct sound, and technique that pushed the standard of excellence even higher, Brecker used his skill set throughout this song, being soft and simple or fast and aggressive only when it would suit the music at that particular moment.
Dexter Gordon - What’s New
If you want to listen to a lush, fat saxophone sound that oozes with emotion, then this solo is exactly what you are looking for. Easy confidence and swagger, comes to mind when listening to Gordon on this solo, it’s the quintessential romantic sax sound from movies from the 50’s and 60’s and would be imitated for decades to come.
Sonny Rollins - Body and Soul Chris Potter, Coleman Hawkins
A great source of jazz language without having to parse through a rhythm section, Rollins’ vocabulary is deliberate, interesting, and carries a sense of humor and candidness to it that I find particularly refreshing.
The Chris Potter and Coleman Hawkins versions are also amazing in their own right. If you want to hear the growth of sax style throughout the years I would listen to Hawkins first, then SOnny, and finally to Potter’s version.
John Coltrane - Blue in Green In a Sentimental Mood
Not only was Coltrane an amazing soloist in terms of technique and sheer speed, arguably his strongest trait was the ability to draw the listener into a ballad.
Compared to the majority of his discography, his solo over Blue and Green is incredibly simple and captures your attention with the production of just one beautifully held note. *Sentimental Mood doesn’t have a solo, but the way he plays the melody can’t be missed.*
Joshua Redman - My One And Only Love
It’s not a big secret amongst my friends that Joshua is my favorite saxophone soloist, and that I love almost every single thing he’s ever recorded. This rendition of My One and Only Love is my favorite solo of his by far, and possibly my favorite version of the song itself as well.
Similar to Coltrane’s ballad playing, Redman’s tone is what ultimately draws me back to this solo a few times a month. He isn’t nearly as simple as Trane, but his tone combined the energy that you can tell he’s both giving to the audience and that the audience is giving back to him should be something that every musician gets to experience at least once in their career.
Charlie Parker - Entire With Strings album
I’m not going to spoil this album, I’ll simply say that you HAVE to check it out. Period.
There’s just something about playing through tunes with interesting ostinatos, and weaving melodies that makes you want to play many latin based tunes over and over again. Similarly, modern jazz music often is written centered on intricate rhythms that, at first, sound like something a mathematician came up with.
Whichever era or style this last batch of solos are from, they all have one thing in common. They’re all fantastic!
Stan Gets - Samba Triste
While not the most well known tune or performance of Stan Gets’, I believe it contains everything that made Gets great; his tone, technique, and musical sensibilities.
Miguel Zenon - Seis Cinco
Zenon was a rising star when he released this album, and he soon after became a member of the SF Jazz Collective. If you like counting and extremely catchy claves this solo is going to be right up your alley.
Sonny Rollins - St. Thomas
Another classic Rollins solo vehicle, St. Thomas was an early use of the Calypso groove. Perfect for a growing soloist, Sonny gives a clinic on the use and development of motifs before exploding into a flurry of lines and licks typical of Rolins’ style.
Wayne Shorter - Footprints
This solo is quintessential Shorter. Full of dominant chords and motifs that helped push modern saxophonists away from writing the standard ii VI I based songs, this tune was a great way for Shorter to stretch his improv legs. His free wheeling, flowing solo is truly a classic to behold.
Chris Potter - Looking Up
Considered the current generation’s Michael Brecker/John Coltrane, Potter’s team up with world class bass player Dave Holland was able to give us tons of amazing solos. This solo, from a live performance in 2002, this could be his best ever; his lines flowing in and out, through different time feels and octave ranges, by the end of the solo there probably isn’t one note on the saxophone that he did not use in order to get his musical ideas across.
John Coltrane - A Love Supreme
This album is right up there with Charlie Parker’s “With Strings” album as must listen for every musician, especially saxophonists. His sax solos are more akin to a sermon than a solo on this record, shouting out idea after idea to the listener like only a preacher can.
Another great jazz book by Hal Leonard! Contains nearly 50 solos, transcribed exactly as Cannonball recorded them. Articulations and false fingerings included!
If one wants to learn how to play jazz, they need to listen to the best and imitate the best. Theft in the jazz world is merely a normal aspect of learning your craft and a part of the process of becoming your own person, don’t be afraid to take what others have already done as it will set on the path of making your own creations.