Learning jazz solos by the masters can help your own playing in a whole host of ways. It allows you to analyse what makes a certain phrase sound so good, and to use the material to develop your own improvisational vocabulary.
Once you’ve learnt a solo, playing it along with the original recording will help to improve your sound and your swing feel, especially if you try to capture every detail, every inflection, every nuance.
Finally, the process of transcribing great jazz solos will do wonders for your aural skills and make you a better musician in general.
Challenging your ears – especially if you sing these solos before playing them – will only make them better, meaning that your transcribing skills will get stronger over time. It’ll also improve your ability to play by ear and you’ll become a better listener on the bandstand.
There are countless stories of great jazz musicians learning the best solos of their forefathers: bebop legend Charlie Parker famously played along with recordings of Lester Young to develop his own ground-breaking improvisational voice.
Red Garland plays Miles Davis’s solo from ‘Now’s The Time’ (from an earlier recording with Parker) back at Davis on ‘Straight No Chaser’ from the album Milestones, and there are multiple recordings of Lee Konitz & Warne Marsh playing Lester Young solos alongside their own improvisations.
With all that in mind, here are some of the best jazz solos that you might like to consider learning. We’ve tried to include a range of difficulty levels, and they all have different things to offer. Happy transcribing!
N.B. all keys are given in concert pitch.
- 1 Lester Young – Lady Be Good
- 2 Chet Baker – There Will Never Be Another You
- 3 Louis Armstrong – Struttin’ With Some Barbecue
- 4 Miles Davis – So What
- 5 Charlie Parker – Now’s The Time
- 6 Stan Getz – Desafinado
- 7 John Coltrane – Impressions
- 8 Dexter Gordon – Second Balcony Jump
- 9 Sonny Rollins – Without a Song
- 10 Bud Powell – Celia
- 11 Michael Brecker – Anthropology
Lester Young – Lady Be Good
Considered one of best jazz solos, these two choruses of divine melodic inspiration have been memorised by countless subsequent musicians since they were recorded in 1936.
The tenor saxophonist plays largely diatonically, with the odd hint of the blues or moment of chromaticism. Pres’s solo is full of rhythmic sophistication, including a number of implied 3/4 phrases against the 4/4 pulse.
Heard in G major here, ‘Lady Be Good’ (sometimes titled ‘Oh, Lady be Good!) is a 32-bar standard by George and Ira Gershwin with fairly simple harmony, and is part of the core jazz repertoire.
Other classic Lester Young solos from this era include ‘Shoe Shine Boy’, ‘Broadway’, ‘Pound Cake’ and ‘Tickle Toe’. They tend to be fairly short, clear and not too fast, making them relatively simple to transcribe on any instrument.
Transcribe this Lester Young solo for: beautiful diatonic melody; irregular phrasing; swing era language.
Chet Baker – There Will Never Be Another You
Chet Baker, featured in this countdown of best cool jazz musicians, was always guided by his ear, rather than theory or pre-prepared licks.
His mid-50s vocal records contain the perfect material to learn as an introduction to transcription, as Baker usually follows his sung rendition of the head with a short, extremely singable mid-register trumpet solo.
He begins this track with a loose interpretation of the melody on trumpet in F major, before a transition into the head, which he sings in E flat major, where we remain for the rest of the recording.
After the melody, he returns to the trumpet to solo for 3/4 of a chorus before singing the last eight bars of the form to finish.
Both of the trumpet choruses are worth learning: the first provides a lesson in taking the melody of a song as your starting point for improvisation, and both contain language over common cadences such as major and minor II-V-Is and the change from chord IV major to IV minor.
Harry Warren’s There Will Never Be Another You is another essential standard that all jazz musicians ought to know.
Learn this Chet Baker solo for: taking the melody as a starting point for improvisation; playing simply and melodically in a way that is guided by the inner ear; playing over standard cadences.
Louis Armstrong – Struttin’ With Some Barbecue
So much jazz education focuses on bebop and later styles, but paying some serious attention to music from the 1920s and ‘30s can really help set you apart from the crowd.
The trumpet solo on this 1927 recording of Louis Armstrong & His Hot Five is 1927 recording is a one-chorus-wonder, so it shouldn’t take too long to learn, but it’s packed with brilliant material.
After half-chorus solos by Johnny Dodds on clarinet and Kid Ory on trombone, Armstrong’s joyous, operatic trumpet sound is heard over offbeat stop time.
Eighth note runs would dominate the sound of jazz from the 1940s onwards, but Louis’ rhythmic language is rooted in his authoritative quarter notes. ‘Struttin’ With Some Barbecue’, composed by pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong, is a standard amongst trad/Dixieland players, but its harmony (heard here in A flat major, it is also sometimes played in F) is similar to lots of other standard songs.
Lee Konitz, a long-time advocate of transcribing the solos of Armstrong, Lester Young and other early greats, is heard playing this note-for-note on The Lee Konitz Duets.
Transcribe this Louis Armstrong solo for: pre-bebop language; strong quarter note-based rhythms; inflection and expression of sound; an insight into the improvisational voice of jazz’s first major soloist.
Miles Davis – So What
The first track on Kind of Blue, perhaps the most famous jazz album of all time, explores modal harmony, which was still a new direction in the music when it was recorded in 1959.
Using a standard 32-bar AABA structure, each eight-bar section utilises just one chord and a corresponding scale: a D Dorian sound in the A sections and an E flat Dorian sound in the B section, so the harmony is extremely static compared to most of the jazz that preceded it.
Davis’s opening solo utilises many of his improvisational trademarks across its two choruses: substantial use of space, hip phrasing and understated mid-register melodicism.
Learn this Miles Davis solo for: an approach to modal material; use of space; hip phrasing.
Charlie Parker – Now’s The Time
The 12 bar blues is the most important and ubiquitous form in all of jazz, and it also offers a multitude of harmonic possibilities and opportunities for substitutions.
Charlie Parker, the great bebop alto saxophonist, composed and recorded dozens of blues heads, which are well worth learning: ‘Barbados’, ‘Passport’, ‘Perhaps’, ‘Si Si’ and ‘Bloomdido’ are treasure troves of surprising melody, harmony and rhythm.
The head to ‘Now’s The Time’, a blues in F, is less intricate but Bird’s three-chorus solo on the 1945 take for Savoy is a perfect combination of bebop language and blues.
His swing feel, as always, is immaculate. A young Miles Davis follows Parker with a more diatonic solo (the one that was later quoted back to him by Red Garland on ‘Straight No Chaser’ from Miles’ Milestones).
Transcribe this great Charlie Parker solo for: blues language; bebop language; swung eighth note feel.
- Audio CD – Audiobook
- 05/04/2006 (Publication Date) - Membran Media GmbH (Publisher)
Stan Getz – Desafinado
Getz/Gilberto was a critical and commercial smash hit when it was released in 1964, with Getz’s cool tenor sound combining perfectly with Joao Gilberto’s understated singing and rhythmically deft guitar comping.
Jazz soloing in a more commercial setting with a singer like this is a real art form, and Getz’s concise contributions are masterly throughout the album.
On ‘Desafinado’, Antônio Carlos Jobim’s beautiful Bossa Nova, he is afforded a full chorus, which he begins by referring to the melody, returning to the tune at various points as his lines become gradually more complex.
As always, Getz sounds utterly relaxed, despite the deceptively complex harmonic material: the 68-bar form of ‘Desafinado’, heard here in E flat major but often played in F, goes through a number of key centres and contains a chromatically descending sequence just prior to the bridge that many Real Book charts miss.
Learn this Stan Getz solo for: an approach to Bossa nova rhythms (eighth notes here are of course straight rather than swung); improvising off the melody; sounding relaxed over complex chord sequences; making a beautiful sound.
John Coltrane – Impressions
‘Impressions’ is the same chord sequence and form as Miles Davis’s ‘So What’, but with a different melody.
This live take from the Village Vanguard isn’t an easy one to transcribe: it’s much faster than ‘So What’, the barrage of notes comes thick and fast, and it’s a long solo, with the great tenor saxophonist stretching out more than he would on a studio date.
It’s intense from the get-go and he uses a number of ‘false fingerings’, which may be of interest to saxophonists.
For an easier route into Coltrane, whose playing changes considerably over the years but is always extremely swinging, try earlier solos on ‘My Shining Hour’ (from Coltrane Jazz) or ‘Oleo’ (from Relaxing With The Miles Davis Quintet).
Transcribe this John Coltrane solo for: approaches to modal material; how to generate intensity; swinging at faster tempos.
- COLTRANE JOHN
- Audio CD – Audiobook
Dexter Gordon – Second Balcony Jump
After the blues, ‘Rhythm changes’ is the next most common form in jazz. The term refers to tunes that are based upon the harmony of George Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’, with famous examples including ‘Oleo’, ‘Moose The Mooche’, ‘Ow’ and ‘Cottontail’.
Second Balcony Jump, from Dexter Gordon’s classic 1962 album Go, is a Rhythm changes solo at a fairly medium tempo (it is often played fast) that is full of great vocabulary, including a number of common chord substitutions. Gordon is known for his relaxed, behind-the-beat swing feel and for quoting existing melodies within his solos: he refers to the standards ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘My Heart Stood Still’ here.
Learn this Dexter Gordon solo for: Rhythm changes language and substitutions; relaxed, behind-the-beat swing feel; quoting and manipulating existing melodies within improvisation
Sonny Rollins – Without a Song
Rollins is famed for his inventive soloing, and especially his clever use of motivic development, which will often see him wrestle relentlessly with a small melodic fragment. He is also noted for his incredibly strong time feel and for the importance that his playing places upon rhythm.
This 1962 recording, from The Bridge, is the definitive version of Vincent Youmans’ old standard ‘Without A Song’, which has a relatively long AABA form, with 16 bar A sections and an eight bar bridge.
Rollins begins his solo with a motif based around an E flat, the tune’s tonic, which becomes gradually more complex over the course of his first half-chorus. This jazz solo includes a number of implied substitutions, including clear tritone substitutions over dominant chords.
Transcribe this Sonny Rollins solo for: Motivic development; tritone substitution language; great swing feel and rhythm.
Bud Powell – Celia
This bebop standard, composed by the legendary jazz pianist himself, was recorded in 1949.
With only one chorus of piano solo it’s not too dauntingly long, although it does have some tricky sixteenth note passages, including the famous two-bar break that kicks things off. ‘Celia’ is in B flat major with harmony that is fairly similar to a Rhythm changes, but its head in is bookended by an introduction and a ‘tag’, both of which are eight bars in length.
Learn this Bud Powell solo for: a sixteenth note workout; bebop language.
Michael Brecker – Anthropology
This is a more recent solo, from Will Lee’s 2002 Charlie Parker tribute Birdhouse.
One of Brecker’s trademarks, in addition to his peerless tenor technique, is his ability to play ‘out’; i.e. to play notes that are dissonant against the underlying harmony.
However, he uses this as a deliberate effect, with patterns and calculated substitutions taking him ‘outside’, and against the backdrop of more consonant ‘inside’ playing. Brecker begins his solo on ‘Anthropology’, another Rhythm changes, with some classic straight-ahead language, before delving into some more contemporary harmonic vocabulary.
You can learn more about this jazz saxophone great in our timeline of the Michael Brecker career highlights.
Transcribe this Michael Brecker solo for: Rhythm changes language; ‘modern’ harmonic vocabulary; playing ‘out’.
If you’re looking for some new jazz solos to transcribe, I hope that list has given you some new ideas. As always, try to learn and memorise them by ear first and then write down at a later date if you want to study the ideas in more detail.
As always in this Discover Jazz segment of the Jazzfuel site, feel free to add suggestions for what classic jazz solos we should add in the next round of updates…
Looking for more listening recommendations? Check this round up of some of the most essential albums in jazz history.
Last update on 2020-08-08 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API