Building and Developing Captivating Solos: Some Insight from Alex Graham

Date Posted: May 03, 2016

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Alex Graham is a Vandoren Regional Artist. The goal of the Vandoren Regional Artist program is to enhance the quality of the music experience in your school.  This is made possible by Vandoren and a network of woodwind professionals around the country with a passion for music education and performance.



VandorenUSA: How would you describe a captivating solo?

Alex Graham: The art of playing a great solo can be seen from several different perspectives, and it’s impossible to consider all of the factors that go into crafting a compelling solo without first understanding the context of who the soloist is playing with, the style of the music, and what is happening in the moment.

For me, the most compelling aesthetic for soloing comes in the form of “telling a story,” a term used by many of the masters through the years to describe the goal of the soloist. In this aesthetic, the performer builds his or her solo and takes the listener on a journey. As with a story, there is a beginning, middle, and end, and all of the parts of the solo are connected with each other. The rhythm section plays a crucial role in helping the soloist to tell their story by helping to amplify the soloist’s decisions, and by guiding the soloist into making choices that are spontaneous but still connected to what has already happened. A great solo is a collective effort that benefits the entire performance, and that elevates all of musicians in the group.


In general, a soloist might build their solo in some or all of the following ways:

Range – The soloist starts in the lower or middle register and saves the highest notes for later in the solo.

Dynamics – The soloist starts with a soft or moderate dynamic level and gradually becomes louder during the course of the solo.

Rhythm – The soloist starts with rhythmic ideas that are slower and/or less complex and builds to more speed and more complexity.

Harmony – The soloist starts with simpler harmonic ideas and gradually moves to more complexity in the form of extensions, chromaticism, chord substitutions, etc…

Style – The soloist starts with a more lyrical and/or subdued style of playing and moves to a style that includes more aggressive articulations and rhetorical devices like overt blues references, extended techniques, and other effects that will engage the listener.


For examples of these story telling devices at work, check out some of the live recordings made by Miles Davis’ “second” great quintet with George Coleman/Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. In particular, the albums ‘Four and More’ and ‘My Funny Valentine’ recorded live at Lincoln Center in 1964 are some of the best examples of effective storytelling on record, and can serve as great models for any musician wishing to work on this aspect of their playing.

While the above ideas work very well the majority of the time, it can also be effective to occasionally start a solo from the opposite perspective as it defies the usual expectation and introduces the element of surprise. A common example of this concept at work includes when the rhythm section stays at a powerful dynamic coming out of one solo, and the next soloist starts their solo with high intensity. A soloist also might start out by playing notes that are clearly dissonant, or by immediately introducing complex rhythmic ideas. When this happens, it immediately engages the rhythm section into a conversation and can allow for the possibility of a different type of story building arc.




You have taken a great interest in studying the Miles Davis Quintet of the 1950s and 1960s. How has this research changed your view on the role of a soloist?

AG: When I first started out in NYC in the early 90s, I remember being introduced to Four and More/My Funny Valentine. The level of interaction and spontaneity on the recording seemed like magic to me, and I couldn’t stop listening to it for weeks. From that moment forward, it was always my ambition to play music where the musicians were connected to each other on such a deep level, but the process of how that worked remained elusive to me. When I started graduate school and was assigned to coach an undergraduate trio, I knew I wanted to use the first and second Miles Davis Quintets as models for my students, and I embarked on what would turn out to be six years of intensive research into how the groups were able to play on such a high level.

As a saxophonist, I’ve obviously spent a good portion of my time working on things specifically related to playing my instrument. As an improviser, I’ve always tried to be a good listener and to interact with the rhythm section. But after doing so much research into to the Davis quintets, I started to consider what I was playing in a much broader context. Nowadays, when I’m playing my best, I try to make choices that will elevate the entire performance from the first note to the last. I am engaged in listening to the rhythm section and other soloists even when I’m not playing, and everything that I play is in consideration of what has come before me, and in guiding the music to where it needs to go next. It’s not dissimilar to how a composer will utilize a long-range plan in regards to dynamics, range, harmony, rhythm, form and thematic material. In fact, a lot of parallels can be drawn between a typical jazz performance and the classical sonata form. A tune starts with an introduction of some sort followed by the melody (‘exposition”), improvised solos (“development”) and a return to the melody (“recapitulation”). So in the end, I don’t see my solo as a moment for me to have independent of the rest of the group.

It has to fit into the larger picture, and to be part of a total experience that starts at the very beginning and goes to the very last note of the performance.

(For more on the Miles Davis Quintet, please visit Alex Graham’s website to read “The Living Framework: Miles Davis and the Evolution of the American Popular Song.”)



What mindset do you bring to soloing with a big band vs. soloing with a small group?

AG: Soloing with a big band can be very different than playing with a small group. To begin with, a lot of the elements of the broader performance have already been carefully planned and prescribed by the composer and/or arranger, and the soloist can have little or no power to shape the overall direction of the performance. Also, instead of the solo being open-ended, the soloist is oftentimes limited to a specific length of time. Finally, a soloist frequently has to contend with ‘background’ figures being played during the solo section, something that can remove or limit the possibility of spontaneous interaction with the rhythm section. I try to take all of these things into consideration when I am improvising in this context, and it can definitely lead to different types of choices than I would make in a small group setting. For instance, if the solo section of the arrangement begins with the band playing at full power, I’m not going to try and play something quiet and subdued in an effort to start soft and build my solo. I’m going to come in at full power and I’m going to stay there because that’s what the arrangement calls for. If I have a set amount of choruses to play on the form, I’m going to try and improvise in a way that takes the length into account, and makes sure that my solo has a coherent beginning, middle and ending. If there are solo backgrounds, I’m going to try to figure out where they occur in the phrase/form, and also what kinds of voicings are being used so I can hopefully avoid playing something that isn’t going to work with them. Many times, the chord symbols provided for the soloist don’t sufficiently convey the harmony being played by the pianist and/or horn backgrounds, so really digging into the arrangement can be very helpful in this regard.

Another thing that can make soloing with a big band tricky is that reading notes off of the page seems to use a different part of the brain than what we use when we’re improvising. Because of that, making a quick transition from playing a written part to soloing can be challenging. To ease this transition, I will try to look ahead in a chart to see if I have a solo. If I do, I will check quickly to see if the chord changes are on some kind of familiar form (blues, 32-bar standard, etc…), and how many choruses I will need to play on. Sometimes if the solo form isn’t familiar, it might be simple enough to remember so that I can tuck it away in my memory for later. This way, when it comes time for my solo, I can get my eyes off of the page and focus one hundred percent of my mental energy on improvising. Of course this approach isn’t always practical, and I frequently play original music with chord progressions that are too unfamiliar and/or complex to memorize and process while sight-reading. When that happens, having the ability to improvise while looking at chord symbols remains critical to being successful.

Although soloing with a big band introduces a different set of considerations than playing in a small group setting, the end goal remains the same: to make choices that elevate the overall performance to its highest possible level.




Could you tell us a little bit about your Mackinac Jazz Initiative Project?

AG:  I’ve been the music director at Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan since 2001, and the musicians that work at the hotel play in jazz trio and quartet settings seven nights a week. The Mackinac Jazz Initiative is an annual eight-week work/study program that I created in 2008 to share this professional opportunity with my students, during which time they are also able to study with me and some of the other professionals that are on staff. Originally, I hired students from the Eastman School of Music while I was earning my doctoral degree, and for the past four years I have exclusively used students from Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee where I am an Assistant Professor of Music (saxophone.) There’s a different kind of learning that only comes from performing with other musicians, and I find that this provides students a rare chance to grow as professionals and to put the things they’ve been working on in the practice room into use in the real world. I usually see a night and day difference in my students’ playing by the end of the summer, and many of the students that have been through the program are already successful touring professionals in New York City, Nashville and beyond.

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