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Top 10 Jazz Saxophone Solos

This was a tough one to narrow down, let me tell you.

1. Wayne Shorter: “Deluge” from Ju-Ju
I don’t write vocalese lyrics to jazz solos (except for a few bars here and there as a wiseass). But if I did, this solo would be the first one I’d tackle, since I always sing along when I hear it. That Wayne can be so melodic over these changes borders on the miraculous.

2. John Coltrane: “Your Lady” from Live at Birdland
This performance by ‘Trane on soprano has pulled me out of the darkness more times than I’d care to admit. Such soul and searching and spirit and presumably several other good things that begin with “s.”

3. John Stubblefield: “Big Girls” from Quickstep by Kenny Barron
The epitome of “whisper to a scream” development and dynamics here. He begins with such tenderness and ends with such passion that I almost forget it’s all the same solo. R.I.P. Stubby.

4. Charlie Parker: “Koko” from Savoy Recordings, reissued on various collections
Gotta have some Bird in here, and this is my favorite example of his amazing inventiveness, harmonic fluency and rhythmic drive.

5. Sonny Rollins and Sonny Stitt: “Eternal Triangle” from Sonny Side Up
From Bird to this bop-on-steroids. The Sonnys engage in a truly ridiculous game of one-upsmanship here, both playing with amazing muscle on all counts.

6. Ben Webster: “Cottontail” from 1940 recording with Duke Ellington, reissued on various collections
It is no accident that this is a widely beloved and quoted solo. The melodic development and warm tone are irresistible.

7. Eddie Harris: “Love For Sale” from The In Sound
I loves me some Eddie Harris. I love his soulfulness and blues feeling, I love his ability to shred bebop and I love his modern, intervallic playing. This solo has all of the above elements, with some stunning moments of 4ths over the changes at a bright tempo.

8. Eric Dolphy: “Round Midnight” from Ezz-thetics by George Russell
Dolphy’s astringent alto tone and melodic unpredictability make for a wonderfully fresh interpretation of “Round Midnight” that manages to be tender and edgy at the same time.

9. Ornette Coleman: “Peace” from Shape of Jazz to Come
What an incredibly melodic story Ornette tells here. This tune (particularly Ornette’s solo on it) was a real deal-breaker for me in learning to appreciate freedom in jazz. It still blows my mind that something labeled as avant-garde could have such lyricism and immediacy.

10. Antonio Hart: “Alter Ego” from the Vibe by Roy Hargrove
Like the Stubblefield example, this one’s pretty obscure, but hoo-wee. It’s as if Antonio finds every melodically juicy note that one could play over these changes (on a tune by the great James Williams), and does so with picture-perfect phrasing and tonal nuance. Honorable mention goes to guest soloist David “Fathead” Newman, who also plays a great solo on this track.

I thought about dividing this list up by saxophone type, but decided that’d make it too easy. As such, there were some significant omissions, including great performances by (among others) Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Joe Henderson, Pepper Adams, Lester Young, Dexter Gordon, Frank Strozier, Kenny Garrett, Art Pepper, Charlie Rouse and Stan Getz.

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  1. Larry

     /  September 7, 2012

    Noah- Interesting list. Made me re-check out Shorter on Deluge. So here’s a couple that I would have you check out. You mentioned Frank Strozier in the honorable mention list – check out solo on Blue-n-Boogie. You had a top ten Phineas Newborn Jr. list, so maybe you are aware of this recording. Then Trane on “Wise One” is one of my all time favorites. Then Art Pepper, also an honorable mention, live at the Vanguard with Elvin Jones, the blues “No Limit”. One of my other all time faves. OK. Enough for now…
    BTW- Do you use Spotify? I highly recommend!
    Enjoy!
    -Larry
    PS. I know I said “couple” and then gave you three, but hey, who’s counting?

  2. David Boocker

     /  March 1, 2015

    Paul Gonsalves, interlude in Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,
    Ellington Live at Newport

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