Guitar And the Zen of Soloing

Aug 27, 2021

The Journey to Harmonic Freedom Part II


So…After years of hypnotic, trance-like pentatonic bliss, I found myself in new unfamiliar chordal territory. I found that on some songs, I could not stay in the same key while soloing (even though I tried!) because it just did not work. This was confusing.  Sometimes my solos sounded a little off and other times they were just god awful. For a while, this would just end with a frustrated head shake and I would go back to songs like Hey Joe where I knew I would be back on familiar terrain.

I began to see other musicians struggle with this too. Other students I attended school with and even adults who invited me to their jams sessions had similar limitations. Many teachers and professional musicians even avoided the topic.  They would just admit that they “were not improvisors”.  All throughout this slow realization, I received tiny glimpses of the bigger harmonic picture as I searched for more. I searched music stores and libraries for books, videos and I sought out any advice I could get from high level players at the occasional music clinic.

On this search for a more complete musical vocabulary, I seemed to run into two problems. First, newer teachers had musical limitations due to lack of real world experience and could only pass on their knowledge WITH THESE LIMITATIONS!   Since they did not understand the music, they simply dismissed the entire genre and would proudly declare, “That stuff’s just too complicated for me!”

The second problem was that many times the masters who were navigating more complex harmonic landscapes with their solos and their chordal knowledge  just simply could not communicate their process and break it down in a way that I or any of my friends could understand as teenagers.  One great example of this was at a Count Basie big band high school jazz clinic in a nearby town.

The Count Basie Orchestra took the stage in front of a crowded auditorium fill with eager high school students from at least five different high schools. I knew personally that I had never heard a big band horn section sound so tight and exciting ever before in my life. Count Basie himself had passed away years earlier but the band continued with huge names like Eric Dixon, Thad Jones, Frank Foster, Grover Mitchell, Bill Hughes and Dennis Mackrel who were all hired by Basie.

The band started like the most precision tuned, laser cut, high performance Italian super sports car engine. After a beautiful, blazing saxophone solo, Frank Foster stopped the band introduced himself. At this point he offered to answer any questions the stunned audience members might have about playing jazz. A young girl from a neighboring town’s high school asked the first question. I remember it like it was yesterday and her question went like this: “That was amazing Frank! What are you thinking about while you solo?” She was a saxophone player herself and I could tell by the reaction of all the other kids that THEY all wanted to know this too. How was a human being able to so gracefully navigate the treacherous chord changes with such ease and with the pure honest expression rarely seen anywhere?! Was he thinking of keys, chord tones, time signatures, tempo? Did he have a secret algorithm that he applied along with the divine ratio of numbers streaming through his head? What was going on and how could we all start doing this?????????

Well, I’ll NEVER FORGET his answer when asked what he thinks about while soloing.

He said firmly with a confident tone, “Nothing! I don’t think of anything while I’m soloing.”

Looking back I see the most zen-like, inspired, truthful answer he could have possibly given. But, for a room full of high school musicians, I saw nothing but confusion on all of their faces…

To be continued…



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