Sonata Form and Jazz Solos Rethinking what it means to "solo" in jazz

A couple of years ago I began to shift away from using the word “solo” with many of my jazz students. This was especially the case for beginning improvisers or the ones who were preoccupied with the chord progressions or playing a barrage of disconnected patterns or licks. Many of them started to sound way better in a very short amount of time.

Solo and Sonata Pic

So what did we do when it was time to “solo”? We simply called it development and referenced classical sonata form. We would read through Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn sonatas and identify the main section – theme, development and recapitulation… For jazz folks – head in, development and head out.

There are so many musical advantages to this that simply identifying it as changing terminology sells it way short. First, the student is forced to recognize the theme/melody as an essential component to the quality of their performance. They can’t just play the melody mindlessly so they can get to their solo. By thinking of the solo as the development section, they need to really have the melody mastered before they can develop it artistically and effectively.

Thinking of the head out as the recapitulation is also very helpful to their performance. They look at the head out as an opportunity to state the theme, but in a way that’s more fitting for the end of the tune. Again, it’s another reason for us to take the melody more seriously and be able to manipulate it in real time to fit the ending.

There are many students who are asked to improvise and freeze because of the pressure. Even though this comes across as shyness, lack of confidence, etc; it’s really just our ego not wanting to sound bad. The word “solo” in a musical context can trigger our egos like no other. I found that using a more constructive word like “development” pretty much eliminated all fear and anxiety for students who had always been bashful. It gave them something to shoot for rather than guess at… “I’m going to try and develop what has already happened in this tune.” And for the kids with over-inflated egos, it actually made them way more thoughtful and present – it was no longer about showing off what the knew (or thought they knew). It was about serving the tune and finding something appropriate to play in the moment.

The rest is really straightforward. Here are some things they can try to get them more in the mode of thinking more like sonata form and development:

  • Just play the melody over and over. Each time varying it more and more until it’s becoming their own melody. In the beginning, maybe do one or two passes through the form. Eventually, maybe 20 times through the form and see if they can keep developing.
  • It’s not all about harmony in development. There are way more rhythmic possibilities than there are harmonic.
  • Isolate specific two- or four-bar phrases from the theme and try to just develop those themes through the development section. See how long you can develop the opening theme of the tune – once chorus, two choruses, ten choruses, thirty choruses?
  • Dust off the music composition terms you maybe haven’t used since college and bring them into the mix… augmentation, diminution, fragmentation, transposition, syncopation, rhythmic displacement and retrograde (to name a few). Then try a whole development section only trying one of the concepts. Then switch concepts. Then expand into using a couple to all of them at once.

Hopefully you and your students find this shift in approach as helpful as my students and I have.