Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy

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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Me, Myself, and I: Reflections on Solo Playing

Is playing a concert solo without any rhythmic or chordal accompaniment such an unnatural way to perform? As instrumentalists, it’s not like we never play by ourselves.  Just think of how much time we spend sitting alone in the practice room or warming up before a gig in solitude. And compare that to the amount of time that a musician spends playing with others during a concert.

A professional jazz musician probably practices in solitude anywhere between one and three hours a day--college students probably a little more.  And of course this is going to vary depending on how much he or she performs. Now let’s compare this to the amount of actual playing time during a gig: An average performance in a jazz club lasts anywhere between 45 minutes to an hour per set, and it’s usually two sets per nightly performance.  During a one hour performance by a jazz quartet, the average group might play anywhere between five to seven tunes--sometimes fewer, for those particularly inspired moments. During those five to seven tunes, a horn player--including playing the melody, taking an improvised solo, trading fours with the drummer, and playing the melody out—probably plays a total of five minutes per tune. Which averages out to 30 minutes of playing time per set, and 60 minutes for a two-set gig.

Now my point is not to inundate you with averages and percentages, but to demonstrate that when you look at the amount of time that a horn player spends playing alone, compared to playing with others, on average he or she spends twice as much time playing solo or in solitude. Leaving me to conclude that playing solo is a state in which we are equally as comfortable, if not more. Yet, it’s a musical setting few of us get a chance to perform in.

But who knows, maybe one day this will all change. Steve Lacy's vast body of unaccompanied work could be just the tip of the iceberg. It's not such an anomaly is classical music. In fact, it's pretty commonplace. Maybe soon this "ugly duckling" format in jazz will grow up to be a beautiful swan.


  1. Interesting idea Sam. You're of course quite right when pointing out the difference between classical and jazz solo performances. However, I would suggest that Steve Lacy's solo concerts are an exception to the rule, in fact I find some of his work akin to the Bach Cello suites (comparison wise that is).

    But most jazz performers do not play original melody when improvising, that is to say most players play the same thing BUT it's the way they do it which makes it original, and so interesting. Lacy, was a true original and played improvisations that were certainly well rehearsed - he practised ideas which used and developed in his solo work - and extremely individual for each performance. He also had a highly original approach melodically, another comparison to Bach.

    There are a few players such as yourself and Evan Parker (as an example) who work more on the performance, and construction which means it's more solid as a listening experience. Classical music is composed and thought over so that it will be interesting, likewise folk music also which are again compositions.

    What's probably most interesting is that when we realise that jazz doesn't translate to solo playing so easily, we can identify (probably), why jazz is less interesting to the general public. It may also make jazz players reassess their work as not real art, but a form of plagiarism. But that's moving away from the subject.

    Thanks again for the blog.

  2. I agree that "jazz does not translate to solo playing easily." And not that it should, being that they are two very different formats, each requiring a very different sensibility from the performer. Just speaking to solo playing, the reason why Steve Lacy and Evan Parker recordings are engaging and don't make the listener feel that something is missing, is because of the thought and planning that goes into the construction of the piece as a whole and not just being focused on the improvisational component of the piece. This holds especially true with regards to Lacy, whose performances are akin to a classical composer using the jazz vocabulary as a resource. And also as you succinctly put it: "Classical music is composed and thought over so that it will be interesting."

    And I appreciate your thoughts on this matter. Maybe it will spark further discussion from like- and maybe, not-so-like-minded individuals.


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