© 2024 WRTI
Your Classical and Jazz Source. Celebrating 75 Years!
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Take 75: Great Solos In Blue Note Records History

Clifford Brown turned in a number of fine solos playing with bandleader Art Blakey in 1954.
Francis Wolff
Courtesy of Blue Note Records
Clifford Brown turned in a number of fine solos playing with bandleader Art Blakey in 1954.

Blue Note Records has been many things over the course of its 75 years: a label responsible for blinding jazz innovations, a home for the titans of hard bop and soul jazz, a place for smart, sly, jazz-inflected pop creations.

One constant running throughout its history is improvisation. Its records have showcased jazz soloing in every possible mood and temperament. Its artists, both the jazz legends and those journeymen who are little regarded today, have helped shape the ever-evolving notion of what a solo is and what it can be.

To honor the label, we've combed the vaults to select 75 singular solos, some sprawling over multiple heroic choruses, some lasting just a crisp few measures. The idea was to showcase not the label's "greatest hits" — that would be impossible — but rather works that offer meaningful insights into the art of improvisation and the company's deep history. Enjoy.


Albert Ammons and Meade "Lux" Lewis, "Nagasaki" from The First Day (1939): We cheated a little on this one — it's not a solo as much as a six-minute fireworks display sparked by the duet of two boogie-woogie pianists. The boyhood friends from Chicago each developed serious stride piano chops, and eventually started gigging together as a duo act. This led to a slot as part of a special showcase at New York's Carnegie Hall; within weeks, an entranced German immigrant and jazz fan named Alfred Lion recorded nine solos by Ammons, eight by Lewis and two duets between them. Thus, in January 1939 was Blue Note Records born. --PJ

James P. Johnson, "Mule Walk (Stomp)" from Rent Party Piano (1943): Of all the pianists on the rent party circuit in New York during the Great Depression, none was more revered than James P. Johnson. A big presence with big hands, Johnson could bang out boogie-woogie with the best, but his repertoire also included rags, blues classics and old-time hell-raising "stomps." This tune, from an early collection of singles, finds him whipping through bass octaves in his left hand while playing highly coordinated daredevil lines with his right. Hot! --TM

Art Hodes, "Funny Feathers" from Out of the Back Room (1945): Though Blue Note is now chiefly remembered for its postwar catalog, the label started out by documenting traditional jazz and boogie-woogie. For a brief span in the mid-'40s, Chicago-raised pianist Hodes, a noted advocate of jazz's old school, was one of the company's most active recording artists. His solo in this 1945 session is a reminder why. With only piano, trumpet and drums on the date, Hodes' left hand plays rock-solid bass notes, chords and countermelodies seemingly at once, while tapping out a jaunty, rich line with his right. --PJ

Thelonious Monk, "Well You Needn't" from Genius Of Modern Music, Vol. 1 (1947): Well before he was hailed as an all-time jazz great and legendary innovator, Monk was an obscure pianist with an eccentric reputation and misunderstood talent. Yet Blue Note saw something in him. The label gave him his first crack at making a record and, when it compiled his recordings on LP, didn't shy away from calling him a genius of modern music. On this 1947 trio recording, his signature style is already fully formed: repeated phrasings, lots of space, miraculous interval leaps and thick chords gloriously teetering in and out of balance. --PJ

Bud Powell, "Ornithology" from The Amazing Bud Powell, Vol. 1 (1949): This cut comes from a 1949 session that would eventually be repackaged as an LP called The Amazing Bud Powell, Vol. 1. It's no marketing exaggeration. The pianist was a straight-up virtuoso who applied his talents to the modernist development of the day: bebop. In this trio recording, he throws down on Charlie Parker's melody (and the harmonic structure of "How High the Moon"). Powell's right hand flies at breakneck speed with a driving swing. You're left wondering how he packed all those notes into less than 2 1/2 breathless minutes. --PJ

Elmo Hope, "Happy Hour" from Trio and Quintet (1953): This chipper theme illustrates the role of influence in jazz, and the ways musicians routinely personalize the innovations of others. Hope was among the New York pianists on the scene to follow (and befriend) the great Thelonious Monk, and his compositions share Monk's jolting, unpredictable syncopations. Hope's solo glances at Monk and another piano luminary, Bud Powell, but the snaking, unpredictable lines are plenty original. --TM

Herbie Nichols, "House Party Starting" from Herbie Nichols Trio (1956): When first encountering the music of woefully obscure pianist Herbie Nichols, it helps to know that he considered himself a composer first. The New Yorker, whose slight output was only appreciated after his death, wrote as though intent on breaking every rule about harmony. That's not all: Nichols was able to extend those ideas into wonderfully twisting improvisations. This solo, on a tune that owes a debt or two to Thelonious Monk, gathers elements of blues, stride and early jazz into a concoction that sounds remarkably modern — even though it's over a half-century old. --TM

Sonny Clark, "Cool Struttin'" from Cool Struttin' (1958): Examine Blue Note's output from 1955-1960, the period when hard bop was reaching new peaks on a regular basis, and you can't escape the diversity of approaches to rhythm, the many shades of groove. The musicians tapped into and developed seemingly endless permutations of basic swing, and made each feel like it could cruise forever. One example, among many, is this easygoing blues by pianist Sonny Clark: Though his associates have visited this zone before, nothing sounds routine, in part because Clark plays with a mixture of coolheaded precision and soulful fire. --TM

Bobby Timmons, "Dat Dere" from Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, The Big Beat (1960): Drummer and bandleader Art Blakey enjoyed a long and fruitful recording partnership with Blue Note, which allowed him to spotlight such talented bandmates as pianist Bobby Timmons. This is Timmons' tune — one of the jazz classics he penned, along with "Moanin'" — and he sets the tone from the beginning with his iconic call-and-response introduction. Then when it comes time for him to blow — saving the best for last in the rotation — he builds from plinking salvos to rich block chord passages that steer the whole thing home. --PJ

Gene Harris, "A Foggy Day" from The Three Sounds, Black Orchid (1962): The Three Sounds got an unfair rap in the early '60s, as a trio blatantly imitating the easygoing, highly accessible feel of Ahmad Jamal's group. So what? Pianist Gene Harris and crew were masters of uncluttered blues-inflected swing, as this toe-tapping version of "A Foggy Day" demonstrates. While it's not the most adventurous playing that happened in 1962, Harris' lighthearted, whimsical solo is engaging from start to finish. And it's a feast for those who like their eighth-note lines spiked with triplets: Like Jamal, Harris uses all sorts of triplet groupings to add buoyancy to his phrases. --TM

Bill Evans/Jim Hall, "My Funny Valentine" from Undercurrent (1962): This list reflects the leanings of Blue Note: Small group dates were the label's bread and butter, and as a result, there are few solo or duo recordings of consequence. This intimate conversation is among the best in all of jazz, a shining example of attentive interplay and what it means to truly listen. In transforming "My Funny Valentine" from its customary ballad treatment into a lively medium swing, guitarist Jim Hall and pianist Bill Evans react to each other's ideas with crisp, sympathetic backing one phrase at a time, hinting at the pulse without always addressing it explicitly. --TM

Andrew Hill, "Refuge" from Point Of Departure (1964): Like certain fellow Blue Note artists of his time, pianist and composer Hill was a boundary pusher from within, expanding the harmonic limits of hard bop. He wrote complex and tricky tunes that somehow remain entrancing. "Refuge" opens his best-known album at a burning pace, and he steps up first. He hints at his own melody, darts in and out and finally locks into the pace with bassist Richard Davis pushing him along. It's high-intensity stuff — and Hill passes the torch to a motivated Eric Dolphy. --PJ

Herbie Hancock, "One Finger Snap (alt. take)" from Empyrean Isles (1964): Lest we forget — amid his many honorary titles and awards from UNESCO, the Kennedy Center Awards, Harvard University and the like — Herbie Hancock is a stone cold killer on the piano. His Blue Note records certainly helped to define the territory between bouncy grooves and 400-level hard bop that was the label's '60s meat and potatoes, and in them he frequently played right hand lines so good they could break your heart. The wilder alternate take of "One Finger Snap" from Empyrean Isles seems to lay more on the line, going for the riskiest maneuvers he can extricate himself from — and after Freddie Hubbard's solo, Hancock even goes back for a second helping. --PJ

Cecil Taylor, "Steps" from Unit Structures (1966): In 1960s New York, the disruptive force in jazz was free improvisation, and to its credit, Blue Note documented the music where it went. Pianist Taylor was at the forefront of the music beyond bop when he recorded Unit Structures. "Steps," which leads off the record, is actually a melodic composition, but the blowing is definitely untethered. Taylor closes the proceedings with a fiercely energetic workout, all impossible atonal runs and dense chord layers — characteristic of the unique language he developed for his instrument. --PJ

McCoy Tyner, "Contemplation" from The Real McCoy (1967): Blue Note's top shelf composers were prolific with uptempo tunes, modal inventions and gritty blues. If there's a shortage of anything, it's ballads. This piece, from pianist McCoy Tyner's monumental 1967 date, is among the best. Set in a ruminating medium-slow tempo, its simple theme is framed by cresting, modal chord changes that offer endless tension and release possibilities. That's Tyner's wheelhouse, and he doesn't disappoint: Starting with fitful chordal trills, he massages simple motifs into grand, heaving, unexpectedly powerful climaxes. --TM

Don Pullen, "Indio Gitano" from Random Thoughts (1990): Though he's sometimes dismissed as a lesser practitioner of the jazz avant-garde, Don Pullen was a curious soul who had control of a lot of different music – and an arresting, totally unique piano style. This solo, on an original tune that echoes the harmonic language of Miles Davis' "Sketches of Spain," shows Pullen's range. It's got moments of lighthearted consonance followed by sudden torrents of stormy notes followed by crashing dissonant chords. By the end of the solo, you feel as though you've just trailed behind Pullen on a kind of whirlwind world tour, and learned a thing or two along the way. --TM

Brad Mehldau, "Alone Together" from Lee Konitz, Alone Together (1996): It takes a while for the theme of "Alone Together" to reach the surface on this live drummer-less trio date. But when it does, pianist Brad Mehldau digs in and goes to work. Over the next few minutes, he constructs an expansive view of the tune that involves rousing single notes, brainy counterlines surging up from the deep bass register, and wild classical chord clusters that thrive inside bassist Charlie Haden's determined swing. It's an astonishing solo, and it makes you wonder why Blue Note has largely avoided chamber jazz excursions like this. --TM

Gonzalo Rubalcaba, "El Manisero" from Supernova (2001): By the time Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba arrived on the international scene in the early 1990s, Latin jazz had settled into predictable routines. With a trio anchored by Ignacio Berroa, the imaginative Rubalcaba sent it into energetic overdrive, as this version of the Cuban standard "El Manisero" ("The Peanut Vendor") demonstrates. Playing with percussive intensity and chops to spare, the pianist captures every wrinkle of the syncopation while unleashing disarmingly rhapsodic lead-lines. One highlight happens around 4:30, when Rubalcaba veers away from a familiar montuno into an agitated romp in which the rhythm never quite stabilizes. Amazing! --TM

Jason Moran, "Ringing My Phone (Straight Outta Istanbul)" from The Bandwagon (2002): This record, which culls performances from a six-night run at the Village Vanguard, finds Jason Moran taking the piano trio into truly new territory. In addition to reimagining the Afrika Bambaataa hit "Planet Rock," the standard "Body and Soul" and a Brahms intermezzo, Moran transforms a taped phone conversation into a riveting springboard for improvisation. The conceit of "Ringing My Phone" might seem a bit "meta," but it works: First Moran nails the jagged cadences of the speech, then he and his telepathic trio explore phrases that veer far from the "text," creating extemporaneous counterpoint that deepens and extends the emotion of the voice. --TM

Robert Glasper, "Butterfly" from Double Booked (2009): Now known largely for his top-selling and genre-bridging band Robert Glasper Experiment, but signed as an acoustic jazz pianist, he is one of the latest additions to a long Blue Note line of adventurous keyboard players. This reworking of a tune by Herbie Hancock — another Blue Note artist back in the day — is from the album that introduced the Experiment to the marketplace. Glasper's solo on Fender Rhodes has all his trademarks: a slow build, exploratory lingering, a luscious post-bop right hand workout and a warm-down into the melody anew. --PJ

Renee Rosnes/Bill Charlap, "Ana Maria" from Double Portrait (2010): Though it is often about displays of dexterity, jazz is also about leaning in — setting aside one's own priorities long enough to listen to and react to others. This two-piano duet, involving the husband-and-wife team of Renee Rosnes and Bill Charlap, illustrates what can happen when the music is guided by that sensitivity. The two take turns shaping Wayne Shorter's rhapsodic melody, and move between lead and support roles with an easygoing fluidity. Rosnes treats the tune as an occasion for yearning, while Charlap, a master of poise who's become one of jazz piano's heavy thinkers, seeks out brief openings where, with a feather touch, he can imply new harmonies. It's a marvel of openness, painted in pastel hues. --TM

Tenor Saxophone

Ike Quebec, "If I Had You" (1944): This tenor saxophonist had two periods of activity for Blue Note. The better known is probably the reprise: He surfaced in the late '50s to record a number of albums and singles for the company. But in the '40s, he recorded small-group sessions that deserve mention. His balladeering on "If I Had You" stands out for its gorgeous, full-bodied tone. And it ought to be mentioned that Quebec had an ear for A&R — though his own artistry was relatively traditional, he was the one who brought Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell to the label. --PJ

Johnny Griffin, "All The Things You Are" from A Blowing Session (1957): Cue up this legendary jam session to savor the jazz equivalent of speed racing. It's led by one of the most fleet-fingered saxophonists of all time — Johnny Griffin — and features another technically adept tenor man, John Coltrane. The tune is a cutting contest staple, Jerome Kern's "All The Things You Are," and the tempo is brisk. Griffin gets first chance at tearing it apart, and he scampers through stair-step lines and switchbacks, stopping only occasionally to toss off a more earthbound basic blues line — in those moments, you realize just how rapidly those fingers have been moving. Then comes Coltrane, thinking at the speed of sound. There's no clear "winner" at these sessions: the rhythm section works overtime to make sure every soloist reaches full potential. --TM

John Coltrane, "Moment's Notice" from Blue Train (1957): Every tenor solo on Blue Train is a gem. This one is studied endlessly by aspiring musicians for its sweeping scale-based runs and precisely articulated rhythmic phrases. Of special note is Coltrane's approach to the pedal-tone chords that close each chorus: His scintillating 16th note figures, in odd and not always symmetrical groupings, presage the shape-based solo approach he developed during his later years. --TM

Sonny Rollins, "Softly As In A Morning Sunrise" from A Night At the Village Vanguard (1957): Hearing tenor man Sonny Rollins as he begins this standard melody, you might conclude from his dreamy, laconic phrasing that he's going to take it easy. Not exactly. He starts with fanciful little squibs of ideas that swerve all over the comfortable medium tempo. After a bit, he gets serious about outlining the chord sequence — he's playing only with bass and drums, so the harmony depends on him — and what follows is at once disciplined and dazzling creation at the highest level. --TM

Hank Mobley, "Remember" from Soul Station (1960): There are soloists who try to impress with torrents of nonstop killer lines, and then there are soloists whose first priority is swing. Hank Mobley, the long-serving Blue Note tenorman, falls into the latter camp; his best recordings, on his own and as a Miles sideman, are notable for a relaxed rhythmic disposition. Mobley begins this finger-snapping version of the standard "Remember" with a clipped, economical reading of the theme, and extends that idea into his improvisation. There are no wasted notes, nothing out of place or awkward — just pure, easygoing swing. --TM

Tina Brooks, "Nothing Ever Changes My Love For You" from True Blue (1960): The tenor saxophonist Harold Floyd Brooks, better known as Tina, may not have the name recognition of his hard-bop contemporaries in the '50s and '60s. But he had no small measure of talent. This tune finds Brooks in a medium-tempo mood, threading the changes with a lean middleweight tone and an exploratory edge that deserved more opportunities to be developed. This track comes from the only Blue Note album released under his name during his lifetime. --PJ

Dexter Gordon, "Cheese Cake" from Go (1962): What's a jazz solo, anyway? A spontaneous re-imagining of a melody? One musician's attempt to extend the logic of a tune? Nothing more than a muscle-flexing exhibition? With Dexter Gordon, it's all of the above and then some: When he's on his game, the tenor saxophonist embodies the essential spirit of jazz improvisation. On the spry "Cheese Cake," Gordon allows many facets of his personality to come through. One minute he's all coy and sullen and bluesy, then he's full-on wailing in the upper register, then he's ripping through elegant extended bebop phrases. And sometimes he hardly tries at all: Gordon is one of those rare jazz musicians who dazzle even just playing two simple quarter notes. --TM

Joe Henderson, "Isotope" from Inner Urge (1963): With its wide melodic leaps and abrupt pauses, Joe Henderson's "Isotope" might be the most angular, least intuitive blues theme in the entire jazz canon. It's one of those melodies that gently (but firmly) suggests avenues of approach for soloists — you simply can't rattle off blue moans or clichés all day. Taking the first solo, Henderson uses sleek, squiggly runs and broad beseeching declarations to stretch a step or two from the constrictions of the blues. --TM

Wayne Shorter, "Yes Or No" from Juju (1964): The horn players who fronted Blue Note bands of the early 1960s were incredibly lucky: On any given day, their accompaniment might be provided by some of the most skilled, authoritative rhythm sections in the world. The band on Juju — pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Elvin Jones — glides like a smooth-revving racecar, making Wayne Shorter's tunes more intense simply by its timekeeping. You'd think that would allow Wayne to relax and chill a bit, but on "Yes Or No," he responds with choppy crosscut lines and brusque, powerfully articulated motific inventions that seem perpetually in search of a higher gear. --TM

Joe Lovano, "Reflections" from Quartets: Live At The Village Vanguard (1995): For over two decades, tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano has been a mainstay of the contemporary Blue Note Records, and this live double album shows why. He's a giant of synthesis, a stylist who's absorbed a ton of music both "inside" and "out," and exhibits all that on this take of a Thelonious Monk ballad. Merely his opening descending intervals are a shot of modernity across the bow; the shape and delayed resolution of his lines speak of casual mastery. It's the kind of digging into the dissonances that does a Monk tune right, topped off by proper smears and notes rounded just so. --PJ

Alto Saxophone

Cannonball Adderley, "Love for Sale" from Somethin' Else (1958): Jazz is commonly regarded as serious deep-thinker stuff, but of course there's happy jazz too — and alto saxophonist Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, who only did this one record for Blue Note, made lots of it. Adderley's buoyant, extroverted alto screams "Here's to life!" no matter what he's playing, and here, he saunters through "Love for Sale" in a carefree mood. At the start, he's toying with ideas, joshing around. Just when the solo starts sounding too glib, he'll slip in some outrageous killer lick from his toolkit that screams "Didn't see that coming, did you?" --TM

Lou Donaldson, "Blues Walk" from Blues Walk (1958): One of Blue Note's mainstay artists for more than two decades, alto saxophonist Donaldson bridged nascent hard bop to its funky soul-jazz variant. You could say his solo on 1958's "Blues Walk," a strolling minor blues, was a landmark in that progression. From his opening hard-tongued fanfare, he's full of deep blues feeling, pressing nuanced emphasis into every arc and leaving plenty of negative space to set up the next lick. That hard-to-master, easy-to-like approach was his signature, and he signs with emphasis here. --PJ

Jackie McLean, "Esoteric" from Destination Out! (1963): As the '50s became the '60s, alto saxophonist McLean pushed himself to explore the outer bounds of bop — as heard on 21 Blue Note albums. Destination Out! is one of the most celebrated of those, in part for compositionsby trombonist Grachan Moncur III. McLean's solo on "Esoteric" applies his already distinct sound identity — a bit sharp and sharply biting — to an unusual and exquisite structure. He floats above the stop-time figure with searching inquiries, but digs in hard when the band resumes its full swing. --PJ

Ornette Coleman, "Dawn" from At The Golden Circle, Vol. 1 (1965): Coleman has a well-deserved reputation as a musical firebrand, a man who shook up the scene with a new harmonic concept and acidic tone. But he could also play beautiful ballads in his own diamond-in-the-rough way, as evidenced by this live recording from Stockholm in 1965. Coleman explores harmonically free territory, constantly morphing the song structure but always respecting the imperative to create a melody. Meanwhile, bassist David Izenzon, who both plucks and bows, adds bittersweet dissonance to the equation. --PJ

Jerry Dodgion, "Tiptoe" from Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, Consummation (1970): It's rare to find big band recordings in the Blue Note catalog — this album only counts because the label's parent company at the time acquired Solid State Records and slapped the Blue Note label on it. It does give us an excuse to spotlight the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, one of the finest which ever did it. Jones' colorful, lightly layered arrangement (it's his tune too) and Lewis' impeccable brushwork define "Tiptoe," setting up alto saxophonist Jerry Dodgion to pierce through the din with playful accents and bluesy feeling. --PJ

Greg Osby, "I Didn't Know About You" from Banned In New York (1997): Have this at the ready the next time one of those old-school windbags goes off on how the current generation of players doesn't play like the titans of yesteryear. It's a fantasia on "I Didn't Know About You" featuring alto saxophonist Greg Osby and pianist Jason Moran, recorded live (by Osby, on his minidisc player) at a New York club, and it sparkles with invention throughout. Listen first to the alto/piano interplay on the theme, and then to the way Osby uses light, darting lines as an opening statement. From there, he projects a musing mood of quick-witted looseness that's embraced and amplified by everyone on the bandstand. --TM

Other Reeds

Sidney Bechet, "St. Louis Blues" (1944): Along with Louis Armstrong, clarinetist and soprano saxophone player Sidney Bechet was one of the first important jazz soloists. Even though his brand of jazz was no longer the latest and greatest by the time Blue Note's founders got to him, he would make the company's first hit ("Summertime," from 1939) and go on to record with the label for several more years. His late-1944 clarinet take on "St. Louis Blues" is all long-tone languor, glorious in its quaking vibrato, riding high on a shuffle groove. --PJ

Pepper Adams, "Just One Of Those Things" from Lee Morgan, The Cooker (1957): The baritone saxophone is the rusty old drain pipe of the saxophone family – because of its unwieldy size and often murky sound, not many improvisers are drawn to it. Blue Note issued several titles by the powerful blues-oriented Leo Parker, but rarely included baritone in its small-group lineups. This brisk reading of "Just One of Those Things," featuring the fast-fingered Pepper Adams, is among the hippest in Blue Note's catalog. Using his coarse sandpaper sound to capture attention, Adams agitates through several choruses of slashing and entirely personal bebop, barely even stopping to take a breath. --TM

Eric Dolphy, "Hat And Beard" from Out To Lunch (1964): From one Blue Note avant-garde signing to another, "Hat and Beard" is multi-instrumentalist Dolphy's salute to pianist Thelonious Monk. Dolphy also played alto sax and flute on Out To Lunch, his masterpiece album, but the opening tune features the wild instrument he wrestled with so magnificently: the bass clarinet. He sets up a jaunty vamp and goes to town, attacking huge interval leaps and frenzied bleats of atonal noise. But there's a sense of control to the ferocity. The band understands he's painting expressionistically, and supports his whirlwind. --PJ


Fats Navarro, "Our Delight" from Tadd Dameron/Fats Navarro (1947): This challenging Tadd Dameron bebop tune is the perfect vehicle for Fats Navarro's relentlessly pivoting half-steps and razor-sharp articulation. Along with other tracks from these sessions, it shows why Navarro, who died at 27, is revered as the most technically adept trumpet player to emerge from bebop: He plays with such clarity, you almost think he wrote the solo out beforehand. --TM

Miles Davis, "It Never Entered My Mind" from Miles Davis Vol. 1 (1952): Culled from a series of singles Davis cut during a difficult period of drug addiction after Birth of the Cool, this ballad holds, in embryo form, all the significant characteristics/hallmarks of his later style: the thoughtful pauses, the fractured melodies, the impulsive scampering phrases. --TM

Clifford Brown, "Mayreh" from Art Blakey, A Night at Birdland Vol. 1 (1954): This is what jazz people mean when they talk about a soloist "carving it up." Clifford Brown is thrilling throughout A Night at Birdland, but here seems to port himself into an alternate bebop universe — methodically weaving scale-step lines with close intervallic leaps. It's music that's endlessly challenging, yet sounds cheerfully tossed off. --TM

Kenny Dorham, "The Preacher" from Horace Silver, Horace Silver And The Jazz Messengers (1955): Trumpeter Dorham's association with Blue Note hit a peak when he issued his own albums in the early '60s. Before and after, he was an excellent sideman and soloist, including playing in the first edition of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. On this early 1955 date, Dorham is the first to go in on pianist Horace Silver's cheerful number, building to a high-note peak at the start of his second chorus and gradually backing down. It's bebop with space to breathe and a funky hitch in its step — the bread and butter of Blue Note in his era. --PJ

Blue Mitchell, "Fungii Mama" from The Thing To Do (1964): This track, another of the classic Latin- or calypso-tinged originals that turned up on countless Blue Note sessions from the mid '60s, is notable for the way leader Blue Mitchell organizes and builds his solo. The first chorus is crisp bebop; the second (which introduces a "shout-chorus" style backing riff played by pianist Chick Corea and saxophonist Junior Cook) transitions into more rhythmic phrases; on the third, Corea's shout line takes on shifting harmonies, inspiring splashy trumpet hi-jinks. --TM

Freddie Hubbard, "Maiden Voyage" from Herbie Hancock, Maiden Voyage (1965): One of the flashiest prime movers of hard bop, Freddie Hubbard developed a more personal, less showy approach as he (and the genre) evolved. This tune, which opens Herbie Hancock's gorgeous album of the same name, shows just how lyrical Hubbard could be. His first chorus contains concise half-valve motifs and broad, questioning upper-register lines that are gems of melodic invention, endlessly memorable. --TM

Lee Morgan, "Ceora" from Cornbread (1965): The tune is among the most inventive of the bossa nova-influenced originals in the Blue Note catalog. Morgan's trumpet solo actually deepens it with beautifully melodic, dexterously carved lines that have their own sparkling logic. --TM

Woody Shaw, "Zoltan" from Larry Young, Unity (1965): Though his most important recordings were for other labels, trumpeter Woody Shaw made some key contributions to Blue Note – including the three originals that form the core of organist Larry Young's trailblazing Unity, not to mention blistering solos on this and several other records. Sauntering through the broken Latin-then-swing feel of his piece "Zoltan," Shaw gathers seemingly disparate approaches – shrieking Miles-style high notes, carefully articulated mambo riffs, glib chromatic runs – into a coherent and thrilling excursion. --TM

Eddie Henderson, "Sunburst" from Sunburst (1974): With help from some of his cohorts in the Herbie Hancock Sextet, trumpeter Eddie Henderson seeks, and finds, a fusion identity distinct from the Miles Davis approach predominant at the time. On this record, it's a spacey psychedelic realm where bass comes with wah-wah and the tunes can wander into impressionistic lagoons. Henderson reveals several sonic identities during his solo, but what's most notable are his searching, poignantly questioning lines. --TM

Tim Hagans, "Animation/Imagination" from Animation/Imagination (1998): Trumpeter Hagans has plenty of mainstream post-bop chops, but in 1998, he swung a hard left turn for this project. Working with producer (and fellow musician) Bob Belden, Hagans created a soundscape of drum 'n' bass programming to blow over — as if Miles Davis had lived to hear late '90s electronica. The Miles influence is most audible on the title track, where Hagans' spacey first salute is colored by the distinctively Milesian Harmon mute. But he returns for a workout toward the end, literally sending us off on high notes. --PJ

Terence Blanchard, "Wadagbe" from Flow (2005): It's fitting that the one-time Jazz Messenger Terence Blanchard would himself become, like Art Blakey, both a leading mentor for young talent and a Blue Note artist. And like many a Blakey record, it's Blanchard's young bandmates who make Flow into a landmark of mainstream modern jazz. West African guitarist Lionel Loueke devised the theme and processed chant behind "Wadagbe." All Blanchard needs to do is to launch into clarion high-note beast mode over the extended coda, where the tune builds to a raucous peak. --PJ

Ambrose Akinmusire, "As We Fight (Willie Penrose)" from the imagined savior is far easier to paint (2014): So far, much of the music created by fast-rising trumpeter and composer Ambrose Akinmusire has looked resolutely forward, envisioning new pathways and contexts for improvisation. This piece is a touch more evolutionary: The broken feel and fitful metric twists recall Blue Note's later hard bop period, while Akinmusire's brief, agile solo blends bop linearity with decidedly modern asymmetrical phrasing. Inspired by the tricky rhythms, he transforms his toolbox of strange leaping intervals into unexpected – and riveting – melody. --TM


Julius Watkins, "Jordu" from Julius Watkins Sextet, Vol. 1-2 (1955): Of all the non-lucrative talents to attain, mastery of the jazz French horn might be among the top. But Watkins essentially founded the field, as Blue Note documented in 1954-55. His sextets played a highly arranged sort of chamber jazz, but were mostly accomplished soloists themselves. On the future jazz standard "Jordu," he bends the warm yet unruly horn to his bebop will, and even plays an arpeggiated figure that recalls a future John Coltrane. --PJ

J.J. Johnson, "Groovin'" from The Eminent J.J. Johnson Vol. 2 (1955): In jazz school, they talk about the importance of starting and ending a solo with clarity and conviction. This easygoing tune, one of a series of singles recorded by gifted trombonist J.J. Johnson in the mid '50s, offers excellent examples. Johnson paraphrases the melody to start his excursion, launching the simple riff into blithe, crisply turned phrases. These continue right up until the end of the chorus, when Johnson slides into some brisk double-time and lands, with purpose, on the downbeat. When Johnson plays, even the unwieldy trombone dances. --TM

Curtis Fuller, "Locomotion" from John Coltrane, Blue Train (1957): By simply participating in the recording of Coltrane's classic album, trombonist Fuller etched his own name on jazz history. But his precisely articulated, technically clean approach to a difficult instrument makes him much more than a footnote. He draws the assignment of following Coltrane, and the band drops out as he begins, but then he starts cooking with easy facility and all is well. It's state-of-the-art hard bop — a crew on top of its game, with blues feeling to boot. --PJ


Jimmy Smith, "It Might As Well Be Spring" from Standards (1958): Jazz organ pioneer Jimmy Smith is a master of the blues — some of his most revered records, like Back at the Chicken Shack, are devoted to high-octane romps through the 12-bar form and its variants. But Smith was also an adroit interpreter of standards and show tunes, as this subtle reading of "It Might As Well Be Spring" demonstrates. Working in an unusual medium-slow tempo – a crawling tempo, actually – Smith explores sweetly melodic phrases in single time, double time and triple time, each more intricate than the previous. --TM

Jack McDuff, "Blues In Maude's Flat" from Grant Green, Grantstand (1961): Here's a relaxed blues jam that's nothing special at first blush. But rather than the greasy, sweaty feeling of some organ solos — where the keyboardist literally pulls out all the stops and sustains — this one is breezy and clear. Perhaps that's because "Brother" McDuff takes a bit of a pianistic approach, employing lots of clean right hand runs, avoiding lots of effects and keeping a steady walking bass line. At least on this tune, he's in keeping with the precision and reserve of Green, one of Blue Note's most frequently recorded guitarists. --PJ

Larry Young, "The Moontrane" from Unity (1965): With this energetic album, Larry Young stretched the possibilities of the jazz organ beyond hard-driving blues (a Blue Note hallmark at the time.) Working through a program of challenging tunes (three by trumpeter Woody Shaw), Young dives headfirst into the modal hard bop that was another label signature. His jaunty, leaping triplets and meticulously chopped block-chord voicings operate in vivid contrast to the long tones of the melody. It suggests that Young — 25 at the time — had already developed a distinct modern jazz vocabulary. --TM

Dr. Lonnie Smith, "I Want To Thank You" from Live at Club Mozambique (1970): Blue Note's success in soul jazz was due, in part, to the material its bands incorporated – many artists expanded beyond the blues to cover pop hits, Motown and James Brown-style R&B. This live date, recorded in 1970 but unreleased until 1995, finds organist Smith's band working out on the Sly Stone 1969 hit "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)," giving it a distinctly funky second-line spin. Smith's solo is a clinic in the art of groove cultivation: A cagey mix of oscillating long tones, percussive jabs and roller-coaster lines. Also worth hearing: The patient, deceptively inventive solos from guitarist George Benson and baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber. --TM


Tal Farlow, "Lover" from Tal Farlow Quartet (1954): During his first solo chorus on this brisk standard, guitarist Tal Farlow attempts an impossibly ambitious eighth-note line. It proves to be just out of his reach, and as he fumbles through a crowd of notes, the music seems seconds away from derailing completely. Farlow does not appear rattled. Instead, he keeps going, and within just eight short measures, he restores order with a blazingly fast, impressively crisp blast of bebop. It's a reminder of a truth shared by all of Blue Note's great soloists: Improvisation involves not just taking risks, but knowing how to recover when things don't work out. --TM

Grant Green, "Joshua Fit De Battle of Jericho" from Feelin' The Spirit (1962): One of several thematic projects Grant Green recorded in 1962, Feelin' The Spirit stands among the guitarist's great works — in part because it makes explicit the link between African-American spirituals, a core root of American music, and jazz. Green wisely avoids dressing up this simple tune: He sets it at a stately processional gait, and his crew steps carefully through it, leaving lots of room for Green's poignant blues-tinged proclamations. --TM

Kenny Burrell, "Chitlins Con Carne" from Midnight Blue (1963): This sultry late-night blues crawl, anchored by Ray Barretto on conga, features one of guitarist Kenny Burrell's shorter solos. Rather than babble through chorus after chorus, as per performance practice at the time, the taciturn Burrell is happy to play a phrase and let it hang in the air until it acquires powerful resonance. This allows listeners to appreciate Burrell's every stinging attack, and his mastery of the nuances that lurk beyond the note choices. All of Midnight Blue benefits from that restraint. --TM

John Scofield, "Grace Under Pressure" from Grace Under Pressure (1991): Guitarist John Scofield occupies a wide spectrum. Known largely for indulging his jazz-rock and fusion leanings, his first records on Blue Note, in the '80s and '90s, dialed back into a relatively straight-ahead sound. The title cut from this late 1991 recording spans quite a bit of that territory. The first guitar solo is his, and it has immensely creative phrasing, with tactfully aggressive effects and bends, but still owes much to the single throughline of post-bop. (He even quotes Charlie Parker as the tune winds down.) Now contrast that to the distinctly off-center style of Bill Frisell, who follows him. --PJ

Pat Martino, "Oleo" from Live at Yoshi's (2001): Pat Martino came up playing in organ groups around Philadelphia, but largely avoided that setting for much of his career, at least on recordings under his name. After hearing this blazing uptempo romp through "I Got Rhythm" changes, you might wonder why. Joey DeFrancesco's tactful accompaniment inspires Martino to torrents of intricate and thoroughly original post-bebop lines. Impressive for its length, this solo is a showcase for Martino's almost superhuman fluidity on the guitar. --TM

Lionel Loueke, "Griot" from Mwaliko (2010): The music of West African guitarist and vocalist Lionel Loueke bridges worlds and improvisation approaches. Though he can dish out credible swing (as a foray in the middle of this solo suggests), he's more at home ad-libbing over impressionistic environments and percolating, often metrically challenging grooves. "Griot" captures his impressive range – after the warm vocal preamble, there are chantlike incantations, explosions of single-note fury, tight ensemble passages and ear-stretching chordal arrays that emulate the sound of the kora. Of all the artists on Blue Note's current roster, Loueke is the one most likely to develop a truly international improvisation aesthetic. --TM


Milt Jackson, "Misterioso (alt. take)" from Wizard of the Vibes (1948): This solo is partly about Milt Jackson's gift for translating the demands of bebop to the mallets — how he plays arpeggiated runs, fast flurries of activity and leaping turnarounds on the vibraphone. As it's from a 1948 Thelonious Monk recording date, it's also about the simpatico Jackson quickly develops with the eccentric but swingin' pianist. Listen to Jackson weave around Monk's distinctive comping. It's just a slow blues, but it's also a Monk tune, with a specific mood, and the man nicknamed "Bags" honors that well. --PJ

Bobby Hutcherson, "Black Circle" from Stick-Up! (1965): "Black Circle" would be challenging even if it wasn't moving at breakneck speed. The tune, a Hutcherson original, has a chord sequence that snakes around in unpredictable ways, visiting (or hinting at) several key centers. Hutcherson travels through his first chorus as though mapping the territory, and as he goes on, he ventures farther afield tonally – while pushing the rhythm forward. There's an art to improvising over brisk tempos, and it's on display right here. --TM

Stefon Harris, "Tank's Tune" from Stefon Harris/Jacky Terrasson, Kindred (2001): The melody here is a study in brainiac syncopation, a series of short hits that suggest a fitful and almost perpetual destabilization. Vibraphonist Stefon Harris typically thrives in settings like this, but when his solo begins, the groove changes completely, settling into an effortless uptempo swing. Harris begins on vibes, gliding through lines that neatly sidestep bop cliché. Then, in midstream, he switches to marimba, altering his attack and also his line construction to take advantage of the woody resonance. With Terrasson's sharp support on piano, Harris' solo grows more agitated as it evolves, and by its climax, he's circled fully back to the polyrhythmic upheaval of the theme. --TM


Paul Chambers, "Tale of the Fingers" from Whims of Chambers (1956): Chambers may be remembered best as a sideman to Miles Davis, but at the same time, the bassist known as Mr. P.C. was recording as a leader for Blue Note. In 1956, he steered a date featuring such luminaries as John Coltrane, Horace Silver, Donald Byrd, Kenny Burrell and Philly Joe Jones. "Tale of the Fingers" is an obvious standout — though Chambers was an excellent pizzicato player, this cut features his bowed bass work nearly from start to finish. --PJ

Ron Carter, "Mode For Joe" from Joe Henderson, Mode For Joe (1966): While Carter was touring with Miles Davis in the late '60s, he also made time to play on many a Blue Note release, including this 1966 session led by saxophonist Joe Henderson. For his efforts, Carter was rewarded with a spot of solo time toward the end of "Mode For Joe." Showcasing a rich, lustrous tone, he plays off the horn riff and reframes the melody with a series of peaceful yet powerful double-stops. --PJ


Max Roach, "The Way You Look Tonight" from Johnny Griffin, Introducing Johnny Griffin (1956): The exceptionally fleet tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin required a rhythm section that could keep up when he made his first Blue Note albums in the '50s. Drummer Max Roach, himself a bebop pioneer, was a good choice. Roach sets a barnstorming tempo on the standard "The Way You Look Tonight," and when the solos come back around, he trades fours with the leader. Roach's fills are compact and neatly organized, preserving the momentum and then some as the band rolls into the coda. --PJ

Art Blakey, "Bu's Delight" from Buhaina's Delight (1961): The drum solo, so often an occasion for showoff feats of technique, becomes something entirely different here. Drama begins in near silence — with hard bop master Art Blakey snapping out backbeats on the hi-hat, then dropping a series of tom-tom blasts that eventually form the outlines of a narrative. From there, Blakey links his ideas into an extended crescendo that doesn't peak until well after the horns return for the final theme statement. --TM

Tony Williams, "Two Pieces Of One (Green)" from Life Time (1964): There's a pause here after tenor man Sam Rivers winds down what feels like an epic freeform improvisation. Out of the silence, Tony Williams, then 18 years old, begins his own quest. He devotes the first minute to variations on a deftly-maintained swing groove; on the second, he glances at patterns and then quickly changes them around. The band returns after about four minutes, and by then, he's covered a universe of jazz drumming — and is happy to let the time wander. --TM

Elvin Jones, "Inner Urge" from Joe Henderson, Inner Urge (1964): This knotty little Joe Henderson tune is built around planks of open, modal harmony that recall the Coltrane quartet. The form relies on melodic phrases that land on the offbeats, and from the beginning of the solos, it's clear that drummer Elvin Jones (veteran of that Coltrane group) intends to accentuate that organization. He does that gingerly behind pianist McCoy Tyner, and more forcefully behind Henderson. When it's his turn in the spotlight, Jones' jolts and jabs never stray from the governing form, electrifying every last contour of it. --TM

Brian Blade, "Starry Night" from Wayne Shorter Quartet, Without a Net (2013): This is the only selection on the list that's not a "solo" in the conventional sense. That's because saxophonist Wayne Shorter's current group doesn't always think in terms of solo exploration — instead, its peak moments are conversations, sometimes heated ones. Focus on Blade from about the 7:00 mark, where he breaks up the time with a series of precisely timed thunderstrikes that have a galvanic effect on the discussion. --TM

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Moon has been writing about pop, rock, jazz, blues, hip-hop and the music of the world since 1983.