Playing Solo: The Challenges of the Single Line Performer


In a certain sense the idea of a “solo” performance is inimical to one of the basic premises of jazz: group collaboration and interaction. When one considers the innovations and milestones of jazz history, it is invariably centers upon a great soloist such as Parker or Coltrane within the context of a group(s). It is true that to some degree the piano and to some extent, guitar are famously suitable solo instruments. The notion of a horn performing solo for more than an obligatory cadenza in jazz has in recent decades become more common. Artists who made solo performances a large part of their oeuvre such as Steve Lacy, Albert Manglesdorf and Anthony Braxton come to mind. The question is what are the considerations for this type of performance to be successful?

A solo line player must be aware of all the instrumental and musical tools available in three distinct ways: technically, compositionally and emotionally. He has to display virtuosity on his instrument, be thoughtful in his presentation and of course, passionate. An audience is less forgiving for a solo performer since all the attention is centered on one individual rather than several….CLARITY is the mantra.


In any artistic process, tension and release are guiding factors. It is the yin-yang principle put to practice, implying opposites. In art the dialogue between opposing pairs is constant whether purposely stated or not. The very fact that a musical action occurred is recognizable only in relation to the degree of its opposite. The artist has the choice as to whether (s)he wishes to achieve balance or not because a statement left unanswered can be powerful also. As well, there is something of value in concentrating on one musical idea only and maintaining that singular color or mood for the length of a performance. The main point is that the solo line performer (without the benefits of direct harmonic colors) must consider what is possible and make clear choices.

Musical pairings such as loud/soft; fast/slow (rhythm); angular/smooth (melodic shapes); dark/bright (sound); active/at rest (motion) are examples. The single line player, as soon as one note is uttered, is automatically committed to some aspect of a particular pairing since there are no other musicians to offset the musical choice one makes. Artistically, the challenge is how subtle the artist can be in exploring the “grey” areas between and around opposites to sustain interest. With a typical small group of three to five players, the combinations are endless. One of Miles Davis’ strongest attributes was his awareness of tension and release not only in his own playing, but more importantly in how he paced the music within his groups over the years. But the solo artist has nowhere to hide!!

Since the solo line player has only himself to “interact” with, (s)he is responsible for making clear choices. As mentioned, it is crucial to sustain the attention of the listener since with no other instruments playing and all eyes and ears riveted on an individual, the “boredom” factor has to be addressed. Keeping a listener’s attention concerns balancing change versus sameness, surprise coupled with expectation and generally how to keep things moving in a loose and spontaneous atmosphere. Yet at the same time, concentrated development of singular ideas are essential for drawing the listener in. It is quite a challenge when one considers all these factors.


Besides the standard musicological triumvirate of melody, harmony and rhythm, I add color (sound and texture) as well as form (order of events) to the elements of music. These last two are indispensable to the solo line player because there is no recourse to chords (outside of multiphonics, etc.) or as in the case of some instruments, color supplied by pedals, reverbs and the like. Textural changes within the soloist’s capabilities are extremely important in establishing interest and mood. Use of other subtle musical tools such as dynamics, expressive devices and articulation are crucial for determining the musical texture. Form in this context means the overall architecture of a performance. The single line player is essentially speaking on a one to one basis to the listener. Choices of specific musical materials and the order of their presentation/development are crucial when addressing questions of form. In a certain sense, form may be the most important element of music from the listener’s standpoint. For the solo line player especially, understanding form’s implications is crucial. For example, what musical element if emphasized, would be most beneficial at a particular juncture of the performance to enhance the listener’s interest?


A performance of any sort is basically comprised of units which I call gestures which can be small or large in nature. Each gesture consists of a purposeful movement, an action that is singular and clear. Gestures come in gradients loosely described in terms of light (gesture), grandiose, ambiguous, clear and so on ad infinitum. The solo line player is constantly juggling small and large gestures in a dramatic way, because being unaccompanied, every action is highlighted. This is the great challenge of solo playing; awareness and discreet use of all kinds of gestures.

Finally, the solo line player is stripped naked in front of the world, emotionally speaking. There is nowhere to hide-no drums covering up, no chords clouding the melodic intentions, etc. The solo line player must be brave and confident as well as a consummate artist.