Ron Burgundy ain’t got nothing on these guys \\ The best Jazz flute solos of all time
When asked to think of a burning hot flute solo, most people tend to bring up Ron Burgundy’s outrageous improvisation in Anchorman.
However, the flute is a killer fixture in a lot of Jazz records, especially during the 1960s. Here is a comprehensive guide to ten of the best Jazz flute solos.
\\ Roland Kirk, ‘Serenade to a Cuckoo’, 1964
Despite being a prolific multi-instrumentalist whose virtuosic playing spans a great variety of woodwind instruments, Roland Kirk’s I Talk to the Spirits album is comprised solely of flutes. Released in 1964 under the record label Verve, Kirk brings out traditional flutes alongside an African wood flute—and a cuckoo clock. With most of the tracks being original compositions, a stand-out one is Kirk’s Serenade to a Cuckoo. The flute is underscored by drummer Walter Perkins who uses brushes to create a relaxed, swing beat. Michael Fleming provides a walking bass line with rhythmic comping from Horace Parlan.
The somewhat conventional harmony and melody is in sharp contrast to Kirk’s barrier-breaking style. He begins the melody using an extended technique of singing-whilst-playing, which gives an otherworldly effect to the texture. His improvisation takes this further, with the blues feel being somewhat highlighted by Kirk’s grunts, yells, and sharp intakes of breath. His tone is something to behold, dancing back and forth between aggressive and airy.
\\ Eric Dolphy, Oliver Nelson’s ‘Stolen Moments’, 1961
The most well-known track from The Blues and the Abstract Truth, Stolen Moments features an iconic solo by multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy. Written by Oliver Nelson, the tune had already appeared on a 1960 album of Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis. However, it was with a powerhouse lineup that included Bill Evans on piano, Roy Haynes on drums, and Freddie Hubbard on trumpet that the piece became a well-known favourite.
The overall concept of the album is an exploration of the blues and its varying structures. Under this theme, Stolen Moments is itself a conventional 16-bar minor blues. It begins with the slow tread of a chromatic line played by the horns, before developing into a similarly dark and slow-moving melody. Hubbard takes the first solo, eventually giving way to Dolphy on flute. As adept on flute as he was on saxophones and bass clarinet, Dolphy’s agility is impressive as he flows from one idea to the next. At the root of his playing lies a strong use of bebop language. Yet, Dolphy goes further with wild, imaginative melodic lines that enhance the essential harmonic changes. A true genius who was to die young, Dolphy nevertheless paved the way for his contemporaries as well as later jazz musicians.
\\ Elena Pinderhughes, Christian Scott’s ‘Sunrise in Beijing’, 2015
Christian Scott made a strong decision in collaborating with up-and-coming flautist Elena Pinderhughes. Her playing features prominently in his 2015 release Stretch Music, so called because of its genre fluidity. The album comprises of a stellar lineup of talented musicians including Braxton Cook on alto saxophone and Lawrence Fields on piano.
The album’s opening track, Sunrise in Beijing, is illustrative of the album’s overall sound and concept. The melody, played in unison by Scott and Pinderhughes, is gentle and introspective, flowing effortlessly over an 808 trap-influenced drum beat. The harmonic changes are subtle and uplifting, launching Pinderhughes’ solo from height to height. Her playing is inventive and yet precise; each note carefully placed to create entire powerful sequences. Towards the end, she lapses into ascending and descending arpeggios which are technically astounding. Although a relatively new release, Pinderhughes’ idiosyncratic style of playing is stand-out.
\\ Jeremy Steig, ‘Oleo’, 1963
Jeremy Steig takes a hard bop composition by Sonny Rollins to a different level. A classic in its own right, the tune has been recorded by the likes of Miles Davis and Bill Evans. The harmony is based on the chord changes of the standard I Got Rhythm, also known as Rhythm Changes. This trope reappears throughout much of bebop repertoire, such as in Charlie Parker’s Anthropology and Moose the Mooche.
Steig recorded his version of Oleo as part of his debut album Flute Fever, released in 1963 under Columbia Records at the age of 21. Paired up with the equally new-to-the-scene Denny Zeitlin on piano, their sense of comradeship during the length of the recording is very much apparent. Steig races through the first section, leaving the bridge to Zeitlin, before tearing off into a formidable flute solo. At one juncture, the rhythm section falls away leaving Steig to provide his own sense of time, rhythm, and harmony. He manages to do this in outstanding fashion before launching into a variety of tonal acrobatics which dazzle and amaze the listener.
Steig was a highly influential figure whose exploration of extended techniques paved the way for many a jazz flautist to come. The somewhat overlooked album was the first of a prolific output of material. Unlike many of his peers, Steig is a rare jazz flautist in that he never recorded any music on the saxophone.
\\ Brian Jackson, Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘The Bottle’, 1974
A long-standing collaboration between singer and activist Gil Scott-Heron and musician Brian Jackson resulted in a number of highly regarded albums. The first and last album for the independent label Strata Records, Winter in America, was released in 1974. At the time, it was overlooked by critics. However, it proved to be a somewhat underground commercial success due to its only single, The Bottle.
The lyrics of The Bottle provide a social commentary on alcohol abuse, inspired by conversations that Scott-Heron had with alcoholics outside a liquor store in Northern Virginia. The serious content of the lyrics are in stark contrast to the upbeat Caribbean-influenced rhythm on drums and funky electric bass-line. The sonic texture is nevertheless stripped back, with Scott-Heron filling out the rhythm section on keys and Jackson providing accompaniment on flute. From the beginning, Jackson plays along to Scott-Heron’s lyrics, dipping in and out of gaps between phrases and verses. Midway through the song after a chorus, Jackson’s playing takes centre stage. His style is laid-back but the ideas are strong, occasionally interpolated with Scott-Heron’s shouts of encouragement. As the next verse comes about, Jackson continues improvising in the background with flutter-tonguing and catchy funk-derived riffs.
\\ James Spaulding, Freddie Hubbard’s ‘Little Sunflower’, 1967
James Spaulding recorded with some of the greatest jazz legends of our time, performing as a member of Sun Ra’s group in the late 50s as well as recording with the likes of Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, and Horace Silver. One formidable musician with whom he released several albums with was trumpeter Freddie Hubbard under Blue Note and Atlantic. In 1967 the Atlantic album Backlash was recorded and released, with Spaulding, Albert Dailey on drums, Ray Baretto on congas, Bob Cunningham on bass, and Ray Appleton on drums.
One of the tracks, Little Sunflower, features an iconic flute solo by Spaulding. Identifiable by its modal chord progression and Latin feel, the piece has become a classic jazz standard since then. On the original recording, Hubbard and Spaulding play the melody in harmony before the flute launches into a burning solo. The improvisation is characterised by leaps of large intervals which take the listener by surprise, as well as the employment of pitch bends and harmonics from overblowing. Towards the end, Spaulding rests on a high A which challenges the listener’s ears as the pitch bends uncomfortably to a top B.
\\ Harold McNair, ‘The Hipster’, 1968
As the go-to session flautist in Britain in the 1960s, Harold McNair appears on an eclectic range of albums, from Donovan’s Sunshine Superman and John Cameron’s soundtrack to the movie Kes. Originally from the West Indies, he immigrated to London after having toured Europe with the Quincy Jones Big Band.
In 1968, McNair released a self-titled album under the RCA label, which contains memorable track The Hipster. The introduction features a catchy chordal riff on the piano which remains throughout the entirety of the tune, underscored by a fast swing beat on drums. McNair’s melody is performed entirely through the technique of singing-and-playing, which he also employs throughout most of his solo. In the style of Roland Kirk, McNair explores various tonal colours by employing different modes of extended techniques. His formidable playing is shown through his contrasting of airier tonalities with sudden leaps to purer notes from the highest register.
\\ Herbie Mann, ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’, 1969
Battle Hymn of the Republic is almost an entire flute solo in itself. Herbie Mann plays the melody at the start, shadowed by the minimal accompaniment of an organ. His rubato-styled playing is mixed with fast bluesy runs and arpeggios. Gradually, a slow rock-beat kicks in on the drum kit with Mann increasing his melodic embellishments, and soon a smooth conga rhythm played by Roy Ayers joins in. Mann gets more and more exploratory, nevertheless maintaining the soulful edge that makes his playing so distinctive.
Battle Hymn of the Republic is from the 1969 album Memphis Underground, notable for its potent mixture of jazz, soul, and R&B. The album features a mix of noteworthy jazz musicians such as Sonny Sharrock and Roy Ayers, as well as Memphis session musicians. The tune itself is conventionally sung as an American patriotic song, and such similar feelings can certainly be felt in Herbie Mann’s playing.
\\ Joe Farrell, Chick Corea and Return to Forever, ‘Spain’, 1972
What has now become a modern jazz standard, Spain was recorded and released on the 1972 album Light as a Feather under the relatively newly-formed band Return To Forever. Headed by Chick Corea on keyboard, the group also featured Flora Purim on vocals, Stanley Clarke on bass, Airto Moreira on drums, and Joe Farrell on flute. With other now classic tunes on the album including You’re Everything and Captain Marvel, the final track Spain proved to be an instant commercial hit.
Spain begins with a slow keyboard introduction based on the second movement of Joaquin Rodrigo‘s Concierto de Aranjuez. It then moves to a collection of fast-paced, catchy melodies and infectious grooves, with Farrell doubling the keys and voice. The tensions produced by the rapid harmonic changes and the intricate rhythmic syncopation provide Farrell with a suitable platform as he charges off into the first solo. The flute dances through sequenced riffs and arpeggios, managing to raise the stakes even higher as Farrell eventually passes the improvisational baton to Corea. Although the original members never fully regrouped after this release, Light as a Feather was to become one of the seminal albums of the 1970s jazz fusion movement. Farrell would also eventually return to record Corea in the late 70s under groups of different configurations.
\\ Lisa Mallett, Matthew Halsall’s ‘The Sun in September’, 2012
Lisa Mallett’s flute playing on Sun in September transports the listener into another world completely. The track is an original composition by Matthew Halsall and a true tribute to the spiritual jazz movement of the 60s and 70s. The use of instruments such as the harp and understated brushes on the drums results in an atmospheric texture that brings Mallett’s playing to the forefront. Unconventionally, she uses a low-pitched Indian bansuri flute. The chord progressions are minimal, allowing Mallett to pull out all the stops in her modal explorations of the bansuri’s range.
Long, extended notes contrast with intricate flutterings in Sun in September. The frequent use of pitch bends and flutter tonguing are effective in raising the intensity of the improvisation. The tune is from the album Fletcher Moss Park, a 2012 release under Matthew Halsall’s own label Gondwana Records. Other great tracks to listen out for are Cherry Blossom and Finding My Way, whilst the unique touch of jazz bansuri can be found further on Matthew Halsall’s 2014 rendition of Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchidananda.
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JS | Gail Tasker