Just about every music improv book you’ll ever read focuses on what notes to play. “Use this scale with that chord.” “These notes will sound great in such and such a context.” You know, that sort of thing.
While the study of which notes to play is important, I once witnessed a stunning example of the opposite: an entire jazz solo consisting of only one note. And I don’t mean one pitch that was repeated over and over; I mean the whole solo was literally a single note. And it was great.
I won’t mention names because I don’t want to embarrass anyone, but I will say that this happened at the final performance of a jazz singing workshop. The 20 or so students had spent a few weeks learning jazz singing at the intermediate level and they each sang a song during the concert, which was wonderful. The vocalists were generally very talented and had obviously worked hard to perfect their craft during the workshop. And the trio who backed them up was very accomplished.
The moment that stands out for me came during the last song. As a “grand finale,” the whole class came up to the stage to improvise blues solos using “scat” syllables. As an added bonus, a well-known saxophonist was also invited up to take a solo. Well, each singer took their solos and while it was OK, they tended to string together lots of notes in the equivalent of musical run-on sentences: “Da da da da da da da da da da da da da da da da da.” That kind of thing. It was musical, but there wasn’t much happening in terms of phrasing or real self-expression.
The sax player patiently waited his turn, taking it all in. When the last singer had finished, he walked to the center of the stage, took a deep breath, and simply played one note. One V-E-R-Y L-O-N-G note. In fact, he held this note for about 2 moderate-tempo blues choruses (24 measures). And then he left the stage. That was it! The amazing thing was that even though his whole solo was just that one note, he had managed to “say” more in that one note than all the singers had, combined.
I’ll never forget this demonstration of the power of simplicity, directness, and self-expression. All in one note. Let his example inspire us all!
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