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The Melodic Drummer: The Tyranny of Head/Solo/Head

Andrew Hare has written a thoughtful article for his blog, The Melodic Drummer (link), wherein he discusses ideas for breaking away from the head/solo/head form that dominates most jazz sets.

For the uninitiated, what Hare refers to as “head/solo/head” is a way of performing jazz charts, in which the composed section, or head, is played once or twice, then soloists take turns improvising on the chord changes from the head, then the head is recapped at the very end. As you can imagine, this can get old pretty quickly. I’m kind of amazed that for at least a couple of decades, this form was virtually the only one you heard on any given Blue Note release, and no one seemed to have a problem with it. Blakey and others sought to break the monotony with intros, send-offs, trading solos, and drum breaks; but these devices only broke up the form without altering it, like wayside parks on an otherwise unrelentingly long and straight road. Some of the greatest improvisors have been able to distract us from the repetitiveness of the underlying song forms, but not all of us can structure our solos like Hank Mobley or Chick Corea.

In his article, Hare offers suggestions (e.g., Start with a solo, Introduce a new melody) that could easily be planned and implemented on-stage, with no preparation. Next time someone calls “Lady Bird,” for example, you might suggest using the melody from “Half Nelson” as a recap. One thing I enjoy doing is starting “Just Friends” by soloing for a few choruses, accompanied only by the drummer, then playing the head when I cue everyone in. If I’m playing “out” enough at the start, the effect of sparse textures and harmonic ambiguity eventually settling into the opening line of a familiar standard can be cathartic.

Check out Hare’s suggestions and see what you can come up with. Meanwhile, I’ll dig up an old chart of mine in which I directly address the problem of head/solo/head form so I can post it here.

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