Improvised Soloing: The Buddy System

Sharing a solo with other performers is
an easy way to increase audience interest.

A shared improvised solo is a dynamic collaborative work. Typically the soloists will "trade fours", in which each in turn plays a four bar phrase, or trade some other fixed number of measures. The change in soloists' tones and styles adds an element of contrast and helps keep the audience interested.

Doubling up on the final measures—just when the audience has gotten used to the predictable pattern of alternation—is usually a pleasant surprise for the audience. The Roseville Big Band's rendition of All of Me includes a 32-bar chorus on which the soloists (playing different instruments, for further contrast) trade fours until the last several bars, on which both soloists play at the same time.

Glen Peterson, tenor sax, and Rich Eyman, trombone, finish trading fours on "All of Me" by both playing the final eight bars at the Carleton College Winter Dance, February 5, 2005.

Here's another way to organize a 32-bar shared solo:

First soloist plays eight bars;
Second soloist plays eight bars;

First soloist plays four bars;
Second soloist plays four bars;

First soloist plays two bars;
Second soloist plays two bars;

First soloist plays one bar;
Second soloist plays one bar;

Both soloists play the remaining two bars.

This organization increases excitement by decreasing the length of the musical phrases.

The buddy system isn't limited to two soloists. The Roseville Big Band's recording of Woodchopper's Ball includes a three-way shared improvised solo. The tonal contrast among the solo instruments provides audience interest. The bass trombone played with a plunger mute is easy to distinguish from the open tones of the tenor trombone. (Without the mute it would have been much more difficult to tell one from the other.) The soprano trombone tone, in contrast, is thinner, and the higher range it plays in helps the listener hear the difference.

For a live performance, the audience can see who's playing, so alternation between two identical instruments is not difficult for the audience to discern. Physical separation of the soloists helps even more. "Dueling trumpets" have been very successful features of Roseville Big Band concerts in Central Park. Prior to the solo choruses, the two improv buddies (for example, Glen Newton and Harvey Skow), take positions on opposite sides of the audience. After Glen plays his first four bars, he moves to a different position in the audience while Harvey plays; then after finishing his four bars, Harvey moves to a new position. They continue until the end of the solo, giving the audience a spatial surprise as well as a musical one.

To prepare for a shared solo, reach agreement with your improv buddies on the order and length of each solo section.

During the shared solo, pay careful attention to when your section begins and ends, while following the guidelines that apply to a well-crafted individual solo.

A shared improvised solo includes an opportunity that an individual solo doesn't: immediately building on the ideas of your improv buddies. This takes practice! Even after you become fluent in listening and reacting to the soloist before you, you'll need to reconcile each solo segment with your own technical abilities, the chord progression, and its position within the overall solo.

Topics in Improvisation
The Big Picture
The Overall Goal of Improvised Soloing
Keeping the Listener Interested
Organizing the Solo

© 2001 by Glen Newton