Few solos in the history of jazz have as much notoriety and hyperbole as the 27-chorus solo played by tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves with Duke Ellington’s band at the Newport Jazz Festival of 1956. The solo was an interlude between “Diminuendo in Blue” and “Crescendo in Blue,” two separate compositions penned by Ellington in 1937 but usually woven together in performance by a piano interlude and tenor solo.
I’ve heard and read various contradictory accounts about the events leading up to the performance of “Dimiuendo and Crescendo in Blue” at Newport in 1956. The recent lack of success of Duke’s band; possible punishment for recent performance problems stemming from Paul’s alcohol and drug addictions; tensions among the ‘high-society’ patrons of Newport with the younger dancehall crowd…all of these factors may or may not have contributed to the folklore that now surrounds this 6 minute and 20 second solo.
As for the solo itself, there are many things which make it great besides its epic length and uncommon key (uncommon at least to many modern horn players). Paul Gonsalves was one of the most unique voices on the tenor saxophone, but his style is often overlooked for some of the players that were deemed more “mainstream” in jazz. I’m not looking to start any arguments about who decides what ‘mainstream jazz’ is any more than I’m looking to join the argument about what “jazz” is as a music and a term. In analyzing the 27 choruses, a few things jump out at me.
1. Range – Paul never plays below an E (talking tenor here, so I’m speaking of an E-flat blues for a tenor player) and only plays up to high Gb, with the exception of one altissimo high G. The majority of the solo occurs between his Eb at the near the top of the staff and his high Gb!
2. Confidence – Paul does not hesitate a single time in the 27 choruses. When I started learning this solo in graduate school I don’t think that I could play a single chorus without hesitation at least once while navigating the uncommon key centers of an Eb blues. In truth, this was probably caused by #3.
3. Ammunition – There is no question in my mind that Paul had worked out a number of ideas and licks for this solo. Check out the 14th chorus if you don’t believe me! In fact, I would go on to say that most of this solo is extremely effective lick-based playing, much like the great Sonny Stitt. Now Paul and Sonny had different material, but the effective use and rhythmic development of riffs and themes to me is very similar. The big difference in their sounds would be their harmonic language: Paul incoporates the major triads from a tritone away, giving a distinct flat-nine sharp-eleven sound to his dominant chords. This is also known as the “Petrushka chord” from Stravinsky’s 1911 ballet. Listeners often point to the first chorus where he opens with an A major triad (along with an E-flat) over the E-flat dominant chord as coming from far away. However, a listen to Duke’s interlude two choruses before Gonsalves begins shows that his opening statement came right from the composers ears.
Anyways, without any further ado, here are the 27 choruses of Paul Gonsalves’ most famous solo, written out in B-flat for tenor players.