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Our Top Ten: The best jazz solos on classic rock and pop hits

 David Sanborn
c/o JazzTimes photo archive
David Sanborn

The presence of jazz players on non-jazz records constitutes a long tradition in American popular music, but it may have hit its peak in the ’70s and ’80s with baby-boomer rockers and pop stars looking to jazzers to enhance, or even legitimize, their recordings. During that boom in the record industry, jazz musicians who formerly would have been touring with Art Blakey or Betty Carter were taking high-paying session gigs in New York and Los Angeles. Of course, when all that studio work died out, many returned to jazz as their primary focus.

For this Our Top Ten piece, we opted for players who are more well-known for their jazz career than for their work as studio musicians. Hence, we haven’t included Raphael Ravenscroft, whose main claim to fame, besides his Spinal Tap-like name, was his earworm solo on Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street.” We also tried to choose the most popular artists and songs we could think of, in search of that sweet spot where massive pop hit meets cool jazz cameo. The list is in chronological order. 


Meeting Across the River

Randy Brecker on Bruce Springsteen’s “Meeting Across the River”
from Born to Run (1975)
Randy’s haunting trumpet kicks off the tune and plays on in the background, as if blowing from a nearby apartment, while Springsteen tells the melancholy Sopranos-like story of a down-and-out street tough trying to convince his girlfriend that this “meeting” could be their last chance. Randy, David Sanborn, and some others were in the studio to cut the horn section parts on “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” but the producer Jon Landau asked Randy to stick around for a trumpet solo on this other song they’d already recorded. “Nothing was written out,” Randy remembers. “I did the whole thing by ear, and just played what I heard in my head and they liked it. They still do that tune sometimes and often they utilize a transcription of my solo.” Inexplicably, the Boss wrote in his otherwise great memoir, also called Born to Run, that this memorable solo was performed by Michael Brecker. Yes, Randy’s brother. The saxophonist.

Paul Simon - Still Crazy After All These Years (Official Audio)

Michael Brecker on Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years”
from Still Crazy After All These Years (1975)
Speaking of a Brecker brother, this solo really is by Michael, who put his imprint on so many pop recordings of the ’70s and ’80s, before launching his solo career as a bandleader and recording artist. When we surveyed various artists and pundits about this topic, some recommended Michael’s solo on James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” but we love the way his tenor turns the pathos of this particular song into passion. Brecker became a favorite of Paul Simon and appeared often in the latter’s live bands, including on the Graceland tour.

Young Americans (2016 Remaster)

David Sanborn on David Bowie’s “Young Americans”
from Young Americans (1975)
As active as his former bandmates the Brecker Brothers, Sanborn set the gold standard for soulful alto sax solos on pop and rock sessions for nearly two decades, so we could have chosen any number of tunes from a who’s who of hits that featured him. We liked this cut because David’s distinctive riff kicks off the tune, and he plays through the whole thing nearly non-stop. Mostly recorded at Sigma Sound in Philadelphia, the Young Americans album has plenty of Philly soul at its heart, though Bowie himself called it “plastic soul,” whatever that means.


Jaco Pastorius on Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote”
from Hejira (1976)
What’s interesting about this choice is that, as the bassist on this seminal Joni album, Jaco isn’t exactly soloing here. Or perhaps more accurately, he’s soloing the whole time, yet somehow still effectively shadowing Mitchell’s vocals. Some people complained to the singer about Jaco being too loud and obtrusive on the four albums they did together, but Mitchell knew that there was no restraining the mercurial electric bassist, best known for his star turn with Weather Report.

Billy Joel - Just the Way You Are (Audio)

Phil Woods on Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are”
from The Stranger (1977)
Woods was often asked about his memorable solo on this huge hit by the piano man. He’d usually make a joke about how little he got paid compared to Joel (“Thanks for the watch, Billy!”), but isn’t that just the way it goes for a session musician?


Wayne Shorter on Steely Dan’s “Aja”
from Aja (1977)
Steely Dan was famous for using both cream-of-the-crop session players and accomplished jazz musicians not known for appearing on pop records. Although the shredding guitar solos of Larry Carlton on “Kid Charlemagne” and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter on “My Old School” are indisputably classic, we chose Wayne’s appearance on the title cut from their Aja album. As he did on some of Joni Mitchell’s later albums, Wayne displays his raw and idiosyncratic sound with minimum notes and maximum power, this time with a riveting solo nearly five minutes in.

The Rolling Stones - Waiting On A Friend - OFFICIAL PROMO

Sonny Rollins on The Rolling Stones’ “Waiting on a Friend”
from Tattoo You (1981)
Perhaps the most incredible aspect of this guest appearance by the saxophone colossus is that he was uncredited on the cover of Tattoo You, even though he played not just on this tune, but also on two others. Sonny confirmed the story that Mick Jagger danced in front of the saxophonist during the takes so that Sonny would get the rhythm and vibe—truly an indelible image. Sonny also explained that being left off the credits was his idea. “I was a jazz guy and I didn’t want to be known for playing with some rock and roll guys,” he told me. Of course, every serious jazz fan knew after hearing just a few bars that it was Sonny Rollins on those three cuts.

Do I Do

Dizzy Gillespie on Stevie Wonder’s “Do I Do”
from Original Musiquarium I (1982)
Stevie Wonder is responsible for perhaps the most popular call-out to a legendary jazz musician with his composition “Sir Duke,” a lively and infectious salute to Duke Ellington and other jazz greats from his wildly successful Songs in the Key of Life album. It has been said that Wonder’s introduction of Gillespie within this tune is a direct response to the Rolling Stones omitting Rollins’ credit on Tattoo You. Or maybe it’s just plain love and respect. “I knew the title from the beginning but wanted it to be about the musicians who did something for us,” Wonder said. “So soon they are forgotten. I wanted to show my appreciation.” Indeed he did do. 


Chet Baker on Elvis Costello’s “Shipbuilding”
from Punch the Clock (1983)
For some rock fans, the appearance of the trumpeter on a popular album stocked with MTV hits seemed out of context. However, Costello’s father was a trumpet-playing big-band jazz singer, so the singer/songwriter had a long appreciation for the jazz genre, belied by his early nerd-punk image. Given the political and social message of the song, which refers to the shipbuilding industry that makes ships built to be sunk, Baker’s cameo adds poignancy to the arrangement. The original version of the song, sans Baker, was recorded by Robert Wyatt and was a minor 1982 hit in the U.K. in response to the Falklands War.

If You Love Somebody Set Them Free

Branford Marsalis on Sting’s “If You Love Somebody” 
from The Dream of the Blue Turtles (1985)
When Sting left The Police to start a solo career, few people expected that he would hire an all-star band of contemporary jazz artists, including Kenny Kirkland, Darryl Jones, Omar Hakim, and of course Branford. Even fewer people expected that he would let the band loose on his tunes and allow them to inform the arrangements. Branford in particular developed a close musical and personal relationship with the singer and bassist, and soloed on nearly every song on the albums they made together, thereby introducing the gifted saxophonist to a whole new audience—while also alienating the Jazz Police, who accused him (naturally) of selling out.

Other notable jazz solos:

Tom Scott on Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Listen to What the Man Said” from Venus and Mars(1975)

Larry Carlton on Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne” from The Royal Scam (1976)

Freddie Hubbard on Billy Joel's "Zanzibar" from52nd Street (1978)

Kirk Whalum on Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” from Whitney Houston (1986)

Herbie Hancock on Bonnie Raitt's "I Ain't Gonna Let You Break My Heart Again" from Nick of Time (1989)

This piece originally published on jazztimes.com.

For over 27 years, Lee Mergner served as an editor and publisher of JazzTimes until his resignation in January 2018. Thereafter, Mergner continued to regularly contribute features, profiles and interviews to the publication as a contributing editor for the next 4+ years. JazzTimes, which has won numerous ASCAP-Deems Taylor awards for music journalism, was founded in 1970 and was described by the All Music Guide, as “arguably the finest jazz magazine in the world.”