I had a breakthrough on soloing this month. I'm starting to get past thinking about chord changes on a lot of the tunes I've been playing. I've learned them well enough that I can concentrate on melodic development and solo structure instead of playing the right notes or knowing where I am in the form.
The breakthrough happened a few weeks ago when I was soloing over Coltrane's "Mr. PC" in combo rehearsal at school. It's a blues in C minor, only slightly altered, so it's not tough to keep track of what I should be playing where, and I had that much internalized. On this particular solo, I started with an off-the-cuff lick, just a few notes from C minor pentatonic. For the rest of my solo, I frequently quoted the melody and/or rhythm I had introduced in that lick, beginning on different scale degrees and transposing for the other chords in the tune. It felt and sounded really good to me, and the combo director complimented me on it after we finished.
This is standard theme and variation. I hear it used all over great jazz solos. It's what first drew me to Sonny Rollins's playing when I was in college. I've known for a long time that it's a reliable technique for crafting effective solos, but I don't think I understood how important it was until I accidentally nailed it on "Mr. PC".
I think I got it in my head from studying classical music in my theory class. I wrote a fugal exposition for an assignment, which required repeated use of core ideas presented in the initial subject of the piece. When we analyze music in that class, the professors stress that the first few bars give you a strong idea of what the rest of the piece will sound like, and how it will behave harmonically. I must be assimilating these ideas into my own playing. That's cool.
I've decided to treat the first idea I present in a solo as the most important part of it. Whether it's copping a line from the previous soloist or quoting the melody or pulling a lick out of nowhere, that is the statement of what my whole solo will sound like. Everything else I play needs to follow logically from that idea. So I'll come back to it, transpose it, use it to introduce other ideas. This is all combined with the same reverence for the melody of the tune, which in most cases has its own built-in theme and variation.
The rule of thumb I'm going for is if someone were to listen to the first few bars of different solos I've played on the same tune, they could listen to a later chunk of any of those solos and match it up with the original idea. Developing this will take a while. Can anyone spare a lifetime?