In 2014, a video of the band Snarky Puppy playing their tune "Lingus" went viral, mostly due to the jaw-dropping extended solo by keyboardist Cory Henry.
His solo was inspired, and as it progressed you could see the astonishment on the faces of the other band members.
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The solo section
The tune breaks down to a rhythmic ostinato, with the bass playing only chord-root tones. This gives Cory a lot of freedom, as he’s not held down to specific chords. Example 1 shows his second and third choruses, where he begins playing fuller lines. He starts out with some pentatonic phrases, and across bars 11-13, I can imagine that he was thinking of a ii-V progression (Em to A7) based on his note choices. For the C chord in bars 14 and 15 he treats it as a dominant seventh with some nice bends and a few colourful tones, like the Db. Notice the symmetry of the phrases across the two bars; he is developing ideas, not just riffing.
He breathes a bit in bar 16 before unleashing a very colourful riff that doesn’t seem tied to any F chord I can think of. You might think of it as playing over an A minor with a major seventh, resolving into an E minor with a major seventh as he enters the next bar. Hard to say, but it’s a great phrase. The next chorus starts out with a bluesy bend, which becomes a little motif that he reiterates a tone lower, all based on the E whole-step/half-step diminished scale. He arpeggiates up through the scale in bar 20 before returning to E minor pentatonic in bar 21 to release the tension he was building.
In the third chorus he treats the C as a major seventh, with some Lydian flavour (the F#, which is the sharp fourth, or eleventh). It’s a great melodic line that spills across the A root in bar 25. He plays F dominant seventh for bar 26, and then anticipates the next bar/chord with a walk up from B. These two choruses show us how freely Cory mixes up harmonic choices, from inside to outside, and how logically his ideas flow. Every note has a purpose.
Example 2 moves us up to his eighth chorus, and Cory has been playing progressively more fiery and fast. Here he takes a bit of break-in his pacing and utilizes a technique I want to draw your attention to. He is now playing some chords in his left hand, and think of it as block chord playing, not comping. Cory is certainly hearing some interesting things here. He is not being held to the key centre, the diatonic chords, or even parallel or chromatic movement, as in harmonic planing. I think he is hearing a melody and putting interesting colours behind it. There’s no need to try to analyze the chords in bars 58 and 59, just enjoy them. Moving into bar 60 he moves into a more flamenco/Spanish flavour, using E major, F major, and G major chords: the same sound that Chick Corea has explored in his music celebrating his Spanish heritage.
In bar 61 Cory now treats the C root as a C minor, and uses the C Dorian mode, although that quick G# diminished I wrote is really acting as a G dominant seventh with a flat ninth, the V chord of C minor. When he gets to the A root in bar 64 he plays a dominant seventh rootless voicing in his left hand using the seventh, the third, and the flat thirteenth (or raised fifth), and utilizes the whole-tone scale in his right hand. The whole-tone scale spills across the F seventh chord, and then he finishes with a crazy angular line over the D, drawn from the D half-step/whole-step diminished scale, used for an altered dominant seventh sound. What a great chorus!
A few choices phrases
There is so much to study and learn from this tour-de-force solo, but I have to make choices, so I picked three smaller phrases that I like. The first (Ex. 3) comes from his fifth chorus. Here he starts with some quartal-based E minor pentatonic note choices and then quickly slips up to the F# major pentatonic scale to add more colour to his lines. Cory then moves off and develops some phrases based on a 3-note descending chromatic pattern. This just spills into bar 38 and the C chord, and smoothly resolves out of the chromaticism to settle things down.
Ex. 4 comes from much later in the solo, where Cory is now trading choruses against the whole band. He plays a classic fusion-era lick with rhythmic displacement, using the G major pentatonic (or E minor pentatonic) over the C chord for nice colour. He plays a jazzy phrase over the A minor and jumps back early to the E blues over the F to anticipate the resolving E minor chord. My final example (Ex. 5) comes from the next set of trades and features another nice jazzy treatment for the A minor seventh, which is a line that you could use in many styles of music, which again resolves into the E blues scale early to drive home the end of the phrase.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of this incredible solo. In Cory’s playing, I hear jazz, R&B, gospel, fusion and more all blended into an organic gumbo that is astonishing. He plays with such clarity of purpose and really abandons himself to the moment, following his muse with unerring logic. This solo was just a moment in time for him: Each time he plays he brings the same formidable skills, passion, and joy to the music.