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A Brief Analysis of Ira Sullivan’s Creative Method
on “Portrait Of Sal La Rosa” (1976)

Peter W. Brewer

Those who truly master the skill of spontaneous musical improvisation on any instrument are relatively rare, especially when the total number of people engaged in musical endeavors is considered. Even rarer are individuals who have mastered the skill on multiple instruments. Ira Sullivan is one of those few who have demonstrated on countless occasions the ability to conjure beautiful creations spontaneously (generally in the jazz idiom), and on many instruments. Sullivan creates music with great skill on trumpet, flügelhorn, all saxophones (soprano, alto, tenor, etc.), all flutes, and a variety of other less traditional instruments and percussion. He has performed to critical acclaim with other legends such as Charlie Parker, Art Blakey, Roland Kirk, Red Rodney, Jaco Pastorius and J.R. Monterose, to name only a few.

Since Ira Sullivan is currently an active performer with his band and many others in the Miami, Florida area, where I currently reside, the opportunity was presented to learn what approach(es) the artist actually uses to create his improvisations. Most of the literature written about Ira Sullivan is in the form of liner notes to the many albums he has recorded, and there is little record of any serious study of his work. Many of these liner notes do include enlightened characterizations of the way Sullivan approaches music in general, and the poignancy of some of these descriptions raised the question: has anyone ever tried to get inside (i.e., analyze) these creations? Joe Segal, highly respected owner of the sixty-year-old Jazz Showcase club in Chicago (Sullivan’s hometown), says bluntly, “He’s a genius. He would pick up an axe and be fluent on it in a day. Ira’s name was magic [in Chicago]. There was no other musician as idolized as Ira, who played with Bird and Kenny Dorham and who knew all the greats, who had that kind of reputation.” [1] On another occasion, a Pittsburgh critic said, “Ira Sullivan has inspired scored of young musicians from his earlier Chicago days to his many years in Florida. Though virtually unknown to many jazz fans, he has developed into a sort of cult figure to those who did know him and admire him.” [2] Considering the lack of any in-depth examinations of Sullivan’s solos, a unique opportunity to cast a new light on what has seemed to be a mysterious process may be realized through detailed analysis of his improvisations. Sullivan’s ability to consistently create improvisations of profound beauty in all styles on many instruments is a very rare gift, and this brief analysis, intended as a first in a series of analyses of Ira Sullivan performances on various instruments, endeavors to offer some perspectives that may assist in understanding the processes associated with creation of his works of art.

Analysis Overview

During a personal interview, Sullivan specifically mentioned Eric Dolphy’s recording of “Glad To Be Unhappy”, on which Dolphy played flute, as a major influence and inspiration on his own flute playing. [3] In his comments pertaining to “Portrait Of Sal La Rosa”, he also mentioned lyricism as having utmost priority. [4] A melodic phrase analysis is therefore important to the investigation of lyrical objectives and results. The rhythmic components contained within the phrases are also very important in this piece, and for that reason phrasing and its rhythmic attributes will be addressed simultaneously. Other facets in “Portrait Of Sal La Rosa” to be considered are his use of motifs and harmonic phenomena.

Background and Performance Setting

“Portrait Of Sal La Rosa” is a Dolph Castellano composition from the Ira Sullivan album entitled simply Ira Sullivan, produced by John Snyder and released in 1976 on the Horizon imprint of A&M Records (SP 706). This recording was made on December 13, 1975, at Criteria Studios in Miami, Florida, and is the only known release of this particular composition. [5] Sullivan is featured here on flute, and is accompanied by Jaco Pastorius on “baritone-bass” guitar, Joe Diorio on electric guitar, Steve Bagby on drums, and Don Alias on congas. During the guitar solo, Sullivan can also be heard playing the afuche, an African hand percussion instrument related to what is more commonly known as the cabasa. According to Sullivan, Joe Diorio studied art at Miami-Dade Community College in the early 1970s with a teacher named Sal La Rosa, and it is for this teacher that the song is titled. [6]

According to Sullivan, the inclusion of Pastorius on bass and Alias on percussion was not originally planned on the session. Other pieces on this album were recorded as a quartet: Sullivan accompanied by guitar, piano, and drums. According to Sullivan, the configuration without bass was how these musicians had often performed around Miami in the years prior to this recording. They were already accustomed to creating extemporaneously with each other and had honed their group concept into a distinct sound. On this tune, however, Pastorius and Alias arrived at the studio very late at night as the session was winding down. Pastorius had recently been given an instrument, made by a fan, which resembled a guitarrón mexicano, the fat-bodied acoustic bass guitar used in Mexican mariachi bands. Pastorius insisted that Sullivan hear the instrument, sometimes called a baritone guitar, or baritone-bass guitar. It was then decided to record “Portrait Of Sal La Rosa” with bass and percussion. This first performance, 7 minutes and 29 seconds in duration, was ultimately released on the album. [7]

General Description of Performance

“Portrait Of Sal La Rosa” is a modal composition with long, static chords played over a fast samba rhythm. The overall feel is melodically loose but rhythmically tight as Sullivan blurs harmonic changes over the fast groove, and the song has a dreamlike quality as the flute plays lyrical passages over the aggressive accompaniment. It begins with a rubato introduction with flute and bass, then directly into improvisation by Sullivan over the fast samba groove as the guitar joins the drums in accompaniment. According to Sullivan there was no written melody, just harmony. Sullivan’s solo is followed by that of Diorio on guitar. Sullivan subsequently re-enters and improvises more until the tune dissolves into a soft ending, consistently maintaining the intense rhythmic drive regardless of dynamic level.

Phrase/Rhythmic Analysis

Examination of Sullivan’s improvised solo on “Portrait Of Sal La Rosa” reveals a very interesting rhythmic thread running throughout the solo. This common thread relates to two distinct rhythmic techniques that Sullivan applies to his melodic lines once the samba groove is established. The first technique may be called “blurred rhythm”, or “loose”. The second may be called “concise rhythm” for the purposes of this exploration. The “blurred” phrase sections consist of melodic material that floats across barlines and projects little rhythmic pulse. The “concise” phrase sections consist of melodic material that locks strongly into the rhythmic patterns played by the bass and drums (groove) and projects a strong pulse. Sullivan constantly alternates from “blurred” to “concise.” While this technique is used by many improvisers and composers and is not unique to Sullivan’s performances, here the aim is to isolate the phenomenon for observation in order to recognize its effectiveness in generating interesting momentum-producing phrases.

A note about how some information is presented is in order, since the musical examples that follow are presented using two types of graphic representation. Table 1 is a breakdown of Sullivan’s improvised solo using measure numbers and time stamps (so that listeners may locate specific measures aurally), and the remaining examples utilize traditional music notation. One should keep in mind that the very finely nuanced nature of much of this improvised material, particularly the so-called blurred sections, necessarily exposes certain inadequacies of conventional Western music notation. For that reason, I have also included elapsed time indicators (“time stamps,” as in Table 1). The combination of Table 1 and the notation used in other examples is also an attempt to represent the phenomenon in different ways so as to mitigate any weaknesses in the traditional notation. Naturally, a recording of the selection is integral to real understanding, as this is an attempt to explore an aural art form.

In “Portrait Of Sal La Rosa”, the trend of alternating rhythmically blurred and concise sections is established immediately at the beginning of the song with a rubato (i.e., blurred) introduction, to give way to establishment of tempo after approximately one minute of intro. These moves between applications are outlined in Table 1. Sullivan begins his improvised solo (post-introduction) with notes placed exactly within the time through measure 35, where a more nebulous time feel is projected by Sullivan in measures 35–44. Sullivan then returns to more exact note placement, again projecting a strong temporal pulse. This change from one rhythmic idea to the other, then back again, continues and takes on a call-and-response dynamic. Sullivan answers his own phrases of loose time with one phrase of “tight” or explicit time. There are a few instances where certain measure may be considered transitional and are indicated as such, but the general trend incorporates clearly identifiable, fairly sudden moments of change from blurred to concise and back again. One should keep in mind that while these rhythmic phenomena can be identified and labeled, there is great fluidity of sound in the sense that Sullivan applies the technique subtly and rarely does any transition or change sound out of place or abrubt, as would be consistent with Sullivan’s established mastery of the idiom. Since this rhythmic variety is not unique to Sullivan, perhaps more noteworthy is the call-and-response dynamic Sullivan establishes with this technique, and one may observe this by examining the breakdown of the applied rhythmic concepts in Table 1.

Table 1. Rhythmic scheme.

Measure Nos.Time (min:sec)Applied rhythmic concept
24–28still concise, yet a bit looser
62–63slight blur over barline, returns to concise
112–118 (beat 2)blurred
118 (beat 3)–129 (beat 3)concise
129 (beat 4)–134blurred
135–1362:32concise - brief
160–169concise (end of first solo section)
172–202mixture of blurred and concise
222–228 (beat 2)blurred
228 (beat 3)–235concise
295–327concise but looser
329–3316:56blurred - dense note flourish; effect
332–357concise but looser
358–endfade out; blurred

Further application of this technique can be seen in Example 1. One can clearly hear (and see in the transcription) the string of cleanly delineated (concise) eighth notes spanning measures 83 through the first two beats of measure 86. Sullivan then enters a period of blurred time that lasts through measure 104; bar lines are less relevant to the melodic material as the line floats across them and notes are placed loosely within the groove. The end of the blurred section is also clear as Sullivan returns to a clean string of eight notes placed solidly inside the samba groove.

Note: This article uses interactive musical notation produced using Sibelius notation software. The Sibelius Scorch plug-in allows for musical notation to be displayed as well as heard. Transcriptions are notated at concert pitch. The play button starts playback from the beginning. Clicking on any point in the notation starts the playback from that point. Key and tempo can be changed by the user. If you do not see the score, get the Scorch plug-in here.

Example 1. “Portrait Of Sal La Rosa”, mm. 83–107 (1:52).

The second section of Sullivan’s improvised solo, after the guitar solo, is a bit different but remains consistent in that the two rhythmic approaches are applied. The distinctions, however, are more ambiguous as more phrases exhibit a mixture between the two approaches. Particularly interesting is the first 25 measures of section two of Sullivan’s solo in which this mixture is observable. Sullivan enters cleanly on the downbeat of measure 173, then plays loosely until precisely hitting the downbeat of measure 180 (Example 2). Immediately, Sullivan loosens the feel, then again hits the downbeat of measure 188 precisely.

Example 2. “Portrait Of Sal La Rosa”, mm. 171–195 (4:52) (after guitar solo).

In effect, what Sullivan is doing is signaling the beginning of each eight measure section with a firm rhythmic marker, which coincides with each change in harmony. In between these demarcations, Sullivan stretches and manipulates the time just a bit so as to loosen the feel. He does not completely blur the time during these “bridges” between phrases, he simply lightens his pulse by a small amount. Though subtle, it is within the management of this subtlety that the artistry lies. The subtle undulations of rhythmic concept are quite difficult to execute in a coherent manner. These variations in the rhythmic feel avoid monotony of texture because the rhythmic counterpoint is constantly morphing. The end result is a kind of musical inertia and a solo that never fails to maintain forward momentum.

Motifs and Themes

Sullivan frequently establishes a call-and-response dynamic with himself through his use of motifs (also known as motives). These short melodic ideas are developed via the establishment of the idea (call) and its answer (response). A motif can be defined as a short musical idea, melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, or any combination of these three. A motif may be of any size, and is most commonly regarded as the shortest subdivision of a theme or phrase that still maintains its identity as an idea. [8] The development of a motif into a longer theme provides a great source of melodic material for Sullivan, as can be observed in Example 3. Motif I (as indicated in Example 3) may be considered to be both a melodic and rhythmic motif. The rhythm in measure 57 (dotted quarter note-eighth note rhythm) spans almost a full six measures and meanders in a rising melodic direction from a low note of A4 rising gradually to F6. This rising rhythmic line (the call) is connected, or bridged, to the response with a long, sustained high note (the F6). The response, beginning in measure 67, is based on the same rhythm, but the line descends from D6 to F♯3 in a similarly meandering fashion as the ascending call. This technique develops the simple rhythmic and melodic motif stated in the first few measures of the example into a larger theme that covers almost sixteen measures. The result is a phrase structure in which musical non sequiturs are practically nonexistent.

Example 3. “Portrait Of Sal La Rosa”, mm. 57–72 (1:30).

On another occasion, Sullivan repeats specific material from an established motif in a manner that is not enveloped in a call-and-response dynamic, but rather briefly appears and reappears over a large section of the solo (Examples 4–6). In this case, the motif can be more accurately described as a device for creating coherence through repeated reference to a unifying theme. A theme can be defined as the musical material on which part or all of a work is based, usually having a recognizable melody and sometimes perceivable as a complete musical expression in itself, independent of the work to which it belongs. [9] One easily identifiable recurring motif which becomes a larger theme in Sullivan’s solo is first established in measures 83–85 as seen in Example 4. This motif establishes itself as a larger thematic idea as it is varied and repeated at the end of measure 125 (Example 5), then again in measure 204 (Example 6).

Example 4. “Portrait Of Sal La Rosa”, motifs as theme, mm. 83–86 (1:52).

Example 5. “Portrait Of Sal La Rosa”, motifs as theme, mm. 125-127 (2:25).

Example 6. “Portrait Of Sal La Rosa”, motifs as theme, mm. 204-207 (5:18).

While the material following the first two beats of each variation of Motif II is a bit different in each example, the rhythm and the general shape of the line are very similar. Each version follows a similar construction: an angular musical line followed by a long string of smooth linear movement covering multiple measures. This motif appears at three places during the solo, two times in the first section and once in the second section. Each recurrence is fairly brief, and while it may sound thematic, Motif II does not dominate the majority of the solo. That does not diminish the value of Motif II as an important unifying device, however, since each version is varied and provides continuity without being redundant. Its placement in sections that are widely separated by contrasting material (over 3:20 between first and last statements) assists in tying together the larger sections.

Harmonic Analysis

“Portrait Of Sal La Rosa” may be considered a modal composition since its structure is based on sustained chords that are not of the ii–V–I variety typical of many traditional jazz compositions. A quick glance at the transcription reveals the sustained, mostly eight measure phrases, many of which are Lydian in quality, with priority given not to dominant-to-tonic activity but to the textures solicited through the unique broad and static sound of each chord and the interaction of the musicians. The harmonic rhythm quickens in pace near the end of the form of the tune throughout this performance, creating impetus for the launch into the next chorus. Pastorius plays very active bass patterns throughout.

The nature of the harmony in this composition is responsible for much of the “dreamy” nature of the performance. Dissonances between the flute of Sullivan and the harmonic accompaniment of Pastorius and Diorio create very colorful and intense sonorities. Starting with the introduction, played rubato, the mood is set in the very first measure as Pastorius plays an aggressive, sustained E7 altered chord (C♮ on top) on bass and Sullivan enters with an equally aggressive high F♯, or natural ninth, and ends his first rubato statement in measure four on C♯, the thirteenth. The tension the C♯ creates, while effectively creating a very intense sonority, also foreshadows the next sustained chord played by Pastorius, a G Lydian chord. Sullivan proceeds to improvise freely over the G Lydian and subsequent F Lydian chords before he and Pastorius return to the E7 altered chord, over which Sullivan plays F♮, the ♭9. Like a knot suddenly becoming untangled, the harmony stabilizes as Pastorius plays open fifths based on E♮ (E B E) on the bass as Sullivan plays a loud high E. This harmonic stasis remains through the establishment of the fast tempo and well into the first eight measures of Sullivan’s solo before harmonic motion is resumed.

During this introduction (0:00–0:50), Sullivan and Pastorius effectively ratchet up harmonic tension until its sudden release into the tempo (1:00). The long period of stasis after the rubato introduction, as the time is being established, acts as an interlude before the resumption of harmonic motion in the bass as Sullivan begins improvising. This post-introduction vamp also has the added benefit of offering repose after the very intense rubato introduction.

In order to understand how Sullivan and the ensemble develop the tune post-introduction, Example 5 displays the 48-measure harmonic form of “Portrait Of Sal La Rosa” as performed following the rubato introduction. It should be noted that the form and harmonic scheme are not immediately apparent as the groove begins. In fact, it is not until the second chorus of Sullivan’s improvisation that they become clear.

No. of measures 8 8 8 8 4 4 8
Harmony C Lydian F Lydian B♭ Lydian A Major 9 A Minor A♭7+11 G suspended 4th

Example 5. “Portrait Of Sal La Rosa”, harmonic structure.

As the harmony moves out of the period of stasis (the vamp after the rubato introduction) and the groove is established, Pastorius plays fairly free harmony for the majority of the first chorus. The harmony solidifies at measure 56, where Diorio enters and begins accompanying the solo. The top of the form after Sullivan’s first chorus is marked by the first clear C Lydian chord at measure 71 (letter F in transcription). Sullivan’s solo entrance might best be characterized as a group improvisation in preparation for the formal structure. Since it is the beginning of the improvisation, the group approached the section freely and worked their way from a more freely framed improvisation to a slightly more rigid structure: an approximately 48-measure form. It is interesting to note that the first chorus actually lasts 52 measures, further evidence that the first chorus is approached freely until the entrance of the guitar. After letter F, the tune adheres more closely to the 48-measure form (Example 5), but seems to maintain its free approach throughout since there are variations in the exact number of measures from chorus to chorus.

While the harmonic scheme becomes fairly clear, there is always a free component to the accompaniment and solos. Occasionally a chord change will be delayed, anticipated, or substituted. In the first chorus of the second section of Sullivan’s solo, for example, the band plays E major instead of the usual A major in measure 95, and the phrase is actually only three measures long. Again, it would seem that the harmonic structure serves as a guide that may be freely altered as the musicians improvise.


Ira Sullivan’s capacity to seamlessly weave an improvised melody within an established harmonic framework through myriad devices such as alternating rhythmic combinations (blurred to concise and back again), unorthodox harmonic navigation (such as the use of ♮13 and ♮9 over the opening E altered chord) mixed with more traditional harmonic routes, and a wide dynamic range on the flute, demonstrates rare ability. This ability to mesh combinations in all facets of the music is evident in several other analyses of his improvisations that I have done and spans many jazz styles: fast bebop, Archie Shepp-inspired free improvisation, Ornette Coleman-inspired avant garde pieces, and sensitive ballads. Sullivan improvises on many different instruments such as trumpet, tenor saxophone, and alto saxophone, and the hope for the near future is to have all the transcriptions and analyses assembled and presented with the blessing of Ira Sullivan so that many more musicians can observe and learn from the beautiful music created by this unique individual.


[1] Quoted by Neil Tesser, liner notes to Ira Sullivan. Horizon SP-706, 1976.

[2] David Jaye, liner notes to Red Rodney with Ira Sullivan: Alive in New York. Muse MR 5307, 1986.

[3] “Glad To Be Unhappy,” recorded on April 1, 1960, appears on Dolphy’s first album as a leader, Outward Bound (New Jazz NJLP 8236).

[4] Ira Sullivan interviewed by Peter W. Brewer, March 3, 2009.

[5] At the time of this article’s publication, an audio file of this performance was available at

[6] Ira Sullivan interviewed by Peter W. Brewer, March 3, 2009.

[7] Ira Sullivan interviewed by Peter W. Brewer, March 3, 2009.

[8] William Drabkin, "Motif." In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, (accessed January 8, 2009).

[9] William Drabkin, "Theme." In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, (accessed January 8, 2009).

Author Information: 
Peter W. Brewer is a saxophonist and educator based in Miami, Florida. He holds B.M., M.M., and D.M.A. degrees from the University of Miami. He has toured internationally as a leader and sideman. In addition to performing, Brewer currently teaches at New World School of the Arts and Barry University.

The improvised flute solo from Ira Sullivan’s 1976 recorded performance of “Portrait Of Sal La Rosa” is analyzed in terms of rhythm, phrasing, melody, and harmony.

Ira Sullivan, Portrait of Sal La Rosa, improvised solo analysis, jazz, solo, transcription

How to cite this article:

  • Chicago 15th ed.: Brewer, Peter W. “A Brief Analysis of Ira Sullivan’s Creative Method on ‘Portrait Of Sal La Rosa’ (1976).” Current Research in Jazz 3, (2011).
  • MLA 7th ed.: Brewer, Peter W. “A Brief Analysis of Ira Sullivan’s Creative Method on ‘Portrait Of Sal La Rosa’ (1976).” Current Research in Jazz 3 (2011). Web. [date of access]
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