I'm intrigued by the practice of arbitrarily categorizing utterly subjective products as "the best." For example, Oprah Winfrey is always doing stuff like identifying the "best pie" in the United States. I don't doubt she knows her pie, but any given town, say, will feature hundreds of different pies that are unbelievably good, right? The same with all those food issues of local magazines that run features identifying the "best hamburger" in the city. I don't know about you, but I can attest that if the bun is fresh, almost every burger I've ever had is pretty darn good.
Now that the absurdity of the venture is acknowledged, let me jump in and declare Wayne Shorter's solo on his composition "Beauty and the Beast" to be the best recorded jazz solo ever. Have I heard even a small fraction of all solos? No I haven't. For the sake of integrity, then, I'll qualify my claim and say that it is impossible for a jazz solo to be better than this one. The painter Hans Hoffman was famous for his "push-pull" theory for creating dynamism in abstract works. Every time I hear this solo, I think to myself that this is the essence of the push-pull in music. The serene melodic sections of the piece (the beauty) are contrasted with the sections in which the rhythm falls squarely on each beat (the beast). First of all this demonstrates what they mean when they say that funk needs to hit "on the one." This is indeed funky. But the really cool thing about that regular beat is that it gives Shorter the opportunity to create tension by employing phrases that start in all sorts of places relative to both the single beat and the four beats that make up each measure. Starting at 1:54, his lines tumble forward and drag back, they stretch out and contract. Herbie Hancock's piano creates further tension, filling in gaps and accenting various ideas. If you are new to jazz, I recommend listening to this track more than once, since it is a textbook example of jazz improvisation, clear in its methods and supreme in its expression.