To underscore the theme of the blog, here is one of the great masters of the instrument talking about one way he approaches soloing: "If we understand the melody, we can understand how that melody or rhythmic phrase can be developed."
Cymbalholic. The person I was talking with had suggested that for the most part soloing has nothing to do with the melody, but is instead spontaneous composition, and that using the melody as the basis for a solo was basically corny. I disagree with this idea, and this Elvin quote and solo clip below are perfect examples of why.
Because Elvin's solos are so rhythmically intricate people often assume that they are open solos based purely on spontaneous composition, and have no essential relationship to the melody of the song. Although I totally understand why this would superficially seem to be the case, I think that if you listen carefully to Elvin's soloing, you can very often find a relationship to the melody. In fact, to my ear, Elvin's solos are some of the most beautiful expressions of melodic phrasing on the drum set.
Although at times it can be difficult to hear through the density of his rhythms, the direction and feel of his soloing is often closely linked to melodic phrases. One example of this is his solo on "Monk's Dream" from the album "Unity" by Larry Young. Trying singing the melody along with his solo (starts at 3:50).
Did you hear how Elvin's phrasing flows with the melody? Sometimes he hits directly on the melody, for example in the beginning when he quotes the melody, sometimes he seems to respond to it, for example when he starts to roll over the vamp on the bridge, but either way it is a beautiful, complex interaction with this particular melody. As someone else in the conversation on Cymbalholics put it, the solo "belongs to this tune and no other".
John Riley has a great transcription of this solo in his book "Beyond Bop Drumming" which is definitely worth checking out. Seeing the transcription can help clarify some of the extremely difficult to hear rhythmic phrasing.