LEARNING TO IMPROVISE - ARTICLE LINKS
- Listening To Jazz
- Ear Training
- Rhythm & Phrasing
- Motifs & Cohesive Solos
- Vocal Improvisation
- Jazz Theory
I was going to include the following in my "Listening to Jazz" feature, but decided it would probably be best to make a separate document. The two topics are closely related, however, as they both pertain to listening to music closely in order to understand what's being played.
Transcription is the act of writing down the notes and rhythms to a piece of music, or in this case, to a jazz solo. When transcribing you have to figure everything out on your own, using your ear to tell you which notes are being played. The final notation should be rhythmically and melodically accurate enough that someone could read the transcription and sound (somewhat) like the original solo.
There are several books and websites that offer pre-transcribed solos (see the end of this page for links), however it's often recommended that students do transcriptions on their own. In both of the music schools I attended, for example, we had to transcribe at least one or two or jazz solos each year. Students are encouraged to transcribe solos because there is the notion that if you do it yourself, you'll learn more about the solo. I agree with this point, as you'll no doubt listen to the solo dozens of times closely following every note and rhythm. Additionally, there's the thought that you'll gain valuable ear training skills from the experience...
While the act of transcription can strengthen your ear, like anything else, you won't get noticeable results unless you do it often (at least a few times a week). If you are looking to transcription for ear training benefits, make sure that you use your ear to concentrate on the pitches rather than simple trial-and-error. I've noticed in my past transcription activities that it's tempting to rely on the rewind button. Instead of slowing things down and/or hitting the rewind button 50 times, I suggest that you take the solo in short sections, learning each section well enough to sing it perfectly. Once you can sing a section, try to transcribe from your singing. This will ensure that you are really internalizing the melodies and rhythms while using your ear to find the notes. Honestly, though, I don't think transcribing is the most efficient way to train your ear because it takes too long to write everything down and figure out the rhythms. When it comes to ear training, I prefer dedicated ear training tools.
The remainder of this document pertains to transcriptions whether or not you actually do the transcriptions yourself.
You can certainly learn about a jazz solo through repeated listening, but it's often easier to understand what's happening when things are written down. I first noticed this benefit during my freshman year of college. Until then, I had never transcribed a solo, nor had I even seen one that was already transcribed. I was also fairly stifled in my concept of what notes should be played over which chords. For example, if I saw a C7 chord, I thought I was only supposed to play C, D, E, F, G, A, and Bb. When I finally did my first transcription, I was absolutely stunned to realize that the soloist might play any note over that same C7 chord, even so-called wrong notes! It was then that I learned that any note can sound good if preceded or followed by the right note. I'd later read a Miles Davis quotation which echoes this sentiment: "When you hit a wrong note it's the next note that makes it good or bad." This revelation about note choice is just one of the many things I've learned while examining transcribed solos.
LEARNING THROUGH IMITATION
For many beginners, it's difficult to develop a good jazz sound. This includes everything from the basic swing feel, to phrasing, articulation, and accents. The best way to learn these things is through imitation. Having a transcribed solo allows you to play along with a recording without having to figure out which notes to play. Instead, you can focus on sounding exactly like the soloist. Try to capture every inflection, dynamic, and accent until your playing is nearly indistinguishable from the original. Then record yourself. When you listen to your recording, does it sound like the original? If not, why? Maybe you didn't swing as hard as you could have, or maybe you're accenting the wrong part of the beat. Whatever it was, you now have the capability to isolate the differences and work on them.
INFLUENCE THROUGH IMITATION
An offshoot of imitation is influence. While imitating a solo, you can't help but become influenced by what you hear. One of my favorite jazz improvisation exercises begins with me playing a transcribed solo or two by a single jazz musician, such as Charlie Parker. If I hear a section of the solo that I really like, I'll play it a few times, listening closely to the specific elements that make the solo sound good. Once I've gotten a good feel for the solo, I start to branch off from the written solo and improvise my own solo. Having thoroughly absorbed the sound of the written solo, my improvised solo becomes influenced by the sound of Charlie Parker and I find myself playing ideas that I normally wouldn't play. These new ideas are often better than anything I might have played on my own.
In jazz, the term "lick" refers to a short pre-learned phrase that you can basically plug into your jazz solos. Transcriptions will show you that just about every great player has at least a handful of licks that pop up in several of their solos. This is true, even in the solos of great innovators like Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis.
The learning of licks is especially useful for beginners who may otherwise struggle to come up with ideas in their solos. I like to compare licks to pickup lines. Pickup lines like "do you come here often?" and "what's your sign?" are filler and (hopefully!) starters for real conversation. In other words, you gotta' start somewhere so it helps to have some stock-material to get the conversation going. Similarly, having a healthy repository of jazz licks that you can play in any key will give you content to insert into your solos to either connect improvised ideas, or to get your solo off the ground.
Transcriptions make it easy to isolate the licks that you like and to learn them note-by-note. Just be sure that you don't fill your entire solo with pickup lines ;-)
YOUR FIRST TRANSCRIPTION BOOK
There are a lot of transcription books out there, containing transcribed solos from every legendary jazz musician. When picking your first book to purchase, you could simply get a book dedicated to your favorite jazz musician, or you could get a book containing various solos by players of your instrument. In my case, my first transcription book contained solos by a dozen or so jazz trumpeters. The book was Ken Slone's "28 Modern Jazz Trumpet Solos" and it was recommended to me by my college jazz trumpet teacher. I've since purchased several other books containing jazz transcriptions and I've looked at dozens of transcriptions online.
In my opinion, there is no better book of jazz transcriptions than the "Charlie Parker Omnibook." Every student of jazz, regardless of instrument, should have this book. I didn't get a copy myself until 2007 (I got the Bb version), and boy do I wish I had bought it years ago. Page after page, it's the ultimate masterclass of how to play jazz. It's also relatively easy to play. There aren't a lot of complex rhythms, nor are there a bunch of high notes that I can't reach. It's just jazz at its finest.
- CharlesMcNeal.com - Tons of jazz transcriptions and jazz patterns
- JazzTrumpetSolos.com - this site presents both transcriptions and audio clips in a unique format
- Trumpet.Voici.Org - Over 300 transcriptions from trumpeters of the swing-era and beyond
- CannonballJazz.com - TONS! of free transcriptions of Cannonball Adderley solos
- Jeff Helgesen's Transcriptions - This page contains links to several dozen jazz trumpet solo transcriptions
- www.music.sc.edu - USC has a few dozen transcription from a variety of artists and instruments
- www.alisdair.com - this page has links to many more jazz transcription sites