Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine


Learning from the Masters

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I often liken learning jazz to learning a language. If you took a class in Russian and the instructor only opened the textbook, you might piece together a certain amount, maybe even approximate a few sounds. But if I dropped you off in Moscow, you’d be lost. You might recognize a few signs, but you couldn’t ask for the train station or understand if someone spoke to you.

The same goes for jazz. If you don’t really learn from the masters and internalize the rhythmic, harmonic, melodic language they speak, there’s no way to really communicate in the jazz sense. Getting there takes a lot of real listening—listening with a purpose. Transcription is a critical part of internalizing this language, and this is a strategy that really works.

First, identify a solo that addresses your needs. If you think you really need to work on your slow blues playing, it doesn’t make sense to transcribe one of Ornette Coleman’s up-tempo free-form pieces, no matter how great the solo. Figure out what you want to work on, and then choose a solo that meets those needs.

Then, learn to sing that solo, note for note, with every single inflection, every nuance. You want to recreate it rhythmically and melodically, exactly the way the soloist plays it. All you need for this step is your headphones and your voice. Sing with the recording so that you can’t distinguish your voice from the soloist’s voice. Once you’ve mastered that, turn off your stereo and sing that same solo, in rhythm, and hear the harmony in your head. If you can, take it a step further and play the chord changes on the piano and sing the solo while you’re doing it. Remember, once you can sing something, you can play it. It’s important to be very meticulous with the singing, because it shapes what you can do on your instrument.

Next, take your instrument and play along with the recording, catching every note, every nuance. You’re playing exactly what you sang. When you’re ready, play without the recording, keeping time, exactly as if the recording was on. It’s super-important to focus on your own rhythm—you want to get it as strong as the soloist’s.

Once you can do all these things, only then is it time to write it down. In my experience, writing it down any sooner is actually harmful because it makes it a reading exercise. The whole point of transcribing isn’t to be able to read something better, but to internalize the language.

What you want to do is develop your ears to the highest degree you can. Singing along exactly with somebody is a big challenge at first, but the more you do it, the more your ears are in tune with what the artists are doing. It gets to a point where you can take in a solo and you don’t even need your instrument or manuscript paper—you can sing through a solo and think in your mind exactly what devices they’re using, how they’re weaving through the changes.

The greatest improvisers have both sides of their brains working equally. One side hears and reproduces sounds—you develop that by singing the solos. The theoretical side has important work too. Once you’ve written down the solo (and it’s important to be diligent with precise notation), then spend some time really analyzing how it works. Look at the harmonies and intervals and rhythmic patterns. Look at what makes this solo hold together.

Watch for what really grabs your attention. Let’s say I see a 4-bar phrase of Bud Powell’s that really weaves through the changes in an interesting way. I’m going to take it and learn it in all twelve keys so I really have it in my vocabulary. Then I decide to consciously insert that phrase in whatever song I’m preparing—I’ll play it in rhythm, exactly as Bud played it. The more I do that, the more it becomes mine because I’ll add a note or change the rhythm a bit. As long as the voice-leading and shape is the same, it’ll sound good.

Experienced players are improvising in the moment and reacting to what they hear. I’m not consciously thinking, “I’ll insert a John Coltrane line here.” But that can happen if that’s where the momentum of my melodic line is leading. It’s all about your intention. If you’re intending to stand up there and play somebody else’s solo verbatim, that rings hollow. But if a seasoned improviser in the heat of the moment quotes a melody of a tune and then a piece from somebody else’s solo, that’s actually a really effective moment…

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