“Transcribe”, our teachers said. “Transcribe”, we now say to ourselves and our students, but in a world where almost all of us have easy internet access, it isn’t hard to find sheet music for nearly any great solo. So why continue to transcribe, and how can we make sure it’s a useful exercise for our own playing?
1. Always be clear in your intentions
Are you transcribing to work something out harmonically? To work out a lick you’ve been hearing? To practise technique? As an aural exercise? To figure out where beat 1 is?
Making your aims clear can save time, help to extract usable information from the transcribing process, and stop you from getting lost in complexity.
Example: Charlie Parker, “Move”
I’d heard Bird use this sound a number of times, particularly at the start of the bridge in a rhythm changes, so I went in to figure it out. He starts by outlining the V chord (G7), then moves to the tritone sub (Db) before resolving to C Major. The whole process took about 20 minutes and now not only do I know the lick, but I have a harmonic concept I can work on.
2. Know the chords
Someone could play the hippest substitution ever but if you don’t know what chord they’re playing over, you won’t be able to get it into your own playing. This probably goes without saying, but make sure you know the chords.
Example: Chris Potter, “Cherokee”
This Chris Potter line seems to outline an A- chord, possibly even moving to a D- by landing on an F natural in measure 4. Once we put it in context however, we can see he is actually emphasising the #11 quality of the D7 chord, moving to a G-. This is very obscured if seen without context, as he doesn’t actually play the 1 or the 3 of the D7 chord at all.
3. Know the context
Closely related to knowing the chords is knowing the context, ie. where that chord is headed, or where the player is aiming to resolve harmonically. Sometimes a player’s harmonic choices don’t seem to make sense if analysed in a direct linear fashion, but become clear in the broader context.
Example: John Coltrane, “Grand Central”
This tiny excerpt of a line by Trane disregards the changes completely in favour of his own C- material. The notes in measure two form an F# diminished arpeggio, implying (in the context) a D7b9, or a secondary dominant II7 chord in the key of C-. None of this is diatonic to the Db7#11 chord he’s supposedly playing over, but in the context of leading towards C-, the ear accepts it.
4. Less is (or can be) more
Learning an entire solo can be fun and a great challenge, but it isn’t necessarily the method that will contribute most beneficially to your own improvising. Often, honing in on a chorus or even just a particular line can allow you to study the content in greater depth.
Example: Ben Wendel, “All The Things You Are”
This short line by Ben Wendel contains some great practice material. It begins with fairly standard enclosures, then moves into a very angular line, then very smoothly into high altissimo. Moving in 4ths like that didn’t come naturally to my ears or fingers, so that alone is enough to set me off on a new practice tangent.
5. Learn it “off-book”
A really important part of the process of internalising new language is to learn it by heart.
Example: Bob Berg, “Chromazone”
The sequencing and substitutions in a solo like this one by Bob Berg really need to be played with speed and fluency to make sense, and it’s hard to hear the intended effect if you’re stuck with your head in the page.
6. Play along
For me, a hugely important (and fun, and sometimes depressing) part of the transcribing process is to actually play along with the original recording – not just once or twice, but until I have the phrasing and articulation down, and the tempo feels under my fingers.
Example: Chad Lefkowitz-Brown, “Nature Boy”
I actually bought this transcription already written, but it’s a great exercise just to learn to play, with or without analysis. Chad LB’s speed and precision is incredible and it’s rare for me to challenge my technique like this in a normal practice session.
Transposing your transcription to new keys really is the best way to reinforce the harmonic connections. It forces you out of simple memorisation and into the realm of scale degrees and intervals, helping you understand the harmony in a practical way.
Example: Braxton Cook, “No Doubt”
I love the simplicity of this line by Braxton Cook, smoothly navigating a minor ii-V-i with a harmonic minor scale resolving to a pentatonic. It’s the kind of language I want to have down in all 12 keys. It also covers a large range, making it a good line to transpose into awkward regions of the horn.
8. Turn content into practice
Here is the step where we can incorporate the language we’ve transcribed into our own playing, and move from playing someone else’s lines to playing our own. What is happening in the line/ chorus/solo you’ve transcribed? What do you like about it? Is the player playing outside; using substitutions; using an unfamiliar rhythmic grouping? Extract the content of the transcription and use that concept in your own way to create your own lines.
Example: Michael Brecker, live on the “Late Night with David Letterman” show
This line by Michael Brecker uses chromaticism to outline a superimposed chord progression: B-F-C-B or I-bV-bII-I. As well as being a great line, this is a great idea for playing outside over a vamp, and a beneficial way to shed it would be to take that skeletal concept and invent your own exercises on it, taking it through scale degrees and keys
Bringing together high octane modern jazz with a deep respect for the saxophone tradition, Melbourne-based Richard Pavlidis released his latest offering – ‘Iconography’ this past June.
Described by ‘The Australian’ as a “saxophone colossus in the making”, the album captures the impact of modern era inspirations like Michael Brecker and Bob Berg, in a collection of songs which are energetic, playful, and full of joy.
The six-piece group gives the tried-and-tested combination of swing, blues and funk their own personal spin, with airtight arrangements, virtuosic improvisation and a slough of highly memorable earworms of melodies.
For more on Richard, check out his website at https://richardpavlidis.com