I strongly believe that transcription is the key to learning jazz improvisation. This certainly was the case for me and for the numerous jazz musicians that I have performed with over the years. I do not believe that I have met a great improviser that claimed to have never transcribed. For me, a light bulb came on sometime during my freshman year of college while transcribing a Sonny Rollins solo. I suddenly understood how to create a line and use it in the correct place of a song. I was finally learning how to use the jazz language correctly, much like we learn how to speak as a child by copying our parents. While learning entire solos is essential, I also think that learning shorter phrases can be just as beneficial. These short phrases may then be put together to create longer phrases. The ii-V7-I chord progression is a great example of a short phrase, usually four measures. As young students, we are taught the theory behind this progression and that it is the most important progression to know. However, I do not recall anyone telling me to go out and learn how the great improvisers use that progression. Perhaps that was just understood, and I did eventually figure it out. I now have my students at Florida State University not only focus on solo transcription but also on learning these shorter phrases and in every key. Focusing on a short phrase can quickly have a student improvising using authentic language.
Hank Mobley, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Dexter Gordon are wonderful players to transcribe. Their lines are expertly crafted and are excellent examples of how the jazz language works. All four musicians will frequently land on chord tones, or the root, third, fifth and seventh of a chord, usually on beats one or three, the strong beats of a measure. They frequently arrive at these strong beats by using chromatic passing tones, chromatic enclosures, diatonic enclosures and by use the leading tone. The mixolydian bebop scale, diminished scale and the altered scale are frequently used in their improvised lines.
This article includes two phrases from each player and these phrases are from my book that is due to be published in the summer of 2021 by Advance Music. In the book, I transcribe twenty ii-V-I chord progressions from each of these musicians and provide a short analysis of each progression.
Please refer to the following key for definitions of the following markings as shown in the written examples:
- CPT=CHROMATIC PASSING TONE
- CE=CHROMATIC ENCLOSURE
- DE=DIATONIC ENCLOSURE
- LT=LEADING TONE
This passage begins with a triplet figure, a rhythm that Mobley frequently uses. He is implying F7 (instead of Cmin7) here because he starts on A (the third of F7) and then uses the F mixolydian bebop scale on beat three. On beat four, Mobley arpeggiates up the Cmin7 chord starting on Eb and ends on the ninth of the chord, D, on beat one of the second measure. He plays another triplet figure on beat 2, implying a F7(#5) chord and lands on the third of the F7 chord on beat three. The line continues diatonically down to the third of the Bbmaj7 chord on beat one of the third measure.
Example two focuses on the iiø-V7-i progression. Mobley begins by playing the C mixolydian bebop scale over the iiø chord. This works quite well and is a nice way to deal with half-diminished chords in the bebop style. The third of the V chord is targeted on beat three of the second measure followed by Bb, the flat nine of the V chord. Measures two and three contain the notes of a D harmonic minor scale. Mobley lands on the third of the i chord on beat one of the third measure. He continues with a line that uses the leading tone C#, which resolves to the third of the i chord on beat one of the fourth measure an octave higher.
This example begins with a line diatonic in E minor. There is a diatonic enclosure to C# on beat four that anticipates the V chord. The second measure suggests E minor on beats one and two as Coltrane descends down a minor triad. Beats three and four suggest an altered sound as the raised fifth and lowered ninth are used to connect to the fifth of the I chord in the third measure. The third is targeted on beat three of the third measure with a delayed diatonic enclosure and a chromatic passing tone.
Like Mobley, Coltrane uses the mixolydian bebop scale over the iiø chord. In this example, the G mixolydian bebop scale is implied. One way to conceptualize this idea is to transpose the spelling of the iiø chord (in this case B) down a major third (G) and play that mixolydian bebop scale. Coltrane continues the line stepwise down to the third of the V chord on beat three of the second measure. A leap of a 6th and a chromatic passing tone targets the fifth of the i chord or the third of C major as he seems to be implying in measure three.
Measure one of this line contains a simple outline of the ii chord that is very common in the Rollins vocabulary. Rollins then plays a diatonic enclosure on beat four that targets the seventh of the V chord. Please note the use of the raised fifth of the V chord in measure two, also used by Coltrane and Mobley. He concludes the line in measure three with an arpeggio down the I chord starting on the ninth and ending on the sixth scale degree.
Rollins uses numerous enclosures in this example. He begins the line with the same diatonic enclosure as in example 13. The triplet figure moves the line to the leading tone and a diatonic enclosure on beat four. Another diatonic enclosure follows on beat one of the second measure. A triplet figure on beat two of that measure uses the lowered ninth of the V chord and targets the root of the chord on beat three. A diatonic and chromatic enclosure on beats three and four target the third of the I chord on beat one of the third measure. Rollins outlines the I chord with an ascending line that contains a diatonic enclosure to the root on beat four. The line continues to ascend by outlining the I chord in measure four and ends on the root.
This example begins with a sequence of diatonic enclosures in measure one that target the fifth of the V chord in measure two. Gordon continues by targeting the third of the V chord on beat three. Notice the use of two chromatic lower neighbor tones, both on beat four of the third and fourth measures. Gordon arpeggiates down an A minor chord (delaying the I chord) in the third measure and lands on the third of the I chord before finishing the line on the fifth of the I chord in measure four.
This is an example of a iiø-V-I in a minor key where Gordon uses the harmonic minor scale of the i chord in the entire progression. He begins the line on the leading tone of the i chord and moves stepwise to target the third of the V chord on beat one of the second measure. Gordon then leaps to the flatted ninth of the V chord or the sixth scale degree of D harmonic minor. He targets the third of the i chord on beat three of the second measure and then outlines a D minor triad followed by a diatonic enclosure to the root in the third measure.
Check out David’s upcoming album, Astoria Suite
Saxophonist and composer David Detweiler’s“Astoria Suite” pensively reflects on the familiar with a new perspective brought by
time and distance. Familiar places and scenes can rekindle memories, revive friendships, and renew passions. For saxophonist and composer David Detweiler, returning to New York did this and more, as his time away from a place that he previously called home brought about fresh perspective.
- Henry (Hank) Mobley (July 7, 1930 – May 30, 1986), American hard bop and soul jazz tenor saxophonist and composer. Photograph by Ted Williams, circa 1956.
- By GelderenHugo van / Anefo – GaHetNa (Nationaal Archief NL), CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37386791
- Uploaded from http://flickr.com/photo/97469566@N00/3734806542 using Flickr upload bot
- Bogaerts, Rob / Anefo –  Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANeFo), 1945-1989, Nummer toegang 2.24.01.05 Bestanddeelnummer 931-1154