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Maximizing the Benefits of Solo Transcription

Matt Pivec While there are many pedagogical approaches to jazz improvisation, the most effective method of learning to play jazz remains learning tunes, phrases, and solos by ear from significant recordings. It is through this process that we gain an intimate knowledge not only of musical vocabulary, but also countless other essential musical elements such as phrasing, articulation, tone, and interaction. The typical sequence used for maximizing the benefits of transcription resembles the following:

  • Select a meaningful transcription.
    • It must be both stimulating to the student and appropriate to his/her skill level.
  • Learn a complete unit (to provide a broader music context) of the solo by ear.
    • If he/she is learning a blues, I suggest at least two choruses. If he/she is learning a standard, I suggest at least one full chorus.
    • He/she should be able to play the solo from memory along with the recording.
  • Write down the solo along with the chord changes.
    • This process will facilitate analysis.
  • Select a phrase from the solo.
    • Since the vast majority of jazz tunes contain ii-V-I progressions, I recommend selecting a phrase from a ii-V-I progression. Of course, this process can work for any type of melodic material.
  • Practice the phrase in all 12 keys.
  • Apply the phrase to the same tune as well as others.

If the student completes the aforementioned process, he or she will have a rudimentary understanding of the phrase and its applications. However, as I noticed in my own teaching, students who went through this process were frequently unable to creatively apply the learned material. This indicated to me that they were falling short in the application steps and had moved to other melodic concepts without having a true mastery of one.

By listening to bebop and hard bop masters such as Charlie Parker, Grant Green, Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt, and Bud Powell, we hear that many players use a limited number phrases, but can create an endless number of variations. To the author, it is the ability to create variations that demonstrate true mastery of the vocabulary. The pedagogical lesson is that additional steps can be taken to ensure that the student has truly mastered the phrase. Once the student has mastered the phrase, appropriate flexibility and creativity in the application can follow.

As previously mentioned, a recording for transcription should be both stimulating to the student and appropriate to his/her ability level. For maximum benefit, the solo should contain useful vocabulary that is clearly executed. For beginning improvisers, I have found the guitar solos of Grant Green to be particularly useful because of the clarity of his ideas. One particular excerpt from his solo on “Alone Together” from Green Street will be referenced throughout the article.


All Possible Situations?
Assuming that the student has learned a phrase in all 12 keys and is able to apply the phrase (in its original state) to the repertoire, the logical next step is application to all possible situations. If practicing a phrase from a ii-V-I progression, this means accounting for the parallel key, different harmonic rhythms, and different meters.

Parallel Major or Minor
If using a phrase from a ii-V-I progression, we have the advantage of knowing that the quality of the tonic and pre-dominant chords need not change our approach to the dominant chord. Therefore, simple changes to the approach and/or resolution of a phrase can allow it to be useful in the parallel major or minor key. Consider the phrase that Grant Green plays leading into the second A section of “Alone Together” (Example 1) In the case of this phrase, changing the third scale degree in the resolution allows the phrase to be useful in a major progression (Example 2).


Different Harmonic Rhythms
Depending on its original context, the student will also need to practice the phrase in half

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