Mastering The Jazz Language: Part 1-Transcribing Jazz Solos
Updated: Apr 14
Transcribing jazz solos is the single most important skill a young improviser can develop. I have a recording of the late great Joe Henderson speaking at a master class at North Texas State in the mid 1980’s where he says,“ When I got to Wayne State University (in Detroit) the professors all thought I had perfect pitch. I do not have perfect pitch, but at that point I’d transcribed A ZILLION notes and my ears were such that I could hear anything.”
I might add that at one of my lessons with Joe he also recounted how he transcribed John Coltrane’s famous Giant Steps solo dropping the needle on the vinyl record. THAT would take some effort even for Joe!!
I currently have a student that has perfect pitch, he’s got the most amazing ears of any student I’ve ever taught. I have him transcribing solos and tunes on a regular basis in his lessons, and I also have him learning solos by ear, phrase by phrase. This is the essential work that any aspiring improviser must do to understand the very complex musical language of jazz. I feel a strong sense of obligation with these types of students to expose them to great improvisers and make them acutely aware of what goes into a jazz improvisation.
Personally I started transcribing in earnest 15 years ago, and to date have completed over 300 transcriptions. It’s been an amazing journey and has made me a far more knowledgeable jazz musician than I was previously. It’s extremely challenging work, and I do have the requisite harmonic background to take this challenge on, but I do believe that nearly any student can begin this work and advance through time and effort to become quite adept at this aspect of jazz improvisation.
The roster of master jazz masters that I've transcribed is vast and wide. Here is a partial list of players I’ve transcribed and/or learned solos from. Each transcription should be considered a four hour private lesson with each of these jazz masters, as it typically takes me about 4 hours to do an average two or three chorus solo, including chord changes and phrasing marks.
Mark Sowlaks-YES, I’ve transcribed myself from my own recordings, you’d be surprised at how much you can learn from this.
It’s never been easier or more convenient to do transcription work. There are a few necessary tools, namely a music notation software of some sort and a program to slow down the music. My personal choices for these are Musescore, a free open source music notation software, which can be found here: https://musescore.com/ and Transcribe! which can be found here: https://www.seventhstring.com/. After you have loaded these two programs into your computer the real work begins. In the past we did transcription work the old fashioned way, we wrote them out by hand, and if we were lucky we might have a cassette recorder that would slow the music down, typically dropping it an octave. To be honest I never really mastered that process and put transcription work on the back burner for a long time, unfortunately. Now I’m making up for lost time.
My process has evolved over the years. I highly recommend building a library of classic jazz recordings on CD. Most people these days subscribe to Spotify for their musical needs, but for me that is a waste of time and money. Having a hard copy of the disc is important to me as backup, and I generally dump all my CD’s into my computer onto Apple Music. I use this library for my most concentrated listening, and am always looking for solos that would be good transcription candidates. I keep a folder of mp3 files that I can come back to to more fully analyze when I’m looking for something to work on. Once I find something to transcribe I drop the Mp3 file into Transcribe!, creating an .xsc file. I then pair the Mp3 and xsc file in a folder, I believe the xsc file reads from the mp3 and it seems to work best this way, to not confuse the xsc file of its source. Within the Transcribe file it’s very easy using the slider bar to slow the music down. Note that slowing the music down in this manner does not change the pitch. I then open up Musescore and configure a chart to get the transcription going. As a side note I generally play along with the recording a bit before I start the written aspect so I can discern what key we are in and if there is any pick up note to a melody or possibly a vamp intro that I would omit. I also typically look for solos on standard tunes because it’s easy to find accurate chord changes if this is a tune you are unfamiliar with; I often use iReal Pro for this information. iReal Pro is a very handy program which can be found here: https://www.irealpro.com/. I have also Google searched other tunes that don’t turn up in fake books or the like and have found chord changes that I sometimes have to correct but that can be used for tunes that aren’t quite as common. Use any and every resource you can think of to further this vital and necessary study.
If you aren’t transcribing as a regular part of your jazz improvisation practicing you are not giving the music a chance to make its deepest and widest impression in your musical mind. Both transcribing and learning solos by ear is the only way to absorb this art form, and the lessons you will learn from analyzing the harmonies that are spelled out by the classic improvisers will inform your playing in ways that a classroom or book will never be able to do. Joe Henderson is not wrong on this aspect, and he often said, “Man, forget the transcription books that you can buy, there’s no shortcut, you have to do the work yourself.”
Joe knew what he was talking about. I suggest you heed his advice.
Thanks for dropping by my blog…..Markos