Updated: Nov 18, 2020
Part two of this series takes a look at some of material to transcribe. If you are reading this, you probably already know that transcribing is an important aspect of musical development. The question then comes up, what thing's are best to transcribe? This is a really good questions and, frankly, a better question than it typically gets credit for. All too often students begin transcribing solos. If you have never transcribed before, or even if you have, that is not always the best material to start digesting.
To be clear, it isn't that the material in and of itself is poor. But there is material that is worth transcribing that may not be an extended improvised solo, or even a solo at all. And, if one of the goals of transcription is to develop and internalize common jazz language (spoiler alert, it is!), then zooming in and transcribing the specific phrases that cut straight to that language development may be more beneficial, or at least equally beneficial as complete solos.
Before you feel the need to rush out and transcribe all of Paul Gonsalves's 27 choruses on Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue, don't overlook really great sources of jazz language - tunes! Melodies are fantastic places to start transcription. A previous blog post recommended five blues heads to learn immediately. But you can transcribe literally any melody out there and find benefits in terms of ear-training and language development. In fact, learning tunes by ear rather than a resource like the Real Book engages musicians in concepts of interpretation as they are learning the melody.
Before you even try to transcribe full solos, focus on individual phrases. This may be one of the most overlooked aspect of transcription. As musicians are acquiring jazz language it might even be more beneficial to transcribe specific phrases which they can then implement into their own improvising rather than an entire solo. For instance, it may be helpful, rather than transcribing all of Sonny Rollins on Tenor Madness, to transcribe just the turnaround phrases of his solo and apply that language to ii-V-I's.
I have included many common language licks in the members only section. These licks fall into general categories such as dominant licks, short form ii-V licks, or long form ii-V licks. Intentionally, I have not written these licks down but rather included them only as a recording. The thought here is that users will transcribe those licks and then apply them to their playing as they encounter situations where they might be useful.
Transcribe Your Own Instrument
Every instrument has its own set of language that has been passed down by its masters. Idiomatic concepts that simply sound best and work best on the instruments that created it. There is an instrumental lineage that is only understood by transcribing the master solos and master soloists on each individual instrument. If you are a trumpeter, you owe it to yourself to become intimately familiar with the very best solos that have been performed on that instrument. The same is true for any other instrument.
This is where I will talk out of both sides of my mouth. Just as all the reasons above indicate why it is important to learn the lineage and heritage of our individual instruments, it is also beneficial to learn the language of other instruments and have those ideas cross-pollinate with the specific language for your instrument. This is how many evolutions have occurred. John Coltrane was a great student of the saxophone, but it was his collaboration with the pianist Thelonious Monk that helped crystalize his ideas about harmony. Transcribing instruments that are not your own provides a new perspective.
When you transcribe, you engage in the most authentic way of learning music and by extension, language. This is the time-honored way of learning jazz. The point here is there are many ways to benefit from this process and it isn't all or only achieved by transcribing full solos. Anytime we engage in a process intentionally copying the masters and working to recreate their nuance we are taking a step towards creating music with both historical authenticity and personal expression - that's a good day!