One of the standard practices in studying jazz music is to transcribe improvised solos played by great performers. From the more “classic” masters such as Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Charlie Parker and Bill Evans, on up to contemporary artists such as Brad Mehldau, Mark Turner or Dave Douglas.
Transcribing a solo that you really like reaps many rewards. It dramatically improves your ear (in my opinion, this is the greatest benefit), narrowing the gap between impulse and expression.
It helps you to expand your harmonic and melodic conception as an improviser. It presents new technical challenges for you. It inspires you by giving you a firsthand aural and kinesthetic experience of how absolutely beautiful and complete an improvised solo can be (it helps you to raise your own standards).
But transcribing solos can have a down side for some musicians. For some, the main aim of transcription is to find phrases (licks, patterns, fragments, etc.) that can be memorized and later used for material during an improvised solo. An arsenal of pre-formed “ideas”, if you will. Though this is expedient, and will certainly help you play more fluently, it doesn’t really do much to help you to find and cultivate your authentic voice as an improviser.
Now, for sure you need to work on patterns, ideas, etc. This is the “material” of your improvisations. But you need to transcend that material to be able to play freely and personally. As the great improviser and teacher Warne Marsh would tell his students (after he was sure they’d worked hard on a particular pattern or idea, “Very good. Never practice that again. You don’t want your playing to become hard, to become mechanical.”
Now, Warne, like many great jazz musicians, transcribed solos. He could play many Lester Young solos easily by ear. But you never, ever heard those Lester licks in any of Warne’s solos.
In fact you never even hear any Warne Marsh licks in any of Warne’s solos. That’s because Warne didn’t have any licks. He instead relied upon his ability to make music in the moment with his own impulse to create. He wanted only to play what he felt and heard. He wanted to express his true voice.
To find that true voice you need to explore what you really hear and feel as you improvise. What is your voice? What do you hear? What do you feel as you improvise? What would you play if your instrument and technique were never in the equation, only your creative spirit?
A great way to explore those questions is to transcribe yourself as you sing your improvisations. That’s right, sing your improvisations.
There are two main benefits to be gained from this.
First, you’ll get a chance to free yourself from your “isms” You know, “saxisms”, trumpetisms”, “pianoisms”, etc., whatever your instrument is. If you transcribe your sung solo and play it on your instrument, you can find all kinds of ways of moving through melodic material that you’ve never explored before. We often get stuck improvising with what feels kinesthetically familiar, rather than what we hear or would like to express. By playing something outside of your “isms” you develop technique and conception in an integrated, practical way.
The second benefit is you’ll get a chance to see what you actually do hear up to that point, so that you can compare that to what you’re studying and practicing. As much as you might like to have all those advanced harmonic and melodic ideas integrated into your solos, you might find that you just don’t hear them yet. No problem, keep practicing them and start singing them (if you aren’t yet doing so).
So here’s a simple way to get started. Choose a standard song (or chord progression, mode, etc.) that you know well, and that you enjoy. Get some kind of a music-minus-solist type of play-along recording (Band In A Box, Jamie Aebersold, etc.) Play and listen several times in a row to the pre-recorded track. As you listen, hear an improvisation in your head (not yet sung). After a few times repeating the track, start to sing your solo. Do this several times, until you really feel connected to the music.
Now record yourself singing your improvisation with the play-along track.
Listen back to your work. See if you can find a solo that you really like. (If you can’t, just see if you can find a chorus or two.) Transcribe it. It is most important to find the notes on your instrument first, but you also might want to eventually write down your transcription. Analyze it. How would you talk about if you were teaching a class in jazz improvisation? What do you like about it? What do you dislike? What are you hearing?
If you practice this regularly (as I have, and continue to do), you’ll gain great confidence in yourself as an artist for one main reason: You’ll realize that nobody in this world imagines and plays music quite like you. You’re literally one of a kind. In my book, that’s a lot, and nobody can take that away from you.
To quote the great improvising pianist Thelonious Monk, “A man’s a genius just for looking like himself.”
It’s important to remember that the vast majority of great jazz artists looked (okay, actually sounded) like themselves. And this is why we still cherish them.