Transcribe, transcribe , transcribe. It is what you’ve been hearing since you started to learn how to improvise…and for a good reason. Transcribing is one of the best ways to learn the stylistic language of jazz, improve your ear and in short, become a better all around improviser. The mere act of learning a solo by ear is so much more effective than reading any piece of music or exercise and done as a daily part of practice, the results in your improvising will be immediate.
But, transcribing is not the end point in developing your own jazz vocabulary, it should be the first step in creating your personal sound. Try some of these exercises to go beyond just learning the notes…
Pick a part of a solo that catches your ear
Many times when we start learning a solo we feel that we have to learn the entire solo to get something out of it. Knowing the whole solo is great for looking at things like phrasing or motivic development, but you can get just as much from learning a line or pattern over a progression. Start with a line that really grabs your attention or a passage that is really fluid over a progression that you are having trouble with. Maybe you are looking for some more ideas to play over ii-V’s or want to figure out what Woody Shaw is doing on that really out line.
Analyze the musical aspects of the line
Once you’ve learned the line and written it down, look to see what is happening harmonically, melodically and rhythmically. If it is a line over a ii-V progression, see where the line starts in the measure, is diatonic material being used, is the V7 chord being substituted? etc. By looking at a solo like this, you can transfer the techniques used in this solo to any tune that you are improvising on as opposed to just knowing that one lick that you know for this one tune.
Make your own variations
Now that you’ve learned the line and know how it works, you can create your own variations by making slight changes to the original. Start by varying the harmonic content; if the V7 sound is diatonic add a #9 or b9, or add a b5 to the ii chord. Next try some rhythmic variations to the line, maybe using triplet material instead of eighth notes or extending the phrase over the bar lines. Finally look at the melodic content of the line and develop some new ideas.
If the line is descending try ascending with the same material, if the passage is scalar try using arpeggios or larger intervals, and if the line starts with an interesting phrase try to continue it in a sequence, etc. As you continue to make these variations, it will quickly become obvious that the possibilities are endless; from just one transcribed line you can practically make a book of your own original material.
With these simple concepts, you can go even further with the benefits of transcribing and start to create your own concepts that will show up in your own improvising. This will help you go from just repeating notes from someone else’s solos to opening up a whole new level of creativity in all your solos.