How to Apply the Jazz Language that You’ve Transcribed

So you’ve transcribed some ii-V lines. You’ve even learned a few solos note for note directly from the record, but, despite your efforts, you’re not seeing the results you expected. Transcribing those lines from your favorite player didn’t transform you into the great improviser that everyone had promised. At the end of the day, improvisation is still just as hard as it was before.

Well, what’s the deal? Is transcription just another useless exercise distracting us from getting better as an improviser?

Not at all. Transcription is just the beginning, a mere introduction to an in-depth process that is vital to your musical improvement. Figuring out the notes of a solo is an important first step, however, if you stop there you’re missing the point.

Sure, you can analyze the notes and chords that you’ve figured out and written down, but ask yourself this simple question: Do you want to be a jazz theorist or a jazz improviser?

If your goal is to improve as an improviser, you need to take this transcribed language to an entirely new level. This may come as a shock to those who’ve subscribed to the belief that writing down solos is the beginning and end of jazz practice. If you want this language to be useful in your solos, you must learn to apply it.

Below are three steps that will allow you take the language that you’ve transcribed and apply it effectively to any musical situation.

I) Do the prep work

The simple act of transcribing a line or memorizing a solo will not magically make you a better improviser. This is what people aren’t telling you in schools or in instructional books. To improve, you actually need to do something with this information that you’ve gathered from the records.

Before you can start applying the language you’ve learned to your everyday playing, you need to do some prep work. This is straight forward and easy practice that will have enormous payoffs down the road. Let’s use an example to illustrate this point.

Say you’re into Dexter Gordon and have been checking out his playing on Lady Bird:

There are a ton of great lines to steal from this entire solo, but let’s say that you particularly like the ii-V line that Dexter plays at the end of his first chorus (0:53 secs in the video):

This is a great line, but simply knowing one ii-V in one key, that you can use on one tune is not going to be that useful for your overall playing. However, if you do some preparation to ingrain this line, you’ll be able to apply it to any musical situation that you come across – and that is useful.

For any line, follow these three simple steps to ingrain your language for good:

1) Learn it in all 12 keys

You can’t apply language as an improviser if you only know it in one key. Therefore, the first step to creating useful language is to develop it in all 12 keys. This may take some time and effort, but the rewards for your work are tremendous.

Take that line that you’ve learned and move it up by half-steps or take it around the cycle, whatever works for you, as long as you’re getting it down in every key. Make sure to spend some extra time on those difficult keys and start slow to ensure 100% accuracy.

2) Get it up to speed

Once you have the line in every key, it’s time to start getting the line up to speed. The more tempos that you can play these lines in, the more situations you can apply them to.

For example, the Dexter line that you transcribed above works for a four bar ii-V. However, ii-V’s come in all shapes and sizes in the standards that we love to play: four bar ii-V’s, two bar ii-V’s, unresolved ii-V’s, implied ii-V’s, etc. If you work it up in faster tempos, you’ll be able to apply this line to any of these ii-V’s, such as a double time line in a two bar ii-V shown below:

3) Repeat, repeat, repeat

Learning these lines in every key and in a wide range of tempos is a great start, but to truly ingrain them and eventually apply them, you must use repetition. Practice these lines over and over again until you don’t have to think about them to play them.

II) Apply this language to tunes

Now that you have this language ingrained it’s time to actually use it in your day to day playing. The most effective way to do this is to apply this language to the tunes that you’re working on.

This step is absolutely essential to creating useful language. While practicing a line repeatedly is necessary to ingrain it, this type of practice is not going to change the way that you improvise. To evolve as a soloist you need to apply these concepts in real time to the actual situations that are giving you trouble.

Here’s an example. If you’re working on improvising over a twelve bar blues in G, take that Dexter ii-V line that you’ve been working on and apply it everywhere you can. In each spot of the progression that has a written or implied ii-V, insert your line:

Treat this process as a practice exercise or an etude. You’re not actually improvising here, rather learning to apply language in key areas and ingraining the sound of these lines into your ear.

As you can see from the example above, the line was used in two different keys and in two different rhythms. The more you’ve done the prep work and ingrained this language, the more versatile that you’ll become with it.

When you apply this language to tunes, you’re hearing these lines in a real context and developing language that will one day become your own. Apply any language that you’ve transcribed (Major, minor, V7, ii-V’s, minor ii-V’s) to any standard that you’re working on.

III) Apply this language in new ways

When you transcribe a ii-V line it doesn’t have to only be applied to a ii-V progression, it can be applied to any number of harmonic situations. Playing the lines you’ve transcribed over the same chord progressions can get old really fast. Explore taking the language that you’ve transcribed and apply it in new and different ways.

For example, take the ii-V line from the Dexter solo again. Instead of only inserting it into the ii-V progressions of the tunes you’re working on, apply this language to as many different harmonic situations as you can.

Instead of another ii-V in C, try playing the same line over a G7sus chord:

Or an A-7 (emphasizing the b13):

Even an FMaj7#11:

Simply play the chord on the piano and play the line on top of it. The small act of altering the harmonic background can completely change the character of that line and you will begin to hear new possibilities for this language.

Do the same thing with the rhythmic content of a line, insert enclosures, start on different parts of the beat, alter or omit notes, use some space, combine parts of this line with pieces of other lines that you’ve learned, the options for variation are endless. The goal is to make the line your own.

Getting started

Learning lines and solos by ear is essential for learning the jazz language, but remember, figuring out the notes is only the very first step. By ingraining this language and applying it to the tunes that you’re practicing, you will begin to see improvement in your improvising immediately.

It’s very easy to get started with this process. Simply take one line you’ve transcribed, do the prep work, and apply it to a tune that is giving you trouble. This is something that you can do in the practice room today and in a very short time you’ll have language that you can use in any solo.

If improvising well over chord progressions continues to be an elusive problem for you, give this process a try. It’s no more work then you’re putting in the practice room now, it’s just more effective and in no time, you’ll see concrete results in your everyday improvising.