8 Benefits Of Studying Jazz Transcriptions

Many students of jazz use transcriptions of master solos as part of their study. I look at why this is and what benefit there might be for budding soloists.

Why is it that so many students of jazz spend a high proportion of their time studying transcriptions? Is this really necessary? What benefit is there of including transcriptions in a study programme/practice schedule and is it really worth our time and effort? In this short article I look at seven reasons for making jazz transcriptions part of your daily practice régime and how they can add significantly to the quality of your playing.

1) Vocabulary

'Vocabulary' is something widely referred to in jazz circles, but what is this exactly? My own interpretation of this is that vocabulary is a personal collection of licks, phrases and even smaller cells such as enclosures that can be linked to other ideas within solos. These are often phrases 'handed down' by master soloists. In the world of jazz, using these isn't considered to be plagiarism, so much as a 'homage' to particular artists. There are a significantly large number of licks and techniques in use that originated with Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Thelonius Monk and so on and they are sometimes referred to as 'isms' when discussing what type of lick is being played.

While there are many, MANY collections of books full of licks and drills to help budding soloists, transcriptions give us the most authentic look at the building blocks of jazz and give us direct access to that world without being watered down or distorted by pedagogical interpretations. As you study your favourite solos in transcription form, you'll undoubtedly find some licks or techniques that you want to collect for your own personal use and this is what we call your vocabulary.

2) Next Level Theory

Only by listening to the masters and studying their work can we start to understand their thinking and strategies as soloists. Elements such as use of advanced harmonic theory and rhythmic complexity give us an insight into what players at the top of their game do in the heat of the moment.

3) Improve Phrasing and Timing

I often get my students to play along with the recording of the artist in question (slowed down if necessary), using the transcription as reference. By doing this we can really get inside the performances of the masters - listen to the nuances of their timing and getting the feel for their phrasing. If we do this often enough some of this will rub off, so to speak and we will raise our game when it does.

4) Connecting Phrases

It's relatively easy to play through a collection of impressive licks, but it's a whole other thing to connect them in a cohesive and fluent way. I've personally gained a much better understanding of making these connections by studying people like Michael Brecker, Kenny Kirkland and Keith Jarrett, to name but a few. In some cases it's merely a matter of confirming my knowledge of approach phrasing or enclosures and seeing how the masters can often do this in quite a text book fashion, but they also have a tendency to surprise with something unique that no-one else has thought of. THIS is why studying transcriptions can be worth its weight in gold!

5) Better Structure In Solos

It never ceases to amaze me how the master soloists build their solos. Watching Brecker start with just a couple of notes and build it up to cascades of arpeggios via slowly evolving phrases is an education EVERY TIME. Jazz transcriptions show us what the masters are doing at a pace we can keep up with (LOL) and give us the opportunity to experiment with our own style, with their formidable technique to help us along.

6) Comping

Let's not forget comping. Whether we're working on accompanying ourselves or playing behind another soloist, listening to how the masters do it is invaluable when working out our own style. Remember, we will spend more time comping during our careers than we will soloing!

7) Improved Reading and Notation of Music

On a more practical note, basic reading and writing skills will improve if we're working with trascriptions every day.

8) Ear training

Nothing is quite so good for developing our aural skills as notating what we're listening to. Not only that, but on the bandstand people who have worked on their aural skills start to reproduce what the other band members are playing and this conversation they have with each other is when music gets really interesting!

So there you have it. Jazz transcriptions are going to help your development as a soloist, an accompanist and also your reading and notation of music. What's not to like?