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 discuss what benefits they hold for budding soloists.

Why is it that so many students of jazz spend a high proportion of their time studying jazz transcriptions? Is this really necessary? What benefit is there of including jazz transcriptions in a study programme/practice schedule? Is it really worth our time and effort? In this short article I look at eight 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, scales, arpeggios and even smaller cells such as groups of approach notes, neighbour notes (passing notes in English) and enclosures that can be linked to other ideas within solos. These are often phrases which are 'handed down' by master soloists that players emulate and wish to study and analyse. In the world of jazz, using these licks isn't considered to be plagiarism, but more of an 'homage' to these artists. There are a significantly large number of licks and techniques in use that originated with Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Bud Powell, 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, jazz 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 agendas. As you study your favourite jazz 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 our '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, use of tension and release 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 a feel for their phrasing. If we do this often enough, the idea is that some of this will hopefully rub off and help us to raise our game.

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 great jazz soloists like Michael Brecker, Kenny Kirkland, Pat Metheny, Harbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett, to name but a very 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 (to be fair - THEY wrote the book!), but master soloists also have a tendency to surprise with something unique that no-one else would have 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 improvisors 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! Playing slowed down jazz transcriptions show us what the masters are doing at a pace we can keep up with and gives us the opportunity to experiment with our own style, using acquired knowledge and repeated practice of 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 professional performers 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 jazz transcriptions every day, or ANY sight reading for that matter!

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 developed their aural skills start to reproduce what the other band members are playing and this conversation they have with each other in the form of exchanging phrases is often really interesting. I would even say that THIS is the true essence of jazz IMHO!

So there you have it. Jazz transcriptions are going to help your development as a soloist and accompanist and they'll also improve your reading and notation of music. What's not to like? Start transcribing today! 🙂

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