As a young person learning to improvise, I often wondered what it would be like taking music lessons with Sonny Rollins or Chick Corea, two of my favorite musicians. Imagine the incredible musical secrets they could pass on to me. However, something happens when a great improviser improvises – something that goes beyond what can be expressed in words and concepts. It’s quite often the case that the improviser can’t really put into musical terms how they approached playing on a particular chord change. How many times have you heard the classic response, “Oh you’ll hear it”. After years and years of hard work we’ll no doubt, “hear it”, but until that time comes, how can we get a glimpse into the art of creating great melodies? I think transcribing solos from records is a piece in this puzzle.
Learning a McCoy Tyner solo off the record is a lot like taking a private lesson with him. We get a close glimpse as to how this master improviser approaches a particular song, passage, or chord change. Even without McCoy present to explain how he played a certain phrase, the notes speak for themselves and hidden improvising techniques come to the surface. It’s in this process of using great improvisations as training wheels that we gain a foundation which later enables us to create our own excursions into “pulling beautiful melodies out of a hat”.
Most of the great musicians that I’ve come in contact with have done solo transcribing at some point in their lives. I remember once walking into Chick Corea’s home and hearing him playing Bud Powell’s “Celia”. After playing the melody of the tune he proceeded to carve a solo that had me convinced it was 1956 and I was experiencing Bud Powell first hand. Bird learned from Lester, Bud learned from Bird, Chick from Bud, and I’m learning from all of them. The Lineage continues.
The level of accuracy in a transcribed solo is crucial. Wrong notes convey strange concepts. They trick us into believing that what went on over a chord change wasn’t really anything special. In contrast, the right notes reveal inner secrets of improvisation and they just plain sound “right”. I’ve gone to great lengths to try and put down the most correct notes possible. I have a tape recorder that allows me to halve the speed, resulting in music that sounds an octave lower and twice as slow. To transcribe these solos I went to one-quarter speed to attempt maximum accuracy. For those impossible moments of “ghost notes” and uncertainty, I made guesses that hopefully reflect my knowledge of the artists’ style
I’m a transcriber from way back and there are a few things I’ve learned in the process that might help you get more out of transcribed solos. The ideas are listed in a suggested order of attack:
LEARN THE SONG – Learn the tune that the improvisation is based on. Learning the tune means learning the melody as well as the chord changes. There is a great lesson in hearing how the soloist interprets the melody, compared to how it may be written in a lead sheet format. Knowing the original chord changes is important because much can be gained from seeing how the improviser moves from the original set of changes to substitute changes while soloing.
LISTEN TO THE SOLO – A transcribed solo can convey only the technical makeup of an improvisation. The real “essence” of the solo is revealed through listening. The way a soloist approaches playing time, articulation, and the interaction among the accompanists and the soloist the things that repeated listening will expose. If you could endure ten hearings per day for a week straight, imagine how well you’d know the solo inside and out and how easy it would be to transfer to your instrument. A good transcription deserves a lot of attention.
LEARN THE SOLO – The first thing I do when learning a solo is to compare what I might do over a particular chord change with what the soloist does. This sometimes reveals hidden secrets about how the improviser looks at things. For instance, say we have an E7 chord and my approach would be to play a mixolydian type of sound over the chord. We look at what Chick plays over the chord change and discover that he’s playing a similar line that he played earlier in the tune, but at that time he was playing over an F minor/major chord. When we analyze Chick’s line over E7 we discover that his approach over the E7 is an altered sound, not a mixolydian sound, and somehow he’s thinking F melodic minor over E7. When we explore further, we discover that F melodic minor equals E7 altered and he’s using this as a substitution. What surfaces in this analytical process is the CONCEPT behind the actual lick. If you learn the lick and fail to grasp the CONCEPT, all you’ve gained is a new lick, (which isn’t so bad). On the other hand, if you understand why that lick worked, then a new a set of rules apply and the original lick becomes a launching pad for many more. Now when you see E7 altered, try fitting in some F melodic minor lines. New territory indeed.
Every so often I’ll wonder, while practicing a solo, if I’ve made a mistake in transcribing a particular note. Is that a mistake or did he mean it that way ? Unless you know Sonny Rollins personally, you’ll never be sure if on TENOR MADNESS in the 15th chorus, 8th bar, third beat, did he really mean to play D natural instead of D flat? The note seems wrong, but in checking it with the quarter speed tape machine it is indeed the note that was played. In these instances I’ll opt for playing a better note in the others place and at the same time having respect for the original note.
Piano players occasionally hit tow notes at the same time, one half step apart. At slow speed this sounds like a clash. Was it intentional? At regular speed usually one note will dominate over the other. That’s the note that I’ll play.
Believe me, any artist who is transcribe-able is capable of a few strange notes or rhythms. I ought to know. There’s a book of my solos transcribed by Jennifer Batten, (THE TRANSCRIBED GUITAR SOLOS OF PETER SPRAGUE-Woodshed Books) that, as long as it’s still available, keeps me in touch with the presence of human error.
Good luck in your quest to play the perfect melody. It’s my hope that my transcriptions give you some insight into how jazz heroes bend reality. A great melody will last forever and, once it’s in your possession, you’re a rich man. Keep it rolling…
Peter Sprague is a Jazz Guitarist, Composer, Producer, Recording Engineer, Surfer and Family Hurricane Participant.