This is a great standard tune by Miles Davis from his “Kind of Blue” album, which is touted by many to be the top-selling jazz album of all time. Rolling Stone rates this classic album as the #12 all-time greatest album of all time of any genre. This album definitely transcends jazz. This is the only song from that album in which Wynton Kelly plays the piano. Miles uses Bill Evans for all the other tracks.
This is a blues form that goes around twice (24 bars total). It uses a bVII chord in the last two bars the first time, and in bar 11 only the second time, resolving up to the I7 chord.
Notice that the solos on the Miles Davis recording have been turned into scat vocalese by Jon Hendricks and his crew (Al Jarreau, George Benson, and Bobby McFerrin). Very cool!
Transcribe, transcribe, transcribe. Then transcribe some more. Listen to recordings. Watch jazz dvds and youtube videos. If you like someone’s solo, learn it! Learn to play with the recording. Write down if you want. But most of all, learn to play it.
The first part of this article deals with Macro-transcription. This is transcribing on a large scale. The second deals with what I refer to as Micro-transcription. We’ll explain the difference later. Keep reading.
I remember my first few attempts at transcribing. I spent 12 hours in high school learning a Bill Evans solo piano version of All the Things You Are. I lifted over 2-and-a-half minutes of the song. However, one day my mom came into our piano studio (she is a classical piano teacher) and mentioned that she didn’t think listening to a recording over and over again and learning to play a song bit by bit was the best use of my time. Since I didn’t seem to be any better at improvising than I was before I started the solo, I believed her. I love my mom, and she’s hardly said that wasn’t good advice, but she didn’t really understand what I was doing. Actually, neither did I, and so I barely transcribed anything else for the next five years.
The problem was that I did not understand why we should transcribe. I only knew that some good musicians said it was a good idea. It was not until Justin Nielsen, a fantastic jazz piano player and teacher at Arts West, an arts academy for grades 6-12 in Eagle, Idaho (and one of the top jazz schools in the Northwest) showed me how to do it. As a pianist, he had me learning trumpet solos by Miles Davis, etc., and then adding my own comp to the solo, to make it more realistic to what a pianist would do. This seemed to be a more effective use of time, and seemed to have an immediate effect on my improvising. Of course, I could learn the right-hand of piano solos also, and add my own comp. Every once in a while it’s good to learn the left hand as well, but I think that it’s better in general to only worry about lifting the right hand lines.
If I were a horn player, bass player, guitarist, or vocalist, then I wouldn’t have to add my own left-hand comp. I could just learn the solo and play.
Another light bulb went on one year at the Port Townsend jazz workshop. I saw one of the best clinics I’ve ever seen given by a jazz musician. Also saxophonist Jaleel Shaw told a room full of aspiring jazz musicians about his practice routine. It was very telling. If my memory serves me correctly, he broke up his routine into scales/long tones (long tones for the horn players), transcribing, jazz etudes, learning tunes, learning licks, and composition. I believe he was advocating spending an hour on each of these every day, for a total of six hours.
Then he demonstrated how he transcribed. He took a saxophone solo (I don’t remember what it was) and listened to a few seconds. Then he moved the “needle” back a few seconds on the iPod, and when the solo started he played it EXACTLY right. First time. Then he listened a little more. Moved the needle. And then he played the first and second part, EXACTLY. Repeat ad nauseum. Immediately I thought two things:
#1 Jaleel Shaw has GREAT ears!
Jaleel Shaw on alto saxophone, playing “Invitation”
#2 Oh, now I get it. This is like an etude.
I thought about it later, and I now know that we transcribe for the following reasons:
#1 To improve our ears.
This is a huge benefit. If you want to hear like Jaleel Shaw, you’ve got to put in the time listening and learning. Most of us can’t transcribe complicated lines as quickly as he can because he’s put in WAY more time than most. Of course, having great ears is extremely helpful for a musician for many reasons, not just transcribing.
#2 To improve our technique.
If you learn to play someone else’s solo, you are getting playing their ideas. Not your ideas. This means that it won’t be as natural to most improvisers as playing your own solo. It will help your chops, like an etude would.
#3 To improve our ideas.
Your articulation will improve, and so will your lines. You should take the time to analyze, in terms of numbers instead of notes, the ideas that you learn. Take one lick, and analyze it. Move it to all 12 keys. Internalize it. You could do this with the whole solo, if you’re up for a big challenge! Learning a transcribed solo in all 12 keys is GREAT for your chops. Start with learning one easy solo in the original key first, though. You need to crawl before you can walk.
Now that you understand the benefit of learning a whole solo, here’s another idea. Instead of learning all of a solo, just learn one lick. Transcribe a lick, learn how it fits in the context of the chord changes, and then learn that lick in all 12 keys. Learn to play it at many different tempos. Internalize it so you can do it in your sleep, so that it becomes a part of you. It will come out in your improvising. I missed the idea of Micro-transcription when I tried to tackle the Bill Evans solo in high school. My playing did not improve because I only thought on the Macro level. I learned the big picture, but I didn’t examine, analyze, and transpose ideas into chunks I could use. I wish I had started smaller so that I would have stuck with it earlier in life. It’s better to transpose smaller ideas and REALLY learn those well that to learn a whole solo and never be able to use anything from it. Ideally, you will learn whole solos AND take small chunks to internalize as well.
Here are two more suggestions for transcribing:
#1 Buy software to help you.
I noticed that even Jaleel Shaw could have done it faster if he hadn’t needed to rewind quite so much. He got the ideas instantly, but he wasted a little time just getting to the new phrase. A good looper software, like the Amazing Slow Downer (for cds and mp3s) or the Ultimate DVD Player (for dvds), will save you time rewinding. They also have a function where you can slow down the music or even change keys! However, I recommend learning most everything at the original tempo except where you really need to slow it down. It’s better for you to learn solos as they are played, not at a quarter tempo. Ultimately, these programs will save you time, and will allow you to do more solos in less time. Here’s a link to their site:
#2 Don’t be afraid of playing other people’s transcriptions.
You should do more transcribing on your own, but learning a solo someone else lifted is never a bad thing as long as you do your own transcriptions as well. Analyze the Micro as well as Macro, and pull out licks and ideas to transpose into other keys to help your improvising (for more on transposing see my article on transposing).
Ultimately, stay at it. Transcribing becomes easier the more you do it, just like anything else. I know great players who mostly transcribe whole solos, and I know other great players who mostly transcribe licks, and then internalize those licks. I also now great players who use both approaches consistently. Find the approach that works best for you, and go steal some ideas! Nothing will help you find your own sound faster than figuring out what worked for others. If you ain’t stealin, you ain’t tryin’!
This is such a great standard tune, written in 1930 by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields. At least, that’s what history tells us. Rumor has it that Fats Waller may have penned the tune and sold the rights, but who knows? At any rate, we know that it’s a great standard to blow over. This tune is done in many keys. I’ve listened to many recordings, and I’ve heard the tune in C, Bb (these being the most common), Ab, G, Eb, and even D. Instrumentalists seem to gravitate toward the key of C, so that’s what I’ve put on the pdf documents.
Doxy is an easy jazz original by Sonny Rollins. It’s one of the first tunes that many jazz musicians learn.
Ray Brown also wrote a contrafact over the changes to Doxy that is worth learning. Ray Brown’s tune is called “FSR,” which allegedly stands for “For Sonny Rollins.” We don’t have a link to FSR, as it’s fairly difficult to find, but you can look it up on Grooveshark.com. “FSR” can be found on Ray Brown’s album “Bam Bam Bam.”
This article will use three different recordings of the jazz standard “On the Sunny Side of the Street” to show how a jazz musician can approach learning the melody to a tune.
A jazz melody is often nebulous. I have heard many people say “just listen, you can learn the melody from the recordings.” However, it is often a difficult thing to learn the melody from the recording, especially if an instrumentalist plays the melody. Jazz musicians sometimes embellish the melody so much that it’s hard to tell what the real melody is! This is especially true on the bridge to many tunes, most of all on the last two bars of the bridge. The last two bars of the bridge on many standards are so commonly improvised that it’s almost impossible to learn the real melody even by consulting 5 or 6 different instrumental recordings!
With the nebulous nature of the melody on jazz recordings (the alternative is playing the melody straight, and no one wants to hear all jazz musicians regurgitate the same melodies exactly the same way all the time. This is an improvisatory art form, after all), it’s still important to make sure you know the real melody.” It is easy to play the first couple bars of the melody and then fake the rest of it as an instrumentalist. Don’t let this be you! Here are some tips to avoid this common pitfall. In order to learn and perform melodies well, I’ve included four tips:
#1 Consult multiple sources.
If you only consult one recording, you’ll probably end up sounding like that recording. It’s better to take your ideas from multiple sources rather than plagiarize from one musician! Check out five, six, even ten or twelve recordings if you can! I typically include two youtube videos of the masters playing a tune on each one of my posts in the Real Book sections on my website. This gives you a running start!
#2 Learn the original melody
You may have to go to a non-jazz source, such as an old Broadway-tune piece of sheet music, or a non-jazz recording. Here’s nice recording by Judy Garland. She sings On the Sunny Side of the Street about as straight as it can be sung! This shouldn’t be considered jazz (there’s no improv, and it’s kind of square…), but it’s a nice way to learn the melody of the tune.
Jazz musicians tend to embellish the melody a lot; sometimes they are not the best source for learning the actual melody! Frank Sinatra can be a good source to learn melodies often, since he basically sings the melody straight. Whether or not he is a “jazz musician” is beside the point; he sings the melody pretty “accurately” if you are looking to learn a melody in it’s pure state.
Sometimes consulting a number of different recordings only adds to the confusion, so sometimes looking at some paper is helpful.
When learning a melody, you may want to consult a fakebook, like one of the volumes of the Real Book. Sometimes a fakebook can be a reliable way to learn the real melody; however, don’t just read the melody out of a fakebook at your gigs! Sometimes fakebooks contain mistakes even on the melody, let alone the chords. Furthermore, if you play the melody straight with no embellishments on a jazz standard, you may end up sounding pretty square. ALWAYS CHECK THE FAKEBOOK MELODY AGAINST RECORDINGS. If other musicians embellish, you should embellish, (see tip #3).
#3 After you know the melody, embellish.
Listen to Ella singing the same song. She changes the melody often, but still stays true to it (she’s another good source for learning melodies, but she usually embellishes more than like a Frank Sinatra. Of course, she’s a straight-up jazz musician, whereas Frank’s genre is up for debate). The melody is not so sacred that you can’t embellish.
Ella and Judy are night and day. Ella has such a fresh take on the melody, with lots of fantastic embellishments! Note the quote from the tune “Exactly Like You” substituting for the real melody a couple of times. Also, the characterstic improvisation over the last two bars of the bridge is CERTAINLY present in Ella’s version. However, she doesn’t stray TOO far from the melody. You will seldom hear a good jazz musician play the melody completely straight on a recording; but you need to LEARN THE ACTUALLY melody first before you can change it! It’s the same as learning to “play outside” the chord changes. You probably won’t sound very good at “playing outside” before you learn to play well over the actual changes. Learn the real melody first (not someone else’s embellishment, but the real melody). Then embellish.
#4 Learn the lyrics
If you’re a vocalist, this is a no-brainer, but it’s amazing how many instrumentalists do not take the time to learn the lyrics to standards. It’s very important to know them in order to preserve the integrity of the melody. Obviously, it’s more important to learn the melody on a standard from a Broadway musical than on a bebop head, which has lyrics written after the fact by a singer trying to sound like a horn player (if there are lyrics at all).
Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Stitt embellish the melody quite a bit in this version of the song (from the Dizzy album “Sunny Side Up” with both Sonny Rollins and Sonny Stitt. Talk about a great lineup of musicians! Make sure to check out the album if you haven’t heard it) even the first time through the head. The bridge isn’t really even close, although you can be sure they knew the real bridge and the real lyrics first, however!
Judy Garland’s recording represents learning the real melody. Ella represents embellishing the melody. Dizzy takes it to a whole different level, embellishing the melody to the point of changing it and even completely changing the lyrics! Make sure to check out his singing in the middle of the recording. Note that Dizzy KNOWS the lyrics, even as an instrumentalist!
Feel free to leave some comments. We all learn better when there is some dialogue!
Do you remember coloring by number when you were a kid? Well, jazz musicians should have, in their arsenal of tricks, the ability to play chords by number. This allows them to transpose chords and tunes into different keys. This process is known as transposition.
What is the big deal about transposition? Why should I take the time to learn to play a song in more than one key? Isn’t it enough trouble to learn to play a tune in one key?
There are many instances when transposition is a very useful skill. You may need to play a jazz standard in a different key other than the original key for a number of reasons. There are several scenarios when trasponsing is a necessary trick for your trick bag. Transposing is important when you play a tune in a non-standard key when you work with a vocalist, when the tune is commonly played in more than one key, when the other musicians are testing your ability by playing the tune in an unusual key, and in various other scenarios.
Transposing is not nearly as difficult when you think of the tune in terms of numbers rather than chords. We can refer to this process of transposing a tune as “Chords by Number.” When I see a chord progression that I need to transpose on the fly to another key, I first think of the changes in terms of their numbers, rather than the individual chords. In order to make this “Chords by Number” idea come alive, here’s a simple blues in C:
C F C C
F F C C
G F C C
If you make a chord out of every note of the C Major scale (C,D,E,F,G,A,B,C) you get these chords:
C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, Bdim, C
If we assign a number to each chord (upper case for major, lower case for minor or diminished) we get:
C Dm Em F G Am Bdim C
I ii iii IV V vi viidim I
The three chords of this particular simple blues are C, F, and G. This is a I, IV, V progression, which is the most common progression in blues, rock, and pop, although a ii-V-I progression is more common in jazz. The blues in Figure 1 now becomes:
I IV I I
IV IV I I
V IV I I
Guess what? If we transpose this piece to another key center, the NUMBERS NEVER CHANGE! For example, in the key of Bb we have these chords:
Bb Cm Dm Eb F Gm Adim Bb
I ii iii IV V vi viidim I
Knowing this, if we transpose this blues progression to Bb, then we turn Figure 1 into:
Figure 4 again
I IV I I
IV IV I I
V IV I I
and then into:
Bb Eb Bb Bb
Eb Eb Bb Bb
F Eb Bb Bb
We just transposed the C Blues into Bb Blues!
While the chords changed, the numbers never changed. Another way to say it is that the relationships between different notes remained the same even though the starting note changed. It is MUCH easier to transpose when you think of numbers. When you internalize your scales and chords, it becomes very easy to think of numbers, and then you can begin to transpose songs without even thinking about it!
When learning jazz standards, it is very helpful to learn the tunes in terms of their numbers, and not just their individual chords. The most common progression in jazz is the ii-V-I. In the key of C that is Dm, G, C, as from Figure 3. When you start to recognize the ii-V-I and other patterns in the tunes you learn, your playing will improve, and the key will no longer matter!
Start by talking jazz standards from the Real Book or other sources and start writing them out in terms of numbers instead of chords. You can check your work against one of the Roman Numeral changes (.pdf) files on this site! Learnjazzstandards.com offers free access to “Chords by Numbers” over almost every standard we have on the site!
You can also work on your transposing by moving licks, melodies, and chord changes into different keys, This whole process becomes lightning fast eventually. You’ll eventually be able to play any song in any key. Keep practicing!