Back in my college years, I used to spend countless hours transcribing drum solos, trading solos and comping phrases from all the jazz master drummers such as Elvin Jones (one of my favorites to transcribe), Tony Williams, Philly Jo Jones, Bill Stewart, among others. I was listening to those records very carefully and diligently, trying to copy note by note verbatim.
I managed to learn several solos and comping phrases. I felt that I was accomplishing something. Spending all that time listening to music at that level of detail and playing the phrases is surely going to improve your playing. Your ears will get fine-tuned, and your overall technique will see the benefits of repetition. However, when the gig would come along, not much of my effort was translating into my playing. It was a very frustrating.
I asked myself, “why am I stuck?” Even though my playing was more relaxed and my technique was getting better, my vocabulary felt back in the dark ages. Finding ways to widen and improve my jazz vocabulary for soloing and comping became my obsession. I started asking everyone if they were facing or had faced the same problem, or was it just me? And what were they doing to overcome it?
After much research, I came to the conclusion that my approach to transcriptions might be the problem.
I was learning long solos and phrases. I was spending lots of time memorizing them and trying to play them as a whole. This is great to do, don’t get me wrong. But I realized that to learn new vocabulary my approach had to change. Instead of trying to play long phrases, I needed to narrow my focus to shorter phrases.
Why? Playing a gig is already a difficult task. You have to be listening to the rest of the band, Keep yourself in place in the form and in time and many more things. So if you add recalling note for note transcribed extended solos, it is just too much information to process on the bandstand. You most likely are going to fail when attempting to reproduce those learned solos. Also, those phrases did not come out naturally. You’re forcing yourself to play something which is not you. And that my friend, makes it even more challenging.
That moment was a game changer for me. I changed my approach to being more focused on learning language and less on just learning the solo.
The first thing I changed was the size of the material I targeted, now I was focusing more on small portions, like one bar phrases, or even two beats phrases.
The second thing was to find a way to make that new piece of language my own. Create a phrase inspired by a master drummer’s original idea, rather than play the phrase verbatim.
When we are reading a chapter in a book, we read the entire thing to get a sense of what the author is trying to convey. However, we never memorize the whole thing word for word. That would be a tough task. Instead, we highlight the phrases, sentences or concepts which resonate with us, or which are relevant to answer whatever we are looking for.
Sometimes, we find something that sticks with us, and we might use it as a quote. However, we don’t just repeat the same words we learned from that book; we digest the info and make it our own. We paraphrase the information, so it sounds more like our opinion about the issue.
The same happens with music. I want to listen and play the entire solo to get an idea about the player I’m studying, but why would I want to play a long solo note for note? Maybe there is a cool phrase, and I decide to copy it exactly and use it as a “quote.” But besides that, what I want is to get is the main idea.
So, what do I mean by paraphrasing music phrases? As we should know by now, music is a language. In the English language, one idea can be expressed in many different ways, just by using synonymous, or just by changing the structure or order of the sentence or phrase. The same can be done in music; one idea can be played in different ways by changing the orchestration, the rate, dynamic, metric, etc.
For the purpose of this article, I’m going to share with you one of the first 4 bar solos I transcribed by Philly Jo Jones. These four bars are from Ernie Henry’s Album entitled The Last Session; the tune is All The Things You Are. The transcription is the second 4’s from the trading 4’s section at the end of the tune. It is a great solo and quite simple to start out on if you desire to get deeper into Philly Jo Jones’ world.
The fragment starts at minute 5:50 Approximately.
As you can see, it is quite a simple phrase, ideal for medium or medium up tempos because of the amount of 16th notes. Now, find the recording, which is available on Spotify and iTunes, listen to it carefully, and then play along with it. You may need to start at a slower tempo, which is fine. Take your time and then bring it up to speed. Play the phrase, get an idea of what Philly is trying to convey.
So, once the phrase has been understood, we are going to deconstruct it. We want to get all the juice out of it. We are going to make our own version of it or several versions, depending on how many ideas we can take out of just these four bars.
First, we’re going to break the solo into single bars or complete phrases. We want to identify a motif we can develop further. The motif can be 2 beats long, 3 beats, 5 beats, etc. We want to find complete statements, meaning that if they are played by themselves, they feel like a complete phrase.
Bar 1As is, this would work fantastic as a motif to develop. However, I see more in there. What if we split the bar in half? We’ll get two (two-beats) phrases, which allow us to further developing ideas.
From only one bar we already have two simple motifs that we can develop and make our own phrases.
Let’s keep going. On bar two, there is not much to see. It is basically our motif 2 repeated twice. The only variation is that beats 1 and 2 and played on the floor tom. So, we are already taking care of those phrases.
Now, let’s take a look at bars 3 and 4. They are the same. It is one two-beat phrase repeated.
After we had broken the solo into small portions, we ended up with three complete motifs. Now we want to memorize these, internalize these as they are. Once we are comfortable with these, we are going to start building on top of them. We are going to change different elements to make these motifs our own.
So, go and practice these. Study them, and in Part 2 we will discuss several ideas to further develop and “paraphrase” these motifs.