Listening to records (and by that I mean albums) can have many benefits for all jazz musicians. We can get a lot of information just by listening to them. Records are also the best teacher anyone can ask for if you want to learn jazz. They offer an excellent opportunity to play side by side with the giants of this music.
As a drummer and teacher, I’ve found a lot of students using play-along tracks to practice instead of records. Even though I have nothing against play-along tracks (they can be utilized as a tool for different purposes), I feel they should never be a substitute for real records.
Throughout the years, I have found many benefits of practicing along to records, and I’ve seen my students and my own playing grow because of it.
Many of the greatest musicians in the world when asked about how they learned to play their instrument, all say that they used to play along with records for incredible amounts of time every day during their formative years.
So, in this article, I’m going to talk about some of the benefits I’ve discovered and some tips you can use on a daily basis to practice along to records. This is something all musicians playing any instrument should be doing.
1. Tempo, Feel, Vibe and Interaction
These things are for me the most vital information you can get out of records. They cannot be taught through books or lessons. You have to experience these for yourself. Records give you a unique chance to play along with the masters and check to see how well you are doing on these elements.
What is better than having Philly Joe Jones, Paul Chambers, John Coltrane, or Wynton Kelley, for instance, telling you right in your ears: Here is the tempo, here is the groove, and here is how we play together. You cannot have a better coach than that.
When I play along to records these are the first things I consider:
I’m a drummer, so I focus on my side of things, but you can focus on yours. I just play my ride cymbal for a while a couple of times through the tune, paying attention to tempo, swing feel, and vibe. But here are some questions we all should be asking.
- What’s the tempo like? Does it feels laid back or are they pushing more on top of the beat?
- What is the rhythm section playing? How are they interacting and supporting the soloist?
- What’s the tunes vibe in general? What’s the intensity or mood? Is it a frenetic or chill vibe?
If you play a comping instrument like me, try comping along and match what your instrument is playing. If you are a horn player or melodic instrument, play along with the melody, or add counterpoint.
Once you feel locked in with the rhythm section, you can start shifting your attention to the soloists and interact with them. Respond to them in a call and response fashion, or try to catch their phrases, try to match their intensity and the direction the soloist is trying to take the music. Solo along!
2. Learning Repertoire
Another great benefit of using records for daily practice is expanding your jazz standards repertoire. If you are playing along to classic records, most of them will have standard repertoire in them, which is important to learn and memorize if you want to be an active jazz musician.
Choose records with a lot of standards on them. You’re killing two birds with one stone. While you’re working on your tempo and feel you’re also learning new tunes, and/or different versions of tunes you already know, with different arrangements like intros or endings.
Another thing I’ve done is choose records with vocalists and incorporate them into my daily routine. Most of the records with vocalists have excellent arrangements which are important to familiarize yourself with. Also, by working on them repeatedly, I get to learn the lyrics of the tune, which is a great way to truly memorize them.
3. Transcribing Without Even Realizing It
Another advantage of playing along to records is that you are listening to great language. Many times while I play along with records I stop and rewind just to hear that great phrase that caught my attention. Just like that without even thinking about it, I am transcribing.
At some point, I realized that I had a bunch of phrases and licks I took out of records and decided to write them down in a journal I keep about my practice. But I never sat down and thought of actually transcribing those phrases. I learned them because I happened to come across them by playing along with the records. By repeating them enough times, they became part of my lick repertoire.
Some of my students complain every time I ask them to transcribe something. They say it’s difficult and they might not be able to do it.
But at the same time, they are playing things from records and learning fills and songs note for note without even realizing they are transcribing. When I bring that point up, they smile and realize that they have actually been transcribing for a long time without even realizing it.
Many times when we talk about transcribing we feel that we are going to be sitting down with a pencil and a notebook for hours trying to get a phrase down on paper. But it doesn’t have to be like that. It should be more about listening first.
Finally, by listening and playing along with records in this way, you are ultimately training your ear for real-life performance.
All the points we have discussed above play a significant role in the performing process. So go ahead and take the dust away from those records and play along with them. It is a habit you want to develop.
Here I’m going to attach a list of some records I love to play along with. They all have great playing, repertoire, and some of them also have lyrics. Check them out.
- Charlie Parker – Complete Savoy and Dial Master Takes
- Charlie Parker – The Best Of Charlie Parker The Millenium Collection
- Miles Davis Quintet – Relaxin’ With Miles Davis Quintet
- Miles Davis Quintet – Workin’ With Miles Davis Quintet
- Miles Davis All Stars – Walkin’
- John Coltrane – Coltrane Plays The Blues
- John Coltrane – Giant Steps
- John Coltrane – Lush Life
- John Coltrane – Blue Train
- John Coltrane – Coltrane’s Sound
- John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman – John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman
- Thelonious Monk Quartet – Misterioso
- Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Stitt & Sonny Rollins – Sonny Side Up
- Carmen McRae – Here To Stay (The Original Decca Recordings)
- Billy Holiday – The Lady Sings