LJS 88: Using the LIST Method to Learn Jazz Solos by Ear

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Welcome to episode 88 of the LJS Podcast where today we are talking all about a great 4 step process for learning jazz solos by ear. This is a practice that has a ton of benefits for your jazz musicianship and every aspiring jazz player should be doing this. Learn the LIST method and how it can help. Listen in!

Listen to episode 88

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In last week’s episode with trumpeter Chris Davis, Chris mentioned an important practice that he did in his more formidable years: transcribing solos. Now, when he said transcribing, he didn’t necessarily mean writing it down (although you can). This term is sometimes used among jazz musicians as a way to just say “learn a jazz solo by ear.”

Learning jazz solos by ear is a powerful practice that has a multitude of benefits such as:

  • Helps you learn jazz language.
  • Helps you get inside the style and mind of whatever jazz artists you are copying.
  • Can help you learn how to improvise over a particular jazz standard or song form.

These are some great results you can get by doing this, but ultimately the goal is to discover and internalize.

So in today’s episode I talk about my LIST process for learning jazz solos by ear which is:

Listen

Internalize

Sing

Transfer

The LIST method is a great process for not only executing the learning element but actually getting results for all of your time and effort. Learning entire solos can be taxing and a lot of work, but if you do it right, the effort will be far worth the benefits.

To demonstrate, I use the first two A sections of a Dexter Gordon solo over a rhythm changes tune called “Apple Jump.” I also go in depth on each step of the LIST method and how to execute them properly.

Lastly, I give you a special challenge to start learning your own jazz solo by ear. Are you up for it?

Read the Transcript

That’s right. What’s up everybody? My name is Brent. I am the jazz musician behind the website, learnjazzstandards.com, which is a blog and a podcast, all geared towards helping you become a better jazz musician. Welcome to another episode of the LJS Podcast, episode 88, and I’m glad that you’re here, whether you’re a regular listener or whether it’s your first time ever listening. I just appreciate you being here.Now, you know, last week we had a special guest on the show. It was Chris Davis, trumpeter Chris Davis, and he gave us a great episode. He gave us a lot of great lessons about the development of his musicianship. One of the things that he talked about in that episode, in his development, one important thing that he did for his jazz playing was learning jazz solos by ear.

Now, I love to talk about this, because, honestly, this is one of my favorite practices to do. When I was really putting a lot of hours in the practice room, in the more formative days of my development, I was learning a lot of jazz solos, and so I certainly believe in this practice. It’s funny because Chris, last week, he was talking about this. He used the term transcribing, and I think it’s funny because a lot of the jazz musicians I know, they refer to this practice of learning jazz solos by ear as transcribing, but they rarely mean actually writing it down.

While writing down a solo can be a great practice, in and of itself, this is really not what I’m talking about today. I’m talking about just learning solos by ear. By the way, if you’ve ever heard anybody say, “Oh, yeah, transcribe solos,” they probably … It’s weird that “transcribe” is the word is … you write it down, right? But oftentimes, that’s not what jazz musicians are doing. I just thought I’d clear that up right away. Now, transcribing solos, as I will talk about in a second, all around, will help you become a better jazz musician. A little added bonus: It just naturally trains your ears, as well, which, as you know, I preach is an important part of becoming a better jazz improviser.

So, today, I’m going to be talking about a very particular system for how to learn jazz solos by ear. I will be talking about the importance, but this system is called LIST, and that’s an acronym for you today: L-I-S-T, LIST. This is a great four-step process for helping you walk through effectively learning jazz solos. Okay, so let’s jump into today’s lesson.

(music)

Brent: All right, now, as always, if you’re more of a visual learner and you like to read stuff, you can find the show notes on our website. Today’s show notes you can find at learnjazzstandards.com/episode88, so you can find it there as well as a transcription of this entire show. Transcription, hey, that’s right on theme today, except for this time that actually means the written down version of it. So, now, whenever I talk about stuff like this, I always like to start with the benefits of doing any certain kind of practice because learning an entire solo, and I’m talking about an entire solo — not a lick or anything like that — does have a lot of benefits. I really do believe that it’s a powerful practice. I do believe, actually, that everyone should do it at least once. So, why would you do it? What’s the reason? What’s the benefit? Why should you invest the time and effort?

Let me tell you, I have three reasons why you should. Now, what are the benefits? Number one, you’re gonna be learning jazz language, okay? You’re gonna be learning jazz language — a lot of jazz language. You know, what are jazz standards made up of? They’re made up of chord progressions, and what do we improvise over in jazz? We improvise over chord progressions. So, we need to learn how to improvise over these chord progressions, and we want to understand the jazz language, the style of playing, the style of improvising in jazz. So, you’re gonna learn jazz language by learning these solos. Number two is you’re going to get inside whatever artist’s solo you are learning, okay? You’re gonna get inside of their playing, the way they phrase things, the kind of isms that they use, the things that they like to go back to.

How do they approach 2-5-1 chord progressions? What are some ways that they approach dominant seventh chords? I mean, these are all questions that can be answered, so whether you’re learning a solo by Sonny Rollins, or by Wynton Kelly, or by Paul Chambers, or Max Roach — any of these musicians — whatever instrument you play, you can kind of learn their style, the way they approach things. By doing so, you can grab onto these things for yourself, and it could be incredibly enlightening to go through an entire solo and just understand how not only their style, but how they actually developed a solo, right? How do they start the solo? How do they reach a climax? How do they even end that solo? So, all these things can be learned; you can really get inside of an artist’s playing rather than just learning a lick by them.

Learning an entire solo, big difference, right? You’re learning much more of their process, trying to get inside of their brain, their head. Number three, the last reason, the last benefit I want to give for you is it gives you the opportunity to learn ideas or learn how to solo over a particular song or song form. For example, in our course, our jazz practicing course — 30 Days to Better Jazz Playing — learning solos by ear is actually a huge part of the course. It’s something that we really do a lot of in the course. Learnjazzstandards.com/30days, by the way, if you’re interested. But one of the solos in there that I suggest — it’s not required, but I suggest it — is Miles Davis’s solo on “Freddie Freeloader”.

Now, the reason I suggest that one is because it’s roughly a solo over top of a blues, okay? A blues … Blues is really important. It’s an important song form in jazz to work on, so you want to know that stuff forwards and backwards. So, the enlightening thing is you can see how Miles Davis took a solo over top of a blues form, and it kind of … If you’ve ever wondered, “Well, how do I take a solo over a blues?” That can start to unravel that for you, or maybe it could be a rhythm changes tune. How does Charlie Parker solo over top of a rhythm changes tune? How do I solo over chord changes, the 1-6-2-5, going that quickly? How do I solo over that B section, which has cycling dominant seventh chords? So, you can start to really understand this stuff by going through an entire solo, or also specific jazz standards.

How do I play over “Have You Met Miss Jones?”, or “Just Friends”, or “Autumn Leaves”, or “All the Things You Are” — any of these songs? You can find a solo from an artist and kind of get inside of that song and how to improvise and navigate those chord changes better, okay? So, really quickly through the benefits, you’re learning jazz language, you’re getting inside that artist’s playing that you’re learning, and you’re learning how to play over particular songs or song forms. Okay, now, quickly … I’m gonna do a little bit of demonstrating, by the way, in a second here through this process that I talked about — the LIST process — but a little bit more of explanation here. I want to talk a little bit about learning solos by sheet music versus by ear because I get a lot of emails about this, and I get a lot of pushback, because, on Learn Jazz Standards, we preach this a lot … is learning solos, learning jazz standards, by ear rather than sheet music.

It’s not wrong to learn solos by sheet music, but you’re missing out on a huge part of it, which is the ear training. The ear training, right? The ear training being so important for improvising. You’re missing out on that side of it, and you’re also missing out on half of the internalization process, being able to really drill that song into your head, really being able to get that inside of your playing, which is ultimately what we want to do. We want to be internalizing this language, not so that we can play it verbatim, but so that we are able to reproduce these things. It’s like learning a language. You have to learn the words. You have to learn the vocabulary. You have to learn how to say some sentences, and you might be memorizing some sentences at first, but eventually you’re not gonna be quoting sentences by memory, it’s just gonna be coming out naturally. So, that’s the benefit of learning solos by ear rather than by sheet music, like buying a copy of the “Omnibook” or something like that.

Now, I talked about the benefits of learning jazz solos by ear and that practice, but what are the goals? Because the goals are actually a little different from the benefits. The benefits are all great stuff, but, at the end of the day, why are you going to sit down and learn an entire solo? That’s an important thing to talk about. So, the goals … I have two main goals for this, two main goals that I get out of solos when I’m learning them. The first goal is discovery, okay? Discovery — my goal is to discover something new about jazz language, discover something new about playing over a chord change, or playing over a song, right? How do we learn something new? We have to just jump into a situation. We have to apply it to real life, and so learning solos does that for us. So, the first goal is to discover something. It’s discovery. Now, the second goal is internalization — just touched on that very briefly.

The second goal is internalization, which means that I am learning this language in order to adopt it into my vocabulary, in order to adopt these sounds into my dialect, per se, as if we were speaking. Now, here’s what is not a goal, okay? Listen to this really quick. This is really important. Along these lines, what is not a goal is to play the solo verbatim. Let me say it one more time. You’re not playing the solo verbatim. The goal is not to learn as many jazz solos as possible so that you can just be quoting other people’s solos all day long — no. That is actually not the end goal, okay? That is not the end goal, but it is internalization to be able to grab some of these ideas. When I’m soloing, I’m never quoting solos. I’m not even trying to. I’ve just learned jazz language, and part of that has been learning solos.
So, by internalizing this stuff, the more likely elements or essences of this stuff is gonna come out in your playing. So, discovery, internalization, not playing them verbatim. Okay, now, one more thing before we go over the LIST process here — picking a solo. How do you pick a solo? I get this question all the time. Now, I don’t really think there’s any rules. It doesn’t have to be of your instrument. In fact, most of the jazz solos that I’ve learned in my studies are actually not of my primary instrument, which is guitar. I’ve learned saxophone solos. I’ve learned piano solos. I’ve even learned parts of bass solos, and, man, I’ve learned probably almost every instrument. I’ve learned something from that, at least the main instruments that are usually being played in jazz. I’ve learned those solos. So, it doesn’t matter what it is. The only rule I really have is make sure it’s an accessible solo to you. Make sure that you can actually accomplish it.

A lot of times, I find that students will just jump into a solo that they’re like, “Oh, that is so cool. I can’t believe … Wow, Sonny Stitt played this crazy thing, and that was so cool and so awesome. I want to learn it, that sixteenth note line that just was at blazing fast tempo.” Awesome. I’m glad you’re excited about that, but if you really don’t have the skill, or the technical ability, or perhaps you haven’t really been transcribing or learning solos for very long and picking that up by ear is gonna be really tough, then don’t do it. Find a solo that you think is doable for you, not something that’s gonna drive you nuts, drive you crazy. It’s not gonna be worthwhile in the end if you’re playing some weird, crumbled up line that just happened to magically come out of John Coltrane or something, but if you can’t really grab something from that then why would you learn it, right? So, you want to make sure that it’s accessible to you, something that you can reach.

That’s why, in the 30 Days course, I always talk about “Freddie Freeloader”, the Miles Davis “Freddie Freeloader” solo, because I just find that one so accessible to everybody, yet completely full of really awesome melodic information that everybody can grab something from, so don’t let your ego get in the way. Pick something that works for you, and also, if I were to add a second rule, I would say pick something that you actually like, that you really enjoy because I find that learning solos that you actually love in the first place, you’re gonna learn it so much better, you’re gonna internalize it so much better, and you’re gonna be far more motivated and more likely to stick it out to the very end, right? So, pick something that you like as well.

All right, now, I want to jump into the main event for today, which is talking about how to actually learn a jazz solo by ear and the process that I go through. For this, I’m gonna use an acronym for you that’s just to help you remember this, just to help you mentally keep tabs on this. It’s called LIST, L-I-S-T. So, I’m gonna go through each one of these letters in this acronym, LIST. The first one is “L”, right? It’s listen. Listen, okay? Very simple, right? You’re just listening to the solo, but it’s important to note that you are not touching your instrument yet. You’re simply listening to this solo. Now, again, you probably are picking a solo that you already like, which means you have listened to it, but what I’m talking about here is intentional listening, meaning there are no distractions around you.

You are zeroing into this solo and what it sounds like, so you are listening to the solo intently. Now, I’m going to use a little example here. I’m going to demonstrate the LIST process with this Dexter Gordon solo. It’s over a rhythm changes tune called “Apple Jump”. It’s an F Rhythm Changes. It’s really cool. I’m just gonna the first two A sections just to be realistic here. I mean, I could do a whole solo or something, but it would take us all forever, so we’re not gonna do that. I’m just gonna do the first two A sections. So, I’m just going to play for you the first two A sections of Dexter Gordon’s solo here, and then we’re gonna come back to the next step here. Listen in.

(music)

Okay, this is just a really quick, short example. In reality, the listening side would be you’re listening to the entire solo, or however many choruses that you want to learn of the solo. In this particular case, this solo’s actually insanely long, so sometimes it’s not necessary to learn the whole solo, but to … more than that, of course, is what I’m trying to say. You want to internalize the whole thing at once, okay? That’s my opinion. So, we’re just gonna be working with this. Now, the next step … We did “listen”, and the next step goes along right with listening and that is “I”, which is internalize. Internalize. So, what I mean by internalize is we are going to be listening … Like, Chris Davis, for example, in last episode talked about how he would be listening to the solo hundreds of times, like hundreds of times.

I’ll give you a story. The solo that I obsessed over most when I was studying was John Coltrane’s solo on “My Shining Hour”. I just loved that solo. It’s on “Coltrane Jazz”, I believe. I just loved that solo, and so I wanted to really get inside of it. So, what I would do is I would walk everywhere with that solo. I would have it in my ears at all times — if I was on the train, if I was walking around on the street. If I was at home, I would just be listening to it all the time. I was trying to really get it in my ear, really get to know that solo so well, and that’s the internalization side. A lot of people want to skip this. They don’t want to take the time to do this. They want to go just straight to getting it on their instrument, but really if you truly want to do this right, if you want to get serious about learning a solo, I highly suggest you don’t skip this internalization process of really getting it inside your head.

This has nothing to do with touching your instrument, okay? Nothing to do with it — just simply repetition so that you know it, know it really, really, really well. It’s gonna set you up for success. Now, this goes right into the next step, okay? The nest step, which is “S”, which is sing. So, we got “L”, “I”, “S”. “S” is sing. Now, singing furthers this process of internalization. I’ve talked about … If you were joining us for our ear training month last month, I talked all about ear training and how important that is, and one of the things they said is singing and how important singing is, because … you’ve probably hear before, if you can sing it, you can play it. Well, there’s actually a lot of truth in that.

It’s not that you can just play it automatically if you can sing it, but what it means is it proves that you’ve truly internalized it. It proves that you actually know it. So, the next step is singing. You want to sing along with the solo, or, in this case, I’m just gonna do the first two A sections of this Dexter Gordon solo, and make sure that I’ve got it, right? I’ve got it in my ear because I can sing it. So, again, I would have listened to this solo a lot more times and all this stuff, but I’m just gonna go … I know this solo, so I’m gonna go ahead and sing along with just this part so you can hear what I’m talking about.

(music)

All right, does that make sense? So, it’s important to note that you don’t have to be a great singer to be able to do this. If you’re not hitting the pitches perfectly, that’s okay. In fact, a lot of this is being able to match the rhythms with each other, right? Being able to rhythmically match what the instrumentalist is doing, so don’t be intimidated by that. You can also whistle; you can also hum. The whole idea is to produce the sound yourself in some way. Does that make sense? So, I’m singing along with this solo, and, again, that’s just a snippet of a solo. We want to do a lot more than that. Again, the idea is … we’re not doing licks or phrases, we’re doing large chunks of musical information, so be able to sing along with that.

That’s … Oh, man. That’s just gonna set you so much for success for this next step, which is “T” — the last letter in the acronym. “T”, transfer. Transfer this to your instrument. This is the last step.
Now, of course, if you’re a vocalist, if you’re a singer, well your step is one short, right, because essentially singing is what your instrument is. Your voice is your instrument, so you don’t necessarily have to go to this step, but of course practicing this all the time is furthering the internalization process, which I’ll talk in a second about. But now, at this point, you’ve listened to this so many times. You’ve sang it, which proves that you really know it. Now, you’re really just trying to connect your ear to your instrument. Again, I talked about this during our ear training month, about that process and how important that is. Now, we’re trying to make that relationship, secure that relationship so that we can … what we know in our head, what we know in our ear, can come out on our instrument and come out in muscle memory as well.

So, that’s the next step. So, I’m gonna go ahead; I’m gonna play with my guitar along to this solo now. I’ve gone through the work of doing this. Now, it’s important to note that you might want to do it in small chunks. You don’t have to do it all the way through. It’s gonna be so much easier that you’ve sung it already, but you want to do it in the small chunks. You know, [sings line]. That’s a pretty easy line, so that might not be so hard for you to do, but then there’s that next part in the next A section that goes [sings line]. You might want to break that up into two sections, right? Like, [sings line]. Okay, you learn just that part, and then [sings line]. You learn just that part. You can break it up into small chunks learning it on your instrument and figuring out where those notes lie. Okay, does that make sense? Okay, I’m gonna demonstrate this for you. I’m gonna go ahead and play along on my guitar with the solo.

(music)

Okay, so there it is. I’m playing that solo back on my instrument, even if I had to learn it in bits and pieces at times. Now, I hope you paid attention, that I was doing my best to try to match Dexter Gordon’s phrasing, the way he was playing it even though I’m not a saxophone player — I’m a guitar player. They are very different instruments. I was doing my best as a guitarist to get inside of how he was phrasing and how he was playing, how long he was holding out notes. I’m sure I could get even closer if I spent a little more time working on this, and I would, and you will, if you go through this four step process for sure. Now, something that I do want to mention here is that in the singing step, the last step, you’re really approximating the notes, right?

You don’t know exactly what the notes are. Now, in this step, it’s where you’re not approximating anymore, you’re getting the accurate, exact notes. For vocalists listening, this could be that process too with you going in on the piano or whatever other instrument that could be a secondary instrument and making sure that you’re singing each note pitch for pitch. Okay, so, for example, in this particular phrase that I played:

(music)

I had to pay attention to the difference between this:
(music)

Right, now, I wouldn’t have really necessarily heard that perfectly unless I had gone through the process of transferring it on my instrument, getting those exact notes in there. So, that’s an important part of this, is making sure you have the exact notes, and so, again, the whole LIST step process builds on it. It goes “listen”, you’re just simply listening, and then you’re internalizing, you’re really listening to that a lot, and then you’re singing it, ensuring that you have it internalized, and then when you’re transferring it to your instrument, you’re going to that last step of connecting that together and making sure that you have the exact, accurate notes on your instrument, okay? That’s the process. By going through this, man, it’s gonna really, really improve your playing. It’s an incredible study.

Again, I suggest everybody do this at least, at least once. Now, if I were to add one extra step onto this, which would not make a really sexy acronym, so that’s why I haven’t put it on there, but if I were to add that fifth step it would be to review, okay? To review. To go over this over and over again, right, because that’s the next step in the internalization process is to continually be coming back to this, and not coming back to it forever. I mean, you’re gonna eventually go to another solo. You’re gonna move on from all of this. You don’t need to worry about remembering that solo for the rest of your life, okay? Again, that’s not the goal, is to play it verbatim. It’s to internalize, it’s to have gotten that language really sunk in.

So, here’s your challenge for this week. I like to … oftentimes, when I do these lesson episodes, to call you to action, right, because all of this … I mean, you can listen to as many podcasts episodes, you could take as many lessons from private teachers or go to master classes, but if you don’t take action nothing’s gonna change, right? Nothing’s gonna improve in your playing unless you take action. So, I want to call you to action today. I want to say that if you’ve never done this before, if you’ve never learned a solo before, I want you to make that a top priority for this month, is to start working on a solo. Start working on a solo that you like, that’s accessible to you, that you think you can accomplish in a reasonable amount of time, and make that a part of your practice, if not a primary part of your practice sessions.

Now, if you’ve learned solos before, and maybe you’re like me, and this happens to me all the time, is I haven’t done certain things like this in a while. I’m kind of just like, “Ah, been there, done that,” and I kind of need to revisit it, right? Then take that challenge with me and work on another one today, okay? Work on … ’cause the more of this stuff you do, it’s really gonna help you out, the better you’re going to get at learning jazz language. So, I hope that you’ve gotten a lot out of today’s episode and that you will take this action, that you will take action and learn a solo. The benefits are going to be absolutely huge.

All right, that’s all for today’s episode. I want to thank you for listening. I want to thank you for joining in; it’s always a pleasure to have you. Remember, you can find the show notes today at learnjazzstandards.com/episode88. Now, I did talk a little bit about our 30 Days to Better Jazz Playing course during this episode, so just a little shameless self-promotion here. This is a really great course. We have hundreds of students in it, and … Oh, man, it’s really one of my favorite things that we have going on at Learn Jazz Standards — really our courses are in general. But this is a great … If you’re serious about practicing and becoming a better jazz musician, this course is really for you. So, you can find this course at learnjazzstandards.com/30days, and learn more about that there to dive into an intensive of practicing, which, indeed, does have a lot of learning solos in it.

One last thing — I always ask this at the end of every single episode — if you got value from today’s show, go to iTunes or your favorite podcast listening service, and leave us a rating and a review that helps other people find the show. Greatly appreciate it.

All right, we have a special guest on the show next week. It’s drummer, Dorota Piotrowska. Oh, man, you are going to love her. She is so awesome. Actually, she was my former roommate, one of my former roommates before, but an insane musician, so I’m excited to have her on the show next week. That’s gonna be episode 89. I’ll see you back then.

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Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for learnjazzstandards.com which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publications “500 Jazz Licks” and “Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar.” To learn more, visit www.brentvaartstra.com.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Mr Brent can you indruduce some way to hear the accurate rhytm?? Cuz for me transcribing the notes aren't big prob, but the rhythm is the problem. I aprriciate.

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