If you’re like me, then there always seems to be a gap between the time you spend transcribing and your growth as an improviser. No matter how many hours you spend memorizing solos from the greats, you struggle to find that magical moment where the work translates into new vocabulary you can call your own.
Despite assurances from my mentors throughout my time as a jazz trumpeter, the most I got from memorizing my transcriptions was a few licks I could copy and paste into my solos. Other than that, transcribing to me was like learning an etude; the benefit was in working out the technical demands of the solo. Therefore, to me, the whole process seemed like a waste of time. Why not just buy a transcription book so you can go straight into the exercise? Out of this frustration, I developed my own method that takes the solos I know and love and bridges the gap, connecting them to my improvising in a way that generates new ideas I can call my own.
It is important to note that this method is an attempt to create a jazz exercise that better reflects the values and musical goals of the music. In my years as both a classical and jazz studies major in universities all over the world, I have found that in the process of institutionalizing jazz music and having jazz programs shaped by administrators of European-classical music, some of its core values have been lost in translation. The most obvious is the development of one’s own voice.
Step 1: Find a cool lick, transcribe it, and its chord changes
If you hear a lick that you are really inspired and motivated by, great! Now you have your starting lick. Always be on the lookout for one while listening to jazz. We all have favorite solos and recordings, comb through them and find the moments that stand out to you.
Another suggestion would be if you have a challenging section of a tune; for example, if you struggle with the ii-V-I in F#maj in “Recordame”, listen to each soloist and pay particular attention to that moment in the form of each chorus. When you hear a great idea you’d like to learn, choose that one!
Step 2: Analyze and Memorize
It is important to know the chords that correspond with your transcribed line so that you can see exactly what is being achieved harmonically and melodically. What made that idea stand out to your ears? Investigate! Check out the chord tones they hit over each chord and what little unique characteristic made that lick so cool. Most importantly, memorize your transcribed lick.
Step 3: Transpose in all 12 Keys
This process is slow but worth it, trust me! Don’t write out your transcribed lick in all 12 keys. Instead, transpose it by ear. Conceptualize the lick in scale degrees and shapes as opposed to notes. Just take it one half-step at a time. Keep working until you can comfortably play it in its new key in tempo slowly. Then, modulate another half-step. Keep going until you have it in all 12 keys. This step will be much more challenging for horn players, but transposition is an important skill for all musicians to have.
Step 4: Write your own licks based on your transcription
This is where the fun begins! Take some time playing and improvising variations of the original lick. Write out two or three different licks over the same chord changes and spend some time riffing over those. Use whatever unique and cool characteristics you analyzed that made the lick stand out to your ears. These ideas should sound closely related to the original transcription but be clearly your own.
Step 5: Practice playing your ideas in context
Practice playing the transcription and your ideas in the context of a tune. In iReal Pro, you can loop an 8 bar section of a tune. Solo over that section and practice fitting your licks over the chord changes your transcription fits over. You’ll find that you may need to come up with little tweaks and variations while improvising in order for the line to fit in organically and sound natural. This will take some practice, but the purpose is to get better at letting your ears lead to new lines and variations when improvising based on an idea you’ve worked out. You’re no longer copying and pasting a lick you’ve played before.
Step 6: Learn your written variations in all 12 keys
The chord changes that your variations are written over can most likely be found in 100s of standards (especially if you transcribed a ii-V-I lick). Practicing your newly composed lines in different keys will make playing those tunes so much easier and more comfortable sounding even while sight-reading! You’ll sound like a pro because you have your own original vocabulary in every key. Spend extra time on the less familiar keys like E,F#,C#, and B. Find standards that have the same chord changes but in a variety of keys to practice Step 5 in a variety of keys and changes that lead into and exit from the changes your licks fit over. For example, if your licks fit over a iii-VI-ii-V progression, you can practice them over the 3rd+4th bars of rhythm changes in Bb, the first ending to Yardbird Suite in C, and the 3rd+4th bars of Confirmation in F. All of these examples have different chords proceeding and following your original chord changes. Let your ears guide you to new ideas and variations that account for these subtle differences in form.
This exercise should not be completed in a day. This process is most effective when worked on daily for at least a few weeks at a minimum. The goal is to have your new licks be so ingrained into your playing that you’re comfortable varying them and adapting no matter the key center. Doing so will lead to more and more original ideas and a vocabulary that is truly your own.