This is Marshall McDonald, lead alto of The Count Basie Orchestra for 16 years, I’ve also played both tenor chairs and the second alto chair. Today I’m going to talk about how to learn to play jazz and improvise jazz solos. In addition I will discuss learning how to hear. Transcribing solos BY YOURSELF AND NOT READING OTHER PEOPLE’S transcriptions is today’s main topic. Reading solo transcriptions teaches you how to read music better but it involves a different part of the brain than does picking the solo off of a recording by yourself, and then writing it down. By learning it for ourselves and playing it over and over, that process puts the solo into your mind’s ear. Picking notes off teaches us how to hear the language, how to hear intervals, how to phrase, what to play over chords, how the masters approach the chords, articulation and it sharpens our ear to learn jazz in real time.
First, don’t slow the solo down, learn it in real time. (If it’s a really fast section you want to learn, just like Bird used to slow the turntable down to 16, you can use a computer program to slow that part down but you should try to hear the solo the best that you can in real time). You want to go slowly: play the track, listen, sing, repeat: play the track, listen, sing. Then play it on your horn and then write it down. I remember once I was at University of Pittsburgh down in the practice room area, and a buddy of mine was having trouble hearing the flatted 9th of a dominant chord. I said, man, listen to Charlie Parker on bar 9 of the blues, he hits the interval from 3 to b9 over and over again! I emphasized to sing and hear the lick the The Big Birdie played so many different places, I learned how to hear that interval by sitting with Charlie Parker tapes (yes tapes and records, mostly cassette tapes then), and I could hear that b9!! That’s the way to do it.
It’s much better to transcribe a few solos yourself and immerse yourself in those solos, take a solo, pick it off, write it down, then dig deep into it. Play along with the track, each day, analyze the solo, the phrases, the chords, the substitutions, articulation etc. If you want to PLAY jazz, don’t spend time being in a contest to see how many solos you can transcribe, and put into Finale and then post online….honestly, it’s better to work for a few years on 20 to 30 solos, but really dig into them. I remember a trumpet player once told me he transcribed Giant Steps, and every morning he started his day playing along with Coltrane with the solo he transcribed. Speaking of Giant Steps, there are lots of books with that solo written out, but I sat and spent the time writing out Coltrane’s complete solo myself, the only thing reading someone else’s work would have taught me was how to read better.
Alright then, I’ve attached a picture of a solo that I picked off of a tape and wrote down, Steve Grossman playing Blues Walk, Live at Praga, it’s a slammin’ solo. I completed 26 choruses of this solo, and I’ve come back to it, to finish the final choruses and complete the whole thing. For years, I’ve sat and played along with this solo, as well as others I did myself, like Blues to You, John Coltrane, I wrote that out, and played along with it day after day. Learning solos yourself is one of THE MOST IMPORTANT steps in learning how to hear and play jazz. Along with practicing scales, chords, patterns, tunes in 12 keys etc etc. This is my method that I teach. Learn how to hear! Whether you play in a big band section, or play David Sanborn tunes, or play straight-ahead, you need to learn how to hear! Here’s a pic, of my handwritten first page of Steve’s solo. You don’t have to write it for others to read, you write it so you can read. I’ve put below this the audio of this solo.