Jazz Improvisation Fundamentals Part 3: Transcription

On this occasion, Doug Stone (Assistant Professor of Jazz Studies at Louisiana State University, LA, USA) gives you the key to making your own transcriptions from the great jazz maestros in only 5 steps. Learn how to get the best out of your transcriptions in this article.
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You can develop several skills through learning transcribed solos. Mimicking the legendary jazz saxophonists’ approach helps you best understand jazz style, articulation, rhythmic feel, and sound. Singing and playing transcribed solos and the recording allows the student to most closely mimic the original soloist’s traits. The jazz improviser’s ultimate goal is to make a creative and spontaneous musical statement using musical vocabulary rooted in the jazz tradition but unique to the situation. Transcription of great jazz solos is the most effective way to learn historically accurate and characteristic jazz melodic and harmonic vocabulary.

  1. The first step in transcription is to internalize the solo thoroughly. Singing the solo with and then without the recording is necessary.
  2. The second step is to learn the solo, in small sections, on the instrument. It is best to do this entirely by ear. Avoid writing things down and avoid looking up an online or print version of the transcription. Truly internalize the solo on the instrument. If the student only completes steps 1 and 2, they will have learned a great deal of valuable material. Style, articulation, rhythmic feel, and sound concepts will start to solidify as the student sings and plays the solo with the recording multiple times.
  3. The third step is to write down the solo. Make sure to put the chord symbols for the tune above the transcription. The only purpose for writing down a transcribed solo is to visually represent how the melodic lines fit into the chord changes. The student must make sure to accurately notate the solo in the context of the chord changes.
  4. The fourth step in transcription is to complete a written analysis of the solo. Write about how each note of the solo fits into the harmonic progression of the tune. Analyze the melodic content in terms of scale degrees or solfeggio. Determine what melodic lines in the solo could be considered “licks” or characteristic musical phrases. If you have transcribed other solos by the musician, analyze any standard, repetitive, or representative material they use.
  5. The fifth step is to draw out any “licks” from the solo that can be learned in all keys and transferred to other tunes with similar harmonic environments. For instance, in Sonny Stitt’s solo on Tune Up by Eddie Vinson, from the 1959 album The Hard Swing, there are 36 separate instances of major ii V7 I “licks” or vocabulary. You should internalize such material until it becomes a natural part of the student’s improvisational language.

I recommend students transcribe the following solos in the next order, using the procedure listed above:

  1. Lou Donaldson on Midnight Creeper (Lou Donaldson — Midnight Creeper — 1968).
  2. Dexter Gordon on Watermelon Man (Herbie Hancock — Takin’ Off — 1962).
  3. Miles Davis on Freddie Freeloader (Miles Davis — Kind of Blue — 1959).
  4. Hank Mobley on Dig Dis (Hank Mobley — Soul Station — 1960).
  5. Dexter Gordon on Second Balcony Jump (Dexter Gordon — Go — 1962).
  6. Jackie McLean on Five Will Get You Ten (Jackie McLean — A Fickle Sonance — 1962).
  7. Cannonball Adderley on Hi-Fly (Cannonball Adderley — Live in San Francisco — 1960).
  8. Sonny Stitt on Tune Up (Sonny Stitt — The Hard Swing — 1959).
  9. Hank Mobley on Remember (Hank Mobley — Soul Station — 1960).
  10. Hank Mobley on This I Dig Of You (Hank Mobley — Soul Station — 1960).
  11. Dexter Gordon on Cheesecake (Dexter Gordon — Go — 1962).
  12. Gene Ammons on Autumn Leaves (Gene Ammons/Sonny Stitt — Boss Tenors — 1961).

Lastly, let’s see the final result of the analyzing process, using This I Dig Of You by Hank Mobley. It is loosely based on Life Is A Cabaret‘s chord progression by John Kander and Fred Ebb. The solo is tied together by the use of a two-note motive throughout, and it includes:

  • Bebop language using the Major and Dominant “Bebop Scale.”
  • Blues language.
  • Characteristic ii-V material.

Stuart Broomer wrote on it:

This 1960 session broke the usual Blue Note quintet mold, with Mobley’s tenor saxophone featured with just a rhythm section, one that happened to be the best of the era. Pianist Wynton Kelly and bassist Paul Chambers were working regularly with Mobley in Miles Davis’s band, while the explosive drummer Art Blakey had worked with him in the original, cooperative form of the Jazz Messengers, and the familiarity shows. Blue Note had a reputation for producing “meat ‘n’ potatoes” jazz, and no musician would better fit the description than Mobley, who went about the task of making music with a workmanlike focus and a consistency that didn’t attract nearly the attention it deserved. Mobley was one of the most talented saxophonists of his generation, a superbly lyrical artist who blended an inventive tunefulness with taut rhythmic attentiveness. The flowing blues of the title track is a particularly fine example of his art. And to say this session is exemplary would be an understatement.

Mobley begins by outlining a CMaj7. The top C becomes the 7th of the Dmin7. Then, he plays down the Dmin7 arpeggio and lands on the #5 of the G7. Mobley will play the #5 on dominant chords and major chords frequently. On beat 4 of measure 2, he begins a descending line that uses the C Major Bebop Scale (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, #5, 6, 7, 8). This line ends on the fourth of the Dmin7 and then outlines a Dmin9 chord, landing on the 13 of the G13.

The whole step motive that begins measure 5 is repeated on beat 4, anticipating the Dmin7. Mobley plays a similar two-note motif; however, he expands the motif to a minor third interval. He also encloses the minor third version of the two-note motive with the A and F# in measure 6. In measure 7, Mobley clearly outlines at C7, using the two-note motif in the same beat 1/beat 4 rhythm as in measure 5.

The minor third version of the two-note motif is utilized in measure 8, starting on the thirteenth.

The whole step motive returns in its original form but transposed to F Major in measure 9. In measures 10 and 11, the C Major Bebop Scale returns, and the phrase ends with the minor third version of the two-note motive.

Mobley’s favorite tactic is to begin a line with the root and the 5th of a chord in an ascending arpeggio. He begins the Ebmin7-Ab7 ii-V with that idea but quickly switches gears and plays up the Eb minor scale. He outlines the Ab7 in measure 14 as an Absus13. Mobley plays a G Dominant Bebop Scale starting on the 9th of the Dmin7, which could also be interpreted as the 13th of the G7 that follows. The G Dominant Bebop Scale beautifully leads to the C Major material that Mobley plays in measure 17.

Mobley plays a simple C Major melody that leads back to the two-note minor third motive from measures 5-12. The minor third version of the motif is the focal point of measures 18-21. The G’s enclosure in measure 20 with an F# and an A is reminiscent of measure 6.

Measure 21 begins with the two-note motive and then continues with a G Dominant Bebop Scale line, which ends on beat 4 of measure 22 with an Ab and a Gb. The Ab and Gb enclose the G (5th of CMaj7) in measure 23 that begins a C Major-like line. But the line quickly takes on a Diminished-Scale quality that implies a C13(#9b9) in measure 24.

The Diminished line in measure 24 leads in nicely to yet another statement of the two-note motive. Measures 26-28 are comprised of fantastic ii-V material. Beat 4 of measure 25 uses chromatic movement starting on the third (of FMajor7, or anticipating F#half-diminished7). Mobley’s line at measure 26 outlines B7(b9) and dovetails into a great line that outlines an Ehalf-diminished7 to an A7. He uses scalar motion in measures 26 and 27 and arpeggiates in measure 28.

Mobley ends out his first chorus with a blues-infused C7 line over the C Major harmony.

Mobley builds on the blues feeling he creates at the end of chorus 1 by starting with a blues line that contains the b5 (F#). We have heard the F# over the C Major A sections where it functioned in an enclosure context. This line begins by resolving to a high C in measure 33, it is repeated with a resolution to a low C in measure 35 and resolves to the high C again in measure 37.

Measure 38 is identical to measure 6. Mobley encloses the G in measure 39. He then continues to outline a C7, which seems to be how he hears these two particular measures of the form (measures 7 & 8, measures 23 & 24 — C7(alt) sound, measures 39 & 40). In measure 40, he uses the A to F# again but in the context of a scalar line where F# becomes a lower neighbor.

Here Mobley plays the major third version of the two-note motive. He first plays 1 to 3 in FMaj7, then anticipates measure 42 and plays 1 to 3 in F#half-diminished with a G# pick-up. He then does a double enclosure and plays 1 to 3 in Emin7 on beat 1 and then on beat 4 (with a pickup on 3). This rhythm comes directly from his earlier rhythmic approach (beat 1/beat 3) to the motive found in measures 5, 7, 19, 21.

In measure 45 and 46, Mobley plays a classic bit of Bebop language in Ab; then, he sequences it down to G7 (implied over Dmin7). Although he implies the G7 over Dmin7, in measure 48, he uses beats 1 and 2 to outline the Dmin7 and then resolves the C to the B and arpeggiates a G9.

The line in these four measures works beautifully as a C Major diatonic line, with only two chromatic notes. It could be played over a 4-measure stretch of CMaj7. However, the way Mobley places specific notes masterfully outlines the ii-V’s that are occurring. He plays a G# on beat 1 of measure 50. The G# is part of the C Major Bebop Scale that Mobley has been using up to this point (measures 3, 10-12), but this time it is a pick-up into a brief three-note arpeggio of the Dmin. Then he plays the #5 on the G7 again (beat 3). He outlines a G9(#5), then plays up and down the first five notes of the C Major Scale in measure 51. The notes in measure 52 are all C Major diatonic notes, but they outline the Dmin7 to the G13.

Mobley leaves some space in measure 53. The line in measure 54 is a diatonic melody in C Major. He begins measure 55 with more diatonic material but then plays an A, G, F#, G line that hearkens back to the C7 line he played in measure 40. This line leads to the C in measure 56, which descends chromatically to the 5th of the C7 (Dominant Bebop Scale), and he finishes off the measure with a b9 that resolves to the #5 of the FMaj7 in measure 57.

Measure 57 utilizes the first five notes of the F Major Scale, then Mobley uses of few notes from the C melodic minor over the F#half-diminished to the B7(b9). However, the C melodic minor is abandoned for an Ab to an A during the measure’s last two beats. The line in measure 58 seems to be an F7 with approach tones on the upbeats, a tri-tone substitution for the B7. This phrase ends on beat 4, and the next phrase begins on beat 3 of measure 59 — an example of starting phrases in unexpected places. The line in measures 59 and 60 starts on the 5th of Emin7, goes chromatically up to the 7th, and then stays on the D to delay the resolution to the C# (the 3rd of A7). Mobley then plays a Bb to a Gb, creating an A13(b9) sound.

The line in measure 60 curiously ends on an Eb in a Dmin7. The note seems completely wrong, but sounds great! Perhaps the Eb in the overall scheme of this C Major tune adds a blues element. The line beginning on 3 and in measure 61 and continuing to measure 63 is another example of a line that doesn’t start on a downbeat. It is also a significant bit of bebop ii-V-I language. It arpeggiates up a Dmin(Maj7) —melodic minor, and lands on a C in the G7, delaying the resolution to the B until beat 2. Measure 63 is a nice, melodic C Major line that leads to another A to F# enclosure of the note G. Once Mobley hits the G, he descends the G Mixolydian Scale to C.

This chorus begins with the two-note motive being expanded to the interval of a perfect fifth. Measure 65 is also a standard Mobley arpeggiated root to the 5th line, similar to measure 13. We will see this again later in measure 97. The two-note motive becomes a tri-tone in measure 66, and then a minor third again in measure 67. He slows the motive’s rhythm to a half-note (A), moving to a quarter-note (F) on beat 2 of measure 68. He then plays an F to a G in a quarter-note, eighth-note tied to a half-note rhythm. The G and the F were part of the early iterations of the motive in measures 5 and 9.

In measure 69, the eighth note version of the motive returns, but the interval is expanded the farthest we have heard thus far, a minor sixth. Measures 70 and 71 are a simple C Major melody that leads into a Bb in Measure 72, a perfect note to clarify the V7/IV. Measure 73 is a simple descending F Major Scale that moves nicely into the F#half-diminished in measure 74.

Measure 74 is a fantastic example of a minor ii-V line. The seventh of the F#half-diminished (E) resolution to the third of the B7 (D#) is characteristic of Bebop ii-V language. Mobley seems to want to repeat his idea in measure 75, but the line trails off. Again he waits to deliver his next line, not on the downbeat of the Ebmin7, but the Ab7 in measure 78. Mobley plays Cry Me A River, outlining an Ab13. In measure 79, he almost plays another Cry Me A River, but this time, he goes another direction, utilizing the Dominant Bebop Scale on the G7.

In measure 80, the G Dominant Bebop Scale brings Mobley back to the root of the CMaj7. The line at measure 81-83 is another example of how Mobley can make what seems like a simple diatonic line present deeper harmonic information. The C# enclosure on beat 4 of measure 81 makes it clear that Mobley is hearing A7. Then he encloses the D in measure 82, plays the G Dominant Bebop Scale through the Dmin7 to G7, and resolves to C Major. Measure 84 gives us the F# and A that will enclose the minor third version of the two-note motive.

In measure 85 and 86, Mobley works the minor third version of the two-note motive in a swinging, syncopated manner. Then he plays C7 material in measure 87.

In measure 89, he begins to play a bluesier version of the two-note motive in the original beat 1/beat 4 rhythm. Mobley changes the notes of the two-note motive (unison and perfect fourth), but the rhythm on beat 1 and beat 4 is identical to the first presentation of the rhythm in measure 5. He adds an even stronger blues element in 90 and 91, keeping the rhythm in 91 the same but adding a perfect fifth interval. He then outlines the A7 in measure 92, leading back to the motive in measure 93.

In measure 93, he starts a line on beat 3. This line contains the resolution of the 7th of the ii chord (C) to the 3rd of the V chord (B). Mobley then outlines the G9, plays down the G Mixolydian, and completes the chorus with the two-note motive in a perfect fifth version.

Mobley arpeggiates the C Major starting with 1 to 5, one of his standard devices. He then plays a line identical to his solo’s first four measures until beat 3 of measure 99. He then plays a line similar to measure 51 and 52, except two different notes in measure 100.

Mobley waits until beat 2 of measure 102 to continue. In measures 102 and 103, there is a string of enclosures focusing on some critical notes of the CMaj7. In measure 104, Mobley changes the direction of the line to ascend through the C Mixolydian Scale.

He plays some excellent F Major material but adds a B on beat four to enclose the F#half-diminished C. In measure 106, he outlines the F#half-diminished, then plays a D as a pick-up into the B7(b9) line that resolves to an Emin7-another piece of great minor ii-V-i language.

Mobley plays an exciting line in measure 109, which he displaces by one beat and plays again in 110. He then sequences the line down to the Dmin7 to G7 in measures 111 and 112. He adds a few eighth-notes at the end of the line. We hear the F# and A again, which leads to another variation of the two-note motive in the following measures.

The version of the two-note motif at measures 113 and 114 is reminiscent of the motive’s syncopated version at 85 and 86. Measure 115 is a C Major arpeggio. In measure 116, Mobley lands on a b9 in the G7.

Measure 117 is a line that Mobley has not played up to this point; however, measure 118 is similar to the material at measures 100 and 52. This time he ends the phrase with a Bb, again signaling the V7/IV. Measure 120 contains a chromatic line that leads to measure 121.

The line that Mobley plays at measures 121 and 122 outlines the FMaj7 and the F#half-diminished to B7(b9). Measures 123 and 124 contain the sound of the A Dominant Bebop Scale starting on a B. The B helps to establish that the harmony is moving from Emin7 to A7.

The line on beats 3 and 4 of measure 125 is identical to the line sequenced through 109-112. This time it leads to a line that utilizes the F melodic minor scale on a G7. The b9 is heard on beat two. The Gb in measure 126 is used to enclose the G on beat 3. Mobley will frequently alter one note for the sake of making a smooth sounding enclosure — this is similar to his replacing the #5 in situations where the natural 5 could be used.

In these measures, Mobley develops a line that starts in measure 128. The simple C Major melody is repeated with the top note as E, instead of D, in measure 130. Then the top note is D again in measure 132. In 134, Mobley plays another simple C Major melody that ends with a rhythmic punctuation of a short quarter-note to a dotted-half-note. This rhythm is repeated with new notes in measure 136.

The rhythmic punctuation line is developed into a bluesy line, with the final peak note being high G in the tenor’s altissimo register. In measure 40, the two half notes conclude the line.

The lines here are new and sequence, but the rhythms change in the second part of the sequence (measure 143). The phrase continues to be developed until measure 146.

Measures 145 and 147 are familiar (measures 2-4, 51-52, 98-100). Mobley outlines the Dmin9 in 148 and infers a G Major Bebop Scale on beats 3 and 4.

Measure 149 is another phrase that Mobley has not played thus far. It outlines the CMaj9 and keeps the same notes on the top of the line with different notes on the bottom in 150 and 151 — this is the reverse of what happened at measures 128-133. The line at measure 152 outlines the Gmin7 with the 7th of Gmin7 (F) resolving to the 3rd of C7 (E). Then Mobley adds a B natural, a striking alternate note in the C7.

These measures are identical to measures 121-124, except the b9 (Bb on 3 beat) in measure 156.

Measures 157-159 are identical to measures 125-127. Mobley ends the solo with a descending line on the G Dominant Bebop Scale and a bluesy 1 to 3 on the CMaj7, starting the next chorus.

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