You don’t want to only play other people’s licks in your solos. You want to improvise, that is the point of Jazz!
But at the same time, maybe your solos don’t sound right, maybe they don’t even sound like Jazz.
If are you already practicing scales and arpeggios, then this video is about the next thing you need to learn, which was probably also how people like Joe Pass and Wes learned to play Jazz.
Learning solos by ear is a part of this, but it’s not the only thing. For a really long time, when I was studying then I felt that I didn’t learn a lot from transcribing solos, and that made me think that it should not be a big priority for my study, but in hindsight, that was completely wrong and not even how I was actually studying, but I’ll get back to that.
The Answer Is Not A Scale!
Let’s start with something that is so often presented wrong in lessons and probably also the reason you are watching this video.
Try to imagine that you are listening to your favorite part of one of your favorite solos. I am sure you can see how the answer to understanding why that phrase in a solo sounds great is not just a scale name.
You can’t listen to a Wes Montgomery solo, stop somewhere in the middle and go “Dorian” and then your solos start sounding amazing.
That’s obviously not how it works, and that is because when you are playing music then you are not thinking about a scale or an arpeggio. When I am playing solo then I am thinking about phrases that fit the music, the other stuff is too many steps from being something I can play. So you want to learn phrases and be able to play phrases, not just notes and scales.
And this is where the food analogy is a good description of a Jazz phrase:
A Jazz phrase is like a recipe for something that tastes great.
The scale and arpeggios, chromatic phrases are all ingredients, but it is as important that you know how to turn them into the dish.
I am sure you can imagine that even if you have all the ingredients for a burger then mixing the stuff up in random order is not likely to yield a delicious meal.
Jazz phrases are the same, it is only a part of the picture to know what the ingredients are, and only studying that won’t really get you very far, because it is like just knowing a lot of stuff that can be ingredients in food but clearly, that doesn’t mean you can cook something great.
So you have to not only memorize the ingredients but also learn how you put them together, that is the core of the recipe.
Where Do You Learn The Recipe
And there are some skills needed to understand the recipe for a jazz lick.
As I mentioned, then for a very long time I felt like I wasn’t really learning anything from transcribing entire solos. In the beginning, I was doing that really a lot, because that was what people around me suggested that should do, and especially when I did not have a teacher that was the only thing I could do to learn something new. But I sort of stopped when that didn’t seem as useful as a lot of the other things that I was working on, stuff I had picked up from Barry Harris and the material I was given by my teachers. But maybe that was more how I saw it at the time and not really what was going on, because next to this I was also starting to build other skills that would help me get so much more out of what I transcribed.
In the beginning when I was learning solos then I could at most just repeat what I had transcribed and hopefully connect it to my own vocabulary. That already makes it useful, but it is also far from taking the material to the level where you can use it freely in your own playing. Let’s say that I transcribed this part of a phrase from Grant Green:
One thing is learning the solo by ear and playing it along with Grant. That is incredibly valuable for phrasing and timing and a lot of other things, but now I want to use it to become better at making my own Jazz lines. And I took this phrase because, as you will see, it is an example of something that you want to understand and recognize and learn how to use in your own lines. Grant Green is also a very clear example of someone who checked out Charlie Parker, which is also important, but I will return to that later.
You can look at this phrase at different levels.
#1 The Notes
On the surface: If I look at the notes being used over Gm7 then I have the G, in the bass, and then 5 more notes: Bb C D F, and A.
So if I have to attach a scale to it then it could be G Natural minor, or Aeolian, or it could be a Gm7 chord in F major. In this case, the Gm7 is a part of a II V I in F major so it makes sense to go with that. Music is about context.
But just knowing the scale would NEVER help you play a line like this, there is a lot more going on.
#2 The Harmony and Arpeggios
It is a Gm7 chord, you can see a Dm triad here (highlight),
even if that isn’t really the best way to understand that. You can also see that he is playing the 5th on the 4& so as an anticipated beat 1,
and the Bb is on beat 3 so he is really connecting to the chord tones on the heavy beats.
The two notes before Bb are an enclosure, so he is playing towards the note on beat 3, making that a target note.
This is already getting you closer to being able to create something that will sound right and not just throw random notes at the chords, because there is a direction and some notes need to go in certain places.
You can probably also tell that this takes some experience with both analyzing and listening to the music, but that is definitely something you want to learn.
I said that it wasn’t really a Dm triad, so let’s look at that because that is really important here.
I already pointed out that it is not enough to just look at what notes are being played, you need to understand how they work in the line to understand what is going on.
An example of this could be this excerpt of a George Benson line which is also on a Gm7 chord in a II V I in F major:
If you don’t realize that the C# and the F# are chromatic leading notes
then you are going to end up thinking that this is a very weird scale, probably with 9 or more notes. And you realize that by noticing where the C# and F# are going. (show resolutions in sheet music))
This is also happening in the Grant Green example:
The A and C are an enclosure pulling towards the Bb on beat 3.
You also want to notice that the melody moves down from D to Bb but the enclosure is placed so that it skips down to A and then moves up to C, so it is in the opposite direction.
In fact, Benson does the same thing, the melody is moving up from D to G, but the enclosure is moving down from A to F# (highlight)
So that is something to keep in mind if you are making lines with chromatic enclosures: If the melody moves up then try to let the enclosure move down and vice versa.
The Triad That Isn’t A Triad
Let’s demystify The Dm triad that isnt a Dm triad. You want to see this as a part of another melody: A Bbmaj7 Pivot Arpeggio.
So, a Pivot arpeggio is an arpeggio where instead of playing the ascending arpeggio like this:
then you play the first note and move the rest down an octave to create this beautiful melody with a large interval skip:
And this can be hard to recognize until you have transcribed a few solos and seen this happen often, but that is why you keep learning solos by ear and get more familiar with the language.
Analyzing Solos For Recipes
I never did an analysis like this on an entire solo, but I did do it every time I had a spot that I thought was really good, so that I could not only learn the lick but also learn the concept or the recipe. In many ways that is also what Barry Harris teaches, it is not only what to play but also how to put it together, how to turn it into music. That is why he invented concepts like pivot arpeggios and why he is such a valuable resource when you are trying to learn.
This also brings me back to my story about how I wasn’t transcribing complete solos a lot for some time because what I was still doing was figuring out all the “good bits” so I would have solos that I listened to and they would have parts that I liked and that I didn’t understand, but I wanted to have in my playing, those I kept going for, and that still makes me figure things out. Later I realized that my phrasing and swing feel really benefitted from learning solos by ear and then I got back into working on entire solos, which I still do regularly.
Learn Like The Masters = Learn From The Masters
Of course, learning the solos is only a part of it, another activity is as important when it comes to getting this into your playing, but first, I already mentioned how I hear Grant Green (and actually also George Benson) as coming straight from Charlie Parker when it comes to vocabulary. This is really just about recognizing parts of phrases and melodic techniques that are similar to Parker. You can also find examples here and there of Wes playing Parker licks.
To give you an example then check out this phrase from Wes Montgomery’s Solo on, The Parker F-Blues, Au Privave:
This sounded very familiar to me, and Wes probably got that from this part of Parkers solo on Now’s The Time, which is essentially the same phrase at the same place in the form since both songs are 12-bar blues progressions in F.
Connecting all of this across songs and artists is really about listening to a lot of music, and listening more than once. Something that is often worthwhile is listening together with other people and talking about the music you are listening to. Hanging out can be as useful as a lesson!
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