Transcribing music is indeed an art in itself. Most jazz musicians do it regularly, but their transcribing is usually confined to listening to an improvisation and then repeating what they hear until they can play it note for note; either doing it all by ear or writing it down to study like an etude. This is certainly a good way to transcribe, but there is more that can be done: one can expand upon this practice and accomplish much more. Thus, the art of transcribing music can be a comprehensive study of the inner workings of music, and not just solo memorization.
To maximize the benefits from transcribing one can approach it from several angles, each adding to one’s knowledge in a specific, more holistic way. Thus, we can look at three lesser-studied but essential components of transcribing: key, form, and what we might call jazz counterpoint.
Key “transcribing,” for example, focuses on studying music in particular keys and provides vital clues as to what to expect from an artist or genre. For example, if we select the 89 singles released between the years 1925–1929 by Louis Armstrong with his Hot Five and Hot Seven groups, we find that 24 of them are in the key of F (concert). This represents 26% of the total output, and the largest number of songs in a particular key. Next largest is the key of concert Ab, which represents 20% of the material. We also discover that Louis recorded only one composition in concert E. Thus, having this knowledge means we can safely assume that we need to be able to perform and improvise in the key of F concert in order to transcribe and analyze Louis’ work during that period. And if we then apply the same kind of analysis to all 37 known works recorded by Joe “King” Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in 1923, which included Louis Armstrong, we find that 29% of them are in concert Eb, 24% are in concert Bb, and so on. Thus, we now know that to perform works by Armstrong and Oliver means we must be able to sight-read, memorize, and improvise music in at least the keys of concert F, Eb, and Bb. This vital information provided by key transcribing can then be utilized in your playing and in your research if you are also an academic writing your own book on New Orleans syncopated music.
The next aspect, form transcribing, can provide vital information for your playing in terms of discovering new ways to approach soloing or composing; transcribing and analyzing musical structures and/or form, and you will often find structure where you might not consider there to be any. For example, a common criticism of Free Jazz is that it is all just “made up,” or that there is nothing to it. But, like many other recordings of Free Jazz of the era (1959 – 1965), Eric Dolphy’s album Out To Lunch (1964) is made up of songs containing defined forms, with the “free” part being the solo section or the choice of improvisatory material one used over, or in spite of, a set of prescribed chord changes. The opening track Hat and Beard, for example, starts with a unison ensemble shot in a single bar of 5/4, at once followed by a bass figure in 9/4 that is copied briefly by bass clarinet and vibes. There is also a lot of space in the piece, which is also not stereotypical of much free jazz after 1965. The lead/accompaniment idea from traditional jazz forms is still clearly in play here, and like other recordings of this era, demonstrates free jazz was a music of going beyond boundaries, not being rid of them. This too is vital knowledge when considering adding more ‘abstraction’ to your own work. Free Jazz has much to teach us about form and ways of moving around or beyond form, and transcribing such works is the source of that vital knowledge.
The next component is counterpoint transcribing – the study of jazz forms that include accompanying solo lines to reinforce or embellish a melody. This kind of transcribing is extremely important if you are a saxophonist who performs with a vocalist, and thus must play lines weaving around the main melody, supporting and enhancing the vocalist’s approach. Thus, studying key examples of this will reveal it is an advanced technique, and there are jazz masters who made this type of improvisation an art form. One such master was clarinetist Johnny Dodds, who was a member of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, Louis Armstrong’s “Hot” groups, and Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers. Dodds’ work is an excellent example of jazz counterpoint in particular.
If we listen to Dodds on King Oliver’s recording of Just Gone, for example, we hear a jaunty clarinet part that lifts the trumpet melody without being excessively note-filled. It is simple and economical, and wonderfully present in the music. Dodds’ ability to move between composed ensemble parts and improvisation too is on full display on Jelly Roll Morton’s 1926 recording of Black Bottom Stomp. Dodds’ tone is sweet and bluesy, and as always, makes both his improvisation and the composed segments bounce and ‘sing.’
These three areas of transcribing in particular will make you a significantly better musician, and help your aural skills become much more advanced.