There are many lessons to learn from transcribing your favorite jazz musicians. It turns out that I’ve been on a saxophone transcribing binge lately, which I hope will not go away too soon. Or better still, I hope it will effectively become part of my day-to-day practice routine if I can put in the time and energy.
As any musician knows, jazz is a lifelong apprenticeship in many ways. You’ve got to learn the trade through hard work and patience and that’s that. Instrumentally speaking, it’s always been about intent listening, copying the masters, and incorporating whatever exciting or relatable stuff into one’s creative imagination. Your most insightful theory books on bebop harmony or modal language, however valuable they may be, have nothing on delving into someone’s creative mind and going through the spur-of-the moment process.
Now, I have to admit, the task has always seemed daunting to me, and the whole notation process so unforgivingly tedious. Time is tight, there’s so much stuff to practice, so many things that need work, errands to run, groceries to pick up, hell, a life to live, why bother to break down Coltrane’s solo on, say “Body and Soul”. Sure, it’s unbelievably searing, beautiful and just absolutely fantastic but you’re never going to sound like him. But here’s the flip side that hit me like a ton of bricks recently. Deep listening is worthwhile, and the consequences are profound.
You have to hear the music first, to absorb it thoroughly into you brain and body so that it becomes your natural pulse. And then, you write it down if you want to keep it on file for later use. You might want to go back to it later on, and that’s where notating the notes comes in. But other than that, it’s the hearing that matters. When you start being able to sing a phrase and internalize it so much that it feels like you created it in the first place, the rewards are pretty amazing. Before you even come to that point when you want to break it down and analyze the heck out of it, you want to hear the thinking, the vibe, the intuitive process, you want to feel and breathe as one with the improviser. To achieve that, you have to listen hard, very intently, over and over again.
As a bass player, transcribing 40 seconds of a saxophone solo makes life very challenging but worth living! It pushes you way out of your comfort zone and forces you to reach the limits of your own physicality. Of course, the immediate payoff is that you build your chops, get around this cumbersome instrument more easily and develop your articulation in a very exhilarating setting. For a few seconds, you play the trumpet like Miles Davis, piano like Thelonious Monk, and saxophone like John Coltrane. Except, you’re doing that on bass, not the easiest instrument for big intervallic jumps and fast runs. Delivery, hand speed, left and right arm coordination, intonation, rhythmic foundation, time feel, all of these are brought into sharp focus and any sloppy move will get you thrown off track in no time. It’s an ordeal to get it right.
Over the last few days, I’ve been trying to cop Coltrane’s opening statement/solo on “Resolution”, from the classic A Love Supreme record. What the hell has gotten into me? Why not pick a bass solo? There are so many inventive bass players these days to get ideas from. Well, the title is self-explanatory. I wanted to get “inside” that resolution. As an atheist, Trane’s love anthem to God has always moved me profoundly. That deceptively simple line, stated three times after Garrison’s rumbling double stop bass intro, has such an uplifting power it can get you out of your chair on the crappiest day.
Try to nail a saxophone phrase on upright bass without stumbling and see how that feels. I dare you. Before you know it, your hands are racing around the bass and tendinitis is just around the corner if you don’t hold your horses. Believe me, my sporadic morning jogs are a joke compared to the sweat I’m burning off on this. It took me about 10 hours of intense listening and practice to figure out Trane’s phrase right after the opening statement. Another 5 hours to be able to play it through, and that’s still a little choppy. About four seconds of music and countless hours of deep listening later and I’m still debating what fingering works best for that line. To my credit, I’m not using any phone app or transcription computer software that can slow down a piece of music for analytical purposes. So I plug in the headphones and listen, pause, go back, play, pause, listen, over and over again. And I haven’t written one note down yet.
What I think I’m doing though is that I’m tuning into the idea, the intention, the pulse, the drive, the rhythm, the tone, the feeling. The soul. In other words, I’m slowly starting to speak Coltrane’s language, much like I learned to write and speak English. I heard it, liked it, and decided to learn it. Ultimately, the goal is not to break out your Coltrane phrase on your next gig to impress your peers– though it may come up unwittingly – but to channel your influences beyond the natural parameters of your instrument. I doubt I will ever get through the entire Trane solo without impairing my chest and hands permanently but attempting and somehow managing to get a few bars down satisfies my soul beyond words. It’s not just about bass. It’s not just about virtuosity. It’s about expanding your creative horizons by incorporating something apparently impervious to imitation. To use a linguistic analogy, it feels like you’re piecing together a sentence in a language you don’t master yet. When does the sentence begin? When does it end? Is there an ascending or descending pattern in the tone? What kind of verbal process is used here? Do we have a relative clause that links disparate ideas together with well-placed commas, a kind of question and answer phrasing or do we hear a linear movement propelled by one powerful phrasal verb? How does the discourse (the melody) lay in the rhythm? It’s a tighly cohesive band. Everything is organically and beautifully integrated. Stunning. As I fumble my way through Coltrane’s “Resolution”, a melodic line based on an open-ended Eb minor scale, I discovered, I’m exploring a variety of fingerings I didn’t think were possible on the bass. Here’s another reward right there. I get to explore new territory on the fingerboard. Whether or not I will ever use those fingerings again in my own playing is unclear. It will probably depend on how many more hours of diligent practice will be needed for them to feel natural or make sense for one particular song that requires fast and clean execution. But beyond all that, what started off as an ear training exercise has become a more noble endeavor. I’m blowing fragments of a saxophone improvisation by one if not the greatest creator on the instrument, but I’m doing it by pushing air through weathered wood with my fingers.
The greatest lesson – or more accurately the most compelling reminder – I get from this workout is that to play fast successfully, you have to slow everything way down in your mind and body, be able to hear the punctuation, adjust your heartbeat to a snail’s pace, catch your breath in the little silences and imagine you have all the time in the world. For lack of a greater purpose, that’s enough to make my day.
The eternal John Coltrane quartet on Resolution
PS: My shot at Trane’s opening statement will probably appear on my Low Spectrum Instagram page when I have 40 seconds of listenable bass music together. Check back soon if you’re curious.