Are you sticking to your New Year’s resolutions? Did you make any musical ones? And if so, what were they? 2013 started with a few resolutions for my practice routine and for my playing in general, and so far it’s not only been perfect material to help inspire me to be a better musician, but also to share the process with my students. I’m going to share with you the first part of our transcription course involving a live bootleg of the Michael Brecker quartet from 1997, and I want to pick out a few key things I found in the first chorus of this solo that has helped all areas of my playing over the past few weeks.
I’ve included the sheet music (the complete version of the first chorus, no less – I made my students fill in some missing phrases as their first week’s homework on the course) in this column, and if you’d like to hear the audio you can go to my blog. The audio is embedded in this post and you can check it out any time.
Before we get to a couple of key phrases that have helped bolster my thought process and practice routine, I want to take a look at the overall process first. One of the most important things to remember about working on something this technically demanding is that it is totally possible to play these notes on our chosen instrument. I’m kind of guessing that most people reading this will be bass players, but it applies to any instrument. One of the big myths when it comes to transcription and learning things by ear is that there are a certain number of feats that are out of our reach. I don’t think this is true, and it’s through the hard work involved in learning this material that I’ve learned a couple of key things.
One: we’re never finished learning. I thought I was fairly proficient as a bass player and that I would be able to pick up this solo in no time at all. There are a few phrases throughout the course of this transcription that literally took me weeks of work to get under my fingers. But again, it taught me that though I might think things are impossible and out of reach, it really comes down to the level of commitment that I want to dedicate to the process.
Two: even the “easy” stuff contained in a solo like this can teach us way more than we think. It could be as simple as taking a simple phrase and being in control of it in all 12 keys, or shifting the phrase rhythmically or harmonically to create different tension and release. It could be just a few notes; notes you’ve played thousands of times before now. But as soon as you start searching for the unique value these notes hold for you, there are so many more things that are going to come from the simplest of ideas.
Let’s get on to the notes. This solo is over a blues in Bb, and is over 24 bars instead of the standard 12. I want you to notice the very “inside” opening bar that outlines chord tones of F7 and C-7, almost a reverse II-V-I, if you want to do a harmonic analysis. But the target is anything but conventional. Mike’s heading towards this E natural, the tritone in the key of Bb, and the first couple of phrases of the solo are comprised entirely of material from E major pentatonic. Not exactly what a music school teacher would recommend you using to improvise over a Bb7 chord with – but that’s the beauty of transcription. You get to look inside the process of someone who is actually improvising organically and breaking all the ‘rules’ in the pursuit of making music, and making an original statement. It’s one of the reasons I’m not the biggest fan of getting too in-depth and technical when it comes to analysing solos that I’ve transcribed. I think it’s far more fruitful to get inside the player’s head, time feel, phrasing and focus, and get as far away from the rules as possible.
The main phrase that I took out of this first chorus to develop around my instrument was the E major pentatonic phrase in bars 1, 2 and 3. First of all I put a series of dominant chords in my looper, 4 bars on each chord, and then used the major pentatonic idea starting on the tritone (b5th) of each chord. Now this was just the starting point for exploring what’s possible with this simple three-bar idea. I’ve been working this idea over different chord qualities, and of course starting from different degrees of each chord I try it over.
Some of the combinations really sound hip and resonate with me, and others sound terrible and I move on. Everyone is going to respond to them differently, and that’s the great thing about all of it being slightly different. 100 people can take these same few notes and have it affect them each in a completely different way.
I encourage you to try some of these ideas. Pick a different solo or melody to transcribe if this style of music isn’t your cup of tea. Commit, focus, and enjoy. The last one is pretty much the most important. As soon as you stop enjoying it, move onto something that you do enjoy. You’ll find you retain so much more information when the process is fun. Don’t forget to check out my Youtube channel for a video example of me playing this solo on the bass along with the recording.
A member of the Institute’s visiting bass faculty, Janek Gwizdala is a solo recording artist, musical director for Capitol recording artist VV Brown, and sideman to the likes of Mike Stern, Randy Brecker, Delta Goodrem, Airto and Pat Metheny.