How To Play Jazz Piano (Part 5: Transcriptions)

So far I’ve explored 4 ways to help you learn to play jazz piano: immersion through listening, analytical listening, practicing from a beginning jazz piano book, and watching videos. You can find those posts here: Now let’s add a 5th method: Transcriptions.

Part 5: Transcriptions

A jazz transcription is a written-down account, in musical notation, of what someone improvised on a recording. It can be an improvised solo, chord voicings, or anything else. Even drum solos! Playing a transcription is like having a great baseball player hold your arms and show you how to swing the bat; you’re literally following the masters in their footsteps.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of books published with musical transcriptions from every jazz pianist imaginable. These are invaluable in that you’ll see a lot of musical information at once. By playing through lots of transcriptions, and even memorizing a few, you’ll gain real insight into each player’s specific musical language, and the way they develop ideas.

Don’t only rely on published transcriptions, however. It’s important to transcribe some yourself. This can be challenging, but stick with it. Even legendary pianists, like Horace Silver, have recalled how it took them hours to figure out a few chords when they first started. Eventually your ear improves and it gets easier.

Just pick a not-too-complicated solo, and listen to it a few times. I’d recommend starting with the RH only, or a simple trumpet solo. Miles Davis’ mid-tempo recordings from the 1950s are a good place to begin. Or Louis Armstrong’s “Hot Five” recordings. The great pianist/teacher Lennie Tristano used to start his students off with Lester Young’s tenor saxophone solos. After you choose a solo, I actually recommend singing it first. Use any syllables you like, even ‘ah’ or ‘la.’ Once it’s internalized a little, try plunking out the notes and writing it down. The ear training alone makes this a worthwhile pursuit. Have fun and stick with it – you’ll be glad you did!

Check out How To Play Jazz Piano (Part 6: Jam With Other Musicians)

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