Jazz transcription is generally accepted to be one of, if not the most important activity for learning jazz improvisation. I would go further than that to say that it is in no way exclusive to jazz music or to improvisation. It is integral to any style of music to listen, copy and reproduce on an instrument the style, articulation, phrasing and essentially, the essence of other musicians’ playing in whichever genre we pursue in order for this music to eventually come from within us.
Writing jazz transcriptions down vs. not writing them down.
There is some disagreement, in my experience, on whether transcriptions should be written down or not. Some people prefer to write solos down as they go while others don’t write them down at all. I think it depends on why you’re transcribing and what you want to get out of it. Is it to borrow a phrase from a player you admire to practice in all 12 keys, or to analyse the harmony and discover where the notes fit into the chords? It could also be to practice relating rhythms that you’ve transcribed and play on your instrument to written ones on a page.
I tend not to write solos down at all until I’ve been working on one for a considerable amount of time. The reason for this is that I am usually tempted to read a phrase I transcribed off a piece of paper, if I’ve written it down, rather than doing it by memory and ear, which I find means I don’t internalise the phrase as well and it is ultimately less likely to become part of my vocabulary.
Taking down individual phrases vs. a whole solo.
There are advantages to both of these approaches. By taking an individual phrase, you can quickly get some new language to practice. By transcribing a whole jazz solo, you are able to examine how the solo is structured, how the soloist takes ideas and develops them and how one idea flows into the next. Sometimes there might be passages of a solo that you just can’t seem to get no matter how hard you try. In these instances, I tend to take whichever phrases I can from a solo and try to work them into my vocabulary and return to the rest in a few months time to make another go of the most difficult bits.
When I begin a jazz transcription, I always try to sing the phrases before doing anything else. I believe that this is the most beneficial way of doing it as it eliminates the possibility of getting the notes by trial and error. I’ve found in the past that if I transcribe while at the piano, or straight on the horn, I’m at risk of guessing the notes until they match up. With singing, however, you can be sure that you are truly hearing the intervals and if you can’t, then you’ve identified something you need to work on. Even though it’s difficult to do it this way and can sometimes take a lot longer, the payoff in terms of training your ears is worth it.
Repeating a phrase in a piece of software such as Audacity is a great way to internalise it. Listen to it several times and sing it with the recording. If you can then sing it without the recording you know that you’ve really learnt it.