I know I'm preaching to the choir when I state that the best way to absorb the jazz language is to learn from jazz recordings. I have found, though, that students seem to get overwhelmed by an assignment of learning a tune by ear from a CD. I have also noticed that the biggest hurdle to get over is simply "finding the right notes." Full-blown transcriptions, like the Omnibook—which was my main etude book as a teen—are great for technical development, but can have limited value in terms of internalizing jazz language.
I had a wonderful student in music theory and songwriting, a talented guitarist named Marshall, now kicking butt at Berklee. He occasionally showed me Guitar TAB which, as you may know, is only a useful tool in learning a song IF you already know how the song goes. In other words, a guitarist struggling to play Jimmy Page's solo on Stairway to Heaven needs to have listened to the recording a whole bunch, enough to know how it sounds. If he can't find all of Jimmy's notes (and many of them do go by quickly), the Guitar TAB shows which strings to press, on what fret, and in what order. In other words, it just shows the pitch and sequence of pitches in time. But it doesn't show rhythm or, for that matter, phrase or articulation. Just enough information to make that leap into actually playing some of Jimmy Page's burning pentatonic lines.
Can it work for those who read standard notation?
OK, so you probably know where I'm headed with this: what would happen if a sax player learning a Kenny Garrett melody from Songbook—or a Paul Desmond line from Time Out—had a similar crutch? Something that basically showed the pitches, in order, laid out in measures? It's basically like sketching out the noteheads — no beams, no rests, no stems, no articulations — just the pitches.
I've been experimenting with this for some time now, and it seems to be having positive results with my students of all ages. They're now comfortable with the idea of learning something by ear, have improved their connections between ear and horn, and are absorbing the intangible linguistic elements of jazz (what I like to call the good stuff).
What do you think?
I don't really know if these JazzTABs would be of use to anyone else, but I've posted a few here on the site for free download. Many of you are music educators, and many are musicians who are developing improvisors. I'd be very interested in hearing your feedback on these JazzTABs. Take a peek if you get a chance.