Every once in a while I happen upon something extraordinary that bewilderingly gets little to no attention from the jazz saxophone world. A number of months ago, Joe Graziosi started a thread on SOTW (Sax on the Web) letting people know about a new project that he had been working on over the last three years as part of his practice routine. I was amazed and inspired when I first read his post and now three months later am just as amazed and inspired as I stumbled on to it again this morning.
These are Joe’s own words about his project:
“My name is Joe Graziosi, I wanted to share a practice project that I just finished with anyone who is interested and may want to try something similar. I have taken one of my favorite albums of all-time, Hank Mobley’s “Soul Station”, and learned each of the tracks in all 12 keys. My original focus was to learn how to play the sax more melodically to stop relying on my technique so much, and also to get a good workout in those awkward keys. I can say that this project was sometimes daunting, but certainly worth it now that keys like Db, B, F#, etc. feel much more familiar.”
I know what you are thinking, if you are like me it is “WHAT?” THAT’S CRAZY!” Now, if Joe had just left it at that most people would think “Yeah right! Good Luck with that buddy…..(He will never do it…..)” However, Joe went further than just words by posting six Youtube videos of him playing each tune and solo from Hank Mobley’s Soul Station in all 12 keys WITH HIS EYES CLOSED! There is no arguing that this guy was serious and no joke about this project of his after seeing these videos…….
The reason I feel I need to post about this is that as of today Joe’s videos have only received a couple hundred views each on average. Which tells me most of the saxophone world has not heard of his project. Hence, my need to share…………
So, that is the primary reason why I want to share this project, but you might be asking yourself “Steve, besides making me feel bad about my own unproductive and unfocused practice routine, what is to be gained from learning about Joe’s personal journey down the “Soul Station” road with Hank Mobley……..?”
Let’s look at a few of Joe’s paraphrased quotes about the project in response to some questions he was asked on SOTW:
Q. I just want to ask, did you memorize the solos so well that you can play them by heart in all keys, or did you write them down first?
A. “I learned each head and solo in the original key by ear first. I’ve put them all into Finale much later, but that was only so I’d have a physical copy for my own use, whatever that may be. When I would take it through all 12 keys, I took the solo 8 bars at a time (or 12 in the case of a blues), and worked those melodies through the circle of 4ths. It was a challenge the first few times I did it, but as time went on my brain started to turn all of the lines into numbers and shapes. The combination of my brain translating that information along with the intuition of my ears made it possible to start to really understand each melody to the familiarity of the original key.
I believe, and have read in practically every book that I’ve read on practicing and transcribing, that the literal “transcription” part of learning a solo (WRITING it down) is actually the least important thing to worry about. The best (again, in my opinion) thing to do is to invest in good software like “Amazing Slow Downer” or “Transcribe” and learn the solo by ear phrase by phrase at a tempo that allows you to hear every detail. Repeat small ideas over and over again until you can sing them, like the chorus to your favorite song. Once you can sing it (you don’t have to sound like Bocceli) it will definitely be easier to transfer to your horn. Over a period of time, you just start to “get” how your instrument works and your intuition will produce a higher degree of right guesses when you’re figuring those lines out. Also, particular notes just sound a certain way on an instrument due to the natural characteristics of the horn. For example, think about middle D. All six of your fingers are down, so the timbre of that note sounds far different than a C#, a note extremely close to the D, yet with a completely different timbre considering you aren’t closing any of the keys.
From Bill Dobbins book “Jazz Piano Harmony” –
“I strongly suggest learning the solos without writing them down. They may be written down later for future reference. If they are written down first, however, there is a good chance that they will never be committed to memory, which means that the vocabulary contained in the solos will never be assimilated to the point where it can be used creatively in a spontaneous manner.”
Another good point he makes is that you should learn the tune, melody and changes, for whatever tune the solo is based on. You need to have a reference to what the soloist is playing or else it will seem like just a bunch of notes!
I hope these ideas help you in your practice! Finally, remember that accuracy builds speed, not the other way around!”
This I Dig of You
Q. I play transcriptions all the time from reading them but the ideas never seem to sink in? What am I doing wrong?
A. “There are two MAIN reasons to learn solos by ear and by ear only:
1) Memorization of the melodic lines to the level where you can actually engage with them and understand them to a deeper level as previously discussed.
And most importantly:
2) LEARNING A SOLO FROM PAPER WILL TELL YOU NOTHING ABOUT THE WAY EACH NOTE IS PRESENTED. An improvisation is so much more than just a combination of notes and rests. The notes an artist plays are only half the story. The other half is made up of every inflection, big and small, that the artist decides to use on every note. Vibrato, scoops, falls, growls, freak outs, alternate fingerings, pitch alterations, breathiness, dynamics, articulations, phrasing, and every other device that you can think of. The problem with trying to write a solo down FIRST, then learn from the paper is that the Western Notation system is not capable of correctly depicting all of these embellishments with its one-size-fits-all set of articulations. Therefore, you end up losing most of the really important information between the transfer from the recording to the page, let alone between the page and your horn. Especially with a guy like Dexter, who loves to sit way on the backside of the beat, I think it’s impossible to put his personality on a piece of paper.”
Q. How did you progress to this level of transcription? I’ve been told not to use Amazing slow downer but there are some licks that are impossible for me to hear otherwise.
A. “Transcription is one of my favorite methods of practice because it deals with the actual recordings. I find that much more exciting than working out of some method book, so I guess that little extra emphasis really gets me into it. It’s like studying with any player you want! Also, I’m not sure why anyone would turn you away from “ASD (Amazing Slow Downer).” I don’t know anyone who could transcribe an entire Mike Brecker solo accurately without slowing the audio down. There are so many details that could go unnoticed if trying to hear and practice everything as fast as possible. One of my teachers from many years ago sent me a link to how Ju-Jitsu masters practice their moves. They would go through every motion painstakingly slow so that they were focusing on their accuracy, and only when it was perfect would they then gradually start speeding the move up. Accuracy builds speed, not the other way around!”
Q. Wow, Can I ask how long that took you to do? Were you focused on it 100% of the time you practiced each day? (I asked this one…..)
A. “This entire project took roughly 180 hours. I started three years ago by learning each solo 1-6 in all 12 keys. Then I decided that doing a video series would be a cool challenge, so I relearned the solos in the backward order and recorded them as I went along. I’ll admit, I could have been a bit more diligent to get the project done faster, but playing in F# all the time takes its toll on your morale! Lol. Also, no this didn’t take up 100% of my practice. I follow a practice strategy that focuses daily time on 4 different areas: Warmup/Technique, Artist Focus (this study), Improvisation, and Repertoire. So this study basically gets between 45mins – 1 hour per day.”
Q. I’m interested in what benefits and improvements you have seen in your improv and playing since before the project until afterward? (I asked this one also……)
A. “I supplemented this study with daily work through Bergonzi’s “Jazz Line” book. I figured that Hank’s mastery of “bebop” scales would be a good real-world application to what I was studying out of that book. I honestly still haven’t finished that book yet, settling somewhere around chapter 7 or 8. There is so much material in the first half of the book that I constantly feel like I need a review.
Anyway, the real-world application was one of the cool things from the exercise that I’ve been able to apply to my own improvisations. I’ve made a very conscious effort to not just plug-and-play Mobley lines and I-V’s during my solos, but occasionally ideas will sneak in (hopefully subconsciously!) To be honest, I don’t get to improvise very often for my job, so I haven’t really had a fair chance to assess the real world benefits yet. With that being said, I’ve noticed that my time and rhythmic feel are much stronger, I don’t stumble as much over the “difficult” keys, and I have much more of a wealth of melodic ideas from the subconscious. Furthermore, I think my solos have started to take a better dramatic arc, but everything has become a bit more simple. No longer does my ego feel the need to fall into things that may impress other people. I actually just feel confident playing straight and (hopefully) “tasteful.”
Furthermore, I’ve noticed a huge effect on my tune-writing. This could be more due to my changing tastes, but ever since starting this study I’ve found my music to be more singable and catchy. This may go straight back to not needing to please the ego, but I think in just the continual study of strong melodic lines you come to understand what strong melodies tend to do. I’ve been so surprised at how diatonic some of my favorite melodies are, even when they sound like they are constantly weaving in and out of different keys. Check out Christian McBride’s “Sitting on a Cloud” and you’ll see what I mean.” (Underline added because I love that sentence!)
As of the writing of this blog post, it is around 6 months since Joe has completed his “Soul Station in all 12 Keys Project”. He sent me this additional comment today:
“It’s been almost half a year since I’ve finished the “Soul Station in All 12 Keys” project now, and I’d just like to share my thoughts and observations now that I’ve had time to reflect for a longer period of time away from the material.
As I mentioned in my previous posts, my current job doesn’t give me much room to improvise, so it has been a bit more difficult to gauge the benefits of how that project changed my playing. However, I have noticed that although my technique and facility in those tough, awkward keys has drastically improved, I must be honest and say that I’m feeling a bit frustrated with my reservoir of musical ideas at the moment. As I started into another 12 Keys project over “Rhythm Changes”, I realized that I just didn’t want to stop learning new solos because I was taking the current solo through the process again. Maybe it’s because I take forever to do things, but I found myself getting impatient and thirsty for more. I’ve made the change in my practice strategy to include in my transcription hour time for learning new solos AND time for taking a solo through 12 keys. This strategy should yield better results and get a better balance between “mastering” old material and learning new material.
I’ve just learned Sonny Rollins’ solo on “The Eternal Triangle”, but couldn’t wait to start on Sonny Stitt’s, so I can check back with you in about a month to let you know how I feel the new process is working!”
After receiving this comment from Joe, I had to ask an additional question:
Q. Six months later, are those Hank Mobley lines and ideas still in your mind and imagination? Do you find yourself using any of the lines and ideas while improvising?
A. “It has definitely added ideas, but I think the main benefit was that it created muscle memory of playing in the “hard” keys. As far as adding A LOT of ideas though….it’s like reading one book over and over again. You thoroughly digest that material and master it, but the trade off is that you’re only dealing with a small amount of ideas or data. I think what I’m trying to say is that now that I’ve proved to myself that it’s within my capacity to handle working on an entire improvisation through 12 keys, I now think I could see a bigger benefit to my playing by making an effort to learn a new improvisation while practicing a previously learned solo through the 12 key process. By keeping a constant stream of information coming in, you should (theoretically) always be evolving and avoiding stagnation. So, let’s say if you set aside an hour for transcription studies, then I’d split it 30mins on each.”
I must admit, that the above comment threw me for a loop as I was expecting the opposite response. Joe writes that he was dealing with “a small amount of ideas or data”. I feel like he was dealing with hundreds if not thousands of ideas and jazz vocabulary building blocks and that’s only if you think of one key. He was playing these in all 12 keys!
I can’t speak for Joe’s situation but I know for me, I have to use lines and concepts from a transcription while improvising to fully internalize them and be able to be creative with them. I wrote this to a student the other day:
Every time I work on playing a transcription I spend an amount of time playing one part of it with the recording and then I spend much more time analyzing the elements and concepts involved and figuring out how to improvise with them. I improvise with assorted play alongs and tunes with the focus of using the element of the transcription in my improvisation. Not just playing the notes exactly as learned but changing them, manipulating them, making the ideas fit. I always feel like learning a transcription uses one side of my brain but I want to employ the creative side also with the material I just learned. Doing that is what helps me internalize it and makes it useful for me as that process let’s me use a concept in not just one way but by the time I’m done, I can improvise with it and use it one hundred ways. I want to get to a point where it is solidified in my head but the truth is, when I use it the next time, I have no idea what I will do or how I will use it. Yes, sometimes I might play the lick as it was learned but that is not my goal because that is not improvising. The truth is that if you are truly improvising, you don’t know how you will use the idea in the next moment until you are there playing and you decide what you want to do.”-Steve Neff
If I can borrow from the analogy Joe used above, he states that working on these solos was like reading the same book over and over and over again. I would put forth the thought that it is true that learning all the words in the book might be of limited use to a person. If you learn every sentence exactly as written, there will only be a limited number of opportunities that you will find to use those exact sentences in real life BUT, what if you truly mastered the tens of thousands of words in that book. What if you studied and learned how to use those thousands of words in different orders and to communicate different ideas in any and every situation. Chew on this: They say the average adult uses 20-35 thousand words. The average adult book has 90 thousand words in it on average. You see where I’m going with this…………
I would put forth the idea that within these six solos are more than enough ideas to exponentially multiply a player’s vocabulary. The key is the same as the book analogy. It’s not about learning every line to be used only one way but learning how to use every idea and line a hundred different ways if not a thousand……….Bottom line, if you want to take what you a playing in a transcription and make it your own to use while soloing the secret is that you have to……….improvise with them……….
What did you take away from Joe’s well worded thoughts above? Chances are you feel one of two ways:
1.) You feel bad! This is the wrong reaction but I think a natural response. We are faced with the glaring realization of how dedicated, focused and hard working Joe has had to be to accomplish this goal of his and we feel like we can’t do it. It’s impossible for us! Instead of learning something from his words and actions, we turn away quickly. Maybe look at more mouthpiece reviews or other transcriptions to download and add to your transcription” folder on our computer. We write off what Joe has done as “talent he was born with” or a “gift” perhaps, something we just don’t have……..
2.) We learn something from this. This lesson is nothing new, we have all heard of how Charlie Parker had a cymbal thrown at him and went to the woodshed and busted his butt to not “suck” ever again. What is the lesson to be learned? That hard work, focus, and an unyielding dedication to the goal is what is needed to achieve. It is so simple yet so hard for many of us.
If I Should Lose You
My take away thoughts from this project are:
1.) It is better to focus on one goal and master it than to jump around from idea to idea as they attract us.
2.) The benefits of what Joe has done are immeasurable. But let me try:
-He has improved his swing, improved his expression, improved his sound, improved his rhythm, improved his technique, improved his melodic ideas, improved his agility in every key, improved his ability to transpose, improved his ability to conceive of musical shapes, improved his ear, improved his intonation and finally improved his ability to sound like Hank Mobley which unto itself is priceless.
3.) A worthy goal is rarely achieved overnight, or in a week or even a month. Joe kept his eyes on the prize for three years! You can bet that there were times he felt like giving up or moving on. “This is too hard! This is taking too much time! What if this is a waste of time and doing something else would be more productive?” These are thoughts we all have. You have to believe and have faith in the goal itself. You will waver, you will fall, but that belief and faith will bring you back to the practice room.
4.) Joe broke his gigantic goal down into bite sized daily goals. Did you notice how he stated that he learned the solos 8 bars at a time. That he took lines and played them over and over again until he could sing them, etc…… A huge goal like this does no good unless you break it down to “What can I do today?” If I had to guess, I would think that Joe was pretty darned organized every day. Ex. “Today I am working on bars 32-40 of Soul Station in Db…….” You have to break down a big goal into “today’s achievable goals”.
5.) The best goals to have are measurable. I know this personally. Joe made his goal measurable by adding that he would post a video of all six tunes in all twelve keys on Youtube for everyone to see. That goal is measurable but he also made it public. There is no way around it. It is something specific to shoot for and achieve. Contrary to this, a poor example of a goal would be “For the next 6 months I want to get better at playing like Hank Mobley.” Not specific enough, not measurable………It’s more of a wish than a concrete goal that will be achieved. Too vague, how will you know if or when you have achieved it? When are you done?
Watch the videos and think about Joe’s words above. You have two choices. If you are tempted to feel bad about yourself, fight that feeling. Don’t go there. Instead think, what can I learn from this? Let it inspire you………
I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments below. If you have any questions for Joe Garziosi feel free to post them below also. Hopefully he can answer any questions you might have. I want to thank him for his hard work and dedication. I hope his efforts have inspired you as much as they have inspired me. The truth is, I am more inspired and convicted when I see a Youtube video of a player working hard, overcoming and achieving something amazing than when I see a video of a 10 year old child prodigy with perfect pitch playing something most of us mere mortals will never achieve. No matter where you are at, Joe’s lesson of setting a goal, working hard and practicing like crazy applies to you! Thanks Joe!