I’ve been occupied recently by a project involving jazz transcription. I’m transcribing a recording that I’ve heard dozens of times before, but I’m finding that none of that listening has prepared me to overcome the elusiveness of Oscar Peterson’s hyper-mercurial playing. The difficulty of parsing his chords and runs is offset, however, by the fascinating subtleties that are revealed in the process. In fact, short of transcribing a passage and then playing it myself (good luck), I don’t think there’s a better way to appreciate the greatness of improvisers like Peterson.
I’m sure all the jazz musicians reading this are asking, “So, what else is new?” As a relative newcomer to the serious study of jazz, the hurdles of learning a new history, a new literature, a new theory of music cast long shadows. In retrospect, I think would have been smarter for me to have gotten hardcore about jazz scholarship and analysis long ago. I’ve been listening to jazz as a moderately informed amateur for years, but if I’d been more assiduous about seeking out more recordings and writings on jazz, I’d certainly be in better shape now. Not to mention all the great music I missed out on: My Miles, Coltrane, and Jobim came at the expense of Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, and Coleman Hawkins, whose “Queer Notions” is an absolute mind-bender.
I encourage you to profit from my mistakes: Learn about everything all the time. When faced with the choice between investigating something and not, investigate. Always! Even if it cuts into your Iron Chef viewing time as it has mine, it’ll pay big dividends down the road, when you have to figure out whether Oscar is playing a C-sharp or a C-natural in that ephemeral six-note chord.