Walter Smith III: Development

Check back often for more analyses, recordings, and thoughts as I work my way through my series of transcriptions.


I’ve said it before: Walter Smith III is, unquestionably, one of my modern saxophone heroes. His sound, time feel, and unique use of vocabulary set him apart from many of his contemporaries in my ears. One of the things so striking to me is how versatile his language sounds. Granted, this trait is true of all great players, but with WS3, it somehow seems more natural. Development is one of the more backbeat-heavy tunes I’ve heard him play, but his language doesn’t seem to change in order to fit the tune. That’s not to say that other players would need to change their language to fit this style; rather, it seems that WS3’s language sounds more at home in more situations. Granted, this is simply my own ear and my own aesthetic – feel free to disagree with me on this point.

Last year at this time, I posted another solo played by WS3. The feel of that solo was much more free – it was in 5/4 vs. this in 4/4, the rhythm section floated more vs. this strong backbeat – and I wanted to find out how WS3 approached the separate ideas. I thought there was something different in his vocabulary that made him feel so at home in both situations. As it turns out (perhaps unsurprisingly), many of his -isms are the same between the two. It made me realize that a little bit of vocabulary can go a long way, if used properly. The most obvious difference between the two solos is WS3’s use of running eighth notes – here, they float much less, most likely due to the stylistic change. Aside from that, his melodic and phrasing tendencies remain pretty consistent.

WS3 doesn’t rely on outside playing very much, but when he does, he tends to make it pretty obvious – there are moments of side-stepping and working through the circle, but that’s about as far as it goes. Melodically, there’s a lot of history in this solo. Check out mm. 13-15 and 36-38: this is a fairly common swing-era melodic cell that got used by a lot of beboppers as well (in fact, it occurs pretty heavily in the Stan Getz solo I’ll be doing soon). The relative lack of chromatic harmony also recalls much older styling. WS3 uses a lot of diatonic melody – in fact, as I worked through this one, I found it surprisingly easy to transcribe because of the amount of time he spends in G dominant.

The thing that first caught my ear and was confirmed as I transcribed is the amount of thematic playing done here. Again, this is true of every great player, but as many of us know, it’s very easy to slip into blues licks and patterns over static-harmony groove tunes. WS3 keeps this whole solo interesting by playing simply and thematically from phrase to phrase, rather than going for the most impressive licks in his arsenal (we all know that he can burn). He opts for subtlety to pique our interest, then rewards our curiosity with the language that we’ve all come to love.

Development – PDF
Buy Voyager: Live by Night
Follow Walter Smith III on Twitter

Dayna Stephens: Mister Magic

Check back often for more analyses, recordings, and thoughts as I work my way through my series of transcriptions.


Here’s another short solo from one of today’s coolest saxophonists – Dayna Stephens. I stumbled onto Dayna in college when I started looking into other impressive young players who came out of NYC via California (Taylor Eigsti, Gretchen Parlato, et al). His sound was the very first thing that struck me; it was the model of the sound I had been trying to craft on my own. The more I listened to him, the more I really appreciated the musicality of his lines. Dayna doesn’t play like anyone else on the saxophone. He has his influences, like anyone else, but his vocabulary is purely of his own logic. He accompanies vocalist Lauren Desberg on her five-song record “Sideways” from 2012, giving a great tutorial on improvisation steeped in music, rather than technique.

The solo chorus takes places over a three-chord vamp, with Dayna trading eights with Taylor Eigsti. It’s an easy warmup for Dayna: he stays within D minor pentatonic for the first couple of measures, gets into a D dorian scalar patten for a couple of measures before a brief slip into chromatic harmony. In the next eight measures, Dayna dovetails on Taylor’s last phrase, seeming to ignore harmony in favor of melodic shape. As he goes on, he recaptures the simple melodic material from his first eight measures, incorporating some of his melodic shape from the first four measures of this eight. In his final eight measures, Dayna uses his most exciting harmonic material of the solo (E augmented triad with F added), favoring a wash of harmonic color, rather than accuracy in melody. As he closes, he uses a false-fingering technique (from his second eight) and one more flash of harmonic color.

The thrill in Dayna’s solo comes from his seeming abandonment of typical melody/harmony relationships over a straight-ahead groove. There really isn’t a lot to the melodies or harmonies he uses; indeed, most of the melodies aren’t what I would call lyrical, and the harmony he uses is largely D dorian. That said, his musical shapes carry this solo. Within the overarching rise and fall of the lines themselves, Dayna has jagged edges within the lines. If we were to graph the shapes, we could do so on many axes: pitch, dynamics, level of melodic dissonance, level of rhythmic dissonance, excitement…the list goes on. I would be interested to hear Dayna talk about his improvisational approach, because it seems like licks, melody, and harmony are very much in the background of his soloing.

I tell most of my students that sound musical integrity can save a poorly executed technical passage. Likewise, something extremely technical without musical integrity can be completely unsuccessful, even if flawless. In this solo, Dayna manages to achieve both sound musical integrity and flawless technical execution.

Mister Magic – PDF
Buy Sideways
Follow Dayna Stephens on Twitter

PS. If you like Dayna’s music, and you’d like to support him, please consider helping him to stay healthy. No one should have to fight alone, and all help is appreciated:

Donny McCaslin: Madonna

Check back often for more analyses, recordings, and thoughts as I work my way through my series of transcriptions.


I don’t remember exactly when I first heard Donny’s playing, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it was on Maria Schneider’s record “Concert in the Garden.” I was definitely in my sophomore year of college, trying to soak up as much vocabulary as possible. When I heard Donny’s playing (whenever it was), I remember being blown away at his technical ability. This was around the time that I was all about Brecker, so Donny’s playing spoke to me on that level at first. The more familiar I got with his music, the more engrossed I became in how intricate and clever his solos were. It wasn’t until Donny was a guest artist at the University of Oregon that I got to spend some time with him (after talking baseball, health food, and living in New York) and find out more about his approach. This solo struck me at first because of its brevity (I’m starting to notice a trend in some of my solo selections here). The more I dug into it, I noticed more of Donny’s logical construction; his ability to take relatively simple concepts and string them together into something bigger and decidedly more complex is a hallmark of his playing that I’ve noticed – wait until we get to the Sky Blue solo.

Normally, I don’t include articulation markings in my transcriptions – it’s part of the learning process that requires the recording. In this case, I couldn’t avoid including them. One of my favorite parts of Donny’s playing is his rhythmic concept. Even though they may sound that way, his lines aren’t overly complex. They sound complex because of Donny’s ability to subdivide in unexpected ways. Starting around 6:49, Donny plays a triplet-based pattern that sequences up and feeds into a more 16th-note-based line. I’ve heard pianists talk about this occurring frequently in Herbie Hancock’s playing – I don’t know enough about Herbie’s playing on a technical level to comment, but maybe this is where Donny got the seed. Though his line starts based in triplets, he plays them in four-note groups, making it sound more complex and displaced than it actually is. You almost don’t notice his switch to 16th notes when he does finally arrive because he’s made his transition so smoothly. This technique of smoothly shifting between subdivisions is one that I’ve picked up in my own playing and have found useful for taking relatively simple melodic material and making it more interesting. Check back next week for another game I use with some students based on this.

The other simple concept that Donny frequently employs is the use of intervals as melodic kernels. In this solo, he focuses on fifths. They aren’t the widest of intervals, but they certainly aren’t the most melodic-sounding when played in sequence. Somehow, Donny manages to make a six-measure string of fifths sound just as melodic as the bebop line that follows them. As far as my ear is concerned, he achieves this by both sequencing in a logical way and by varying the direction of his fifths. At the 6:34 mark, he begins by sequencing ascending fifths down in whole steps (tracing G7 with each note of the quintad), then changes direction to trace F7 with the top note of the following descending fifths. Here, we see Donny combine a simple technique, like playing all one interval, with his concept of shifting subdivisions from 8th notes to triplets, all while maintaining a melodic arc within the harmony.

As I’ve mentioned before, I enjoy short solos because of how much power the great players can pack into them. This solo is certainly no exception. Donny is at his finest in this band, and highlights many of his most effective techniques. It serves as a reminder for me that, as players, we don’t need to amass a huge vocabulary of licks. Instead, we can take the vocabulary we have and reimagine it or shift our perspective. I find more and more that the great players don’t always have the most licks, they’re simply the most creative with the vocabulary they possess.

Madonna – PDF
Buy In Pursuit
Follow Donny McCaslin on Twitter

Scott Robinson: How About You?

Check back often for more analyses, recordings, and thoughts as I work my way through my series of transcriptions.


I first picked up “Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans” because I had met Ryan Truesdell and had great respect for his process and dedication to good music. It helped that I knew some of Gil Evans’ music, but I hadn’t really checked it out in much depth. If you haven’t checked out Gil much, you should know that he’s a master of orchestration, and an incredibly gifted arranger. After I got over the classiness and intricacy of the compositions, I noticed the individuals on the record. In the liner notes, Ryan explains: “In Gil’s compositional mind, a soprano wasn’t just a soprano, it became Steve Lacy; a trumpet became Miles Davis, or Johnny Coles.” As Ryan organized this band, he “chose each person on this record for what [he] felt their individual voice would bring to the music,” much in the way Gil would have written for his band. It’s this aspect of the music that makes this solo so great.

I’ve been a fan of Scott Robinson since I first heard him in Maria Schneider’s band while I was in college. His sound on the baritone is an all-encompassing history of jazz baritone, with a voice all his own. He’s been an inspiration to me as a doubler (he regularly has at least five woodwind credits to his name on recordings), and as a section player; his baritone is the warm bottom of every reed section in which he plays. In Ryan’s Gil Evans band, however, he holds down one of the tenor/clarinet chairs. I had never known Scott as a tenor player, and was consequently blown away when I discovered that he was the force behind this solo. In a band featuring so many great soloists (Donny McCaslin, Steve Wilson, Dave Pietro…), it’s obvious that Ryan gave this solo to Scott with purpose; his sound, his feel, and his melodic concept fit this piece like a glove.

Scott’s ability to use pseudo-contemporary language in a way that connects to an older style makes this solo so enjoyable for me. I play in a 1930s-era swing band every week, and always struggle with the balance of playing in the style of the era without abandoning too much of my vocabulary. Scott seems to strike the perfect balance in this solo. I say pseudo-contemporary because he doesn’t use much chromaticism typical of many modern performers. He does use a good deal of bebop language – not so much so that it takes away from the era of the song, but enough to make it more melodically adventurous. For example, in his first two phrases, he resolves to the ninth and major seventh, respectively. Aside from those moments, he sticks mainly to chord tones and passing tones throughout the solo.

The brevity of this solo was one of the most striking things I noticed at first. As I listened more to the album as a whole, it stood out because of its relative lack of modern language. The more I dug into the solo, the more I realized that Scott was incorporating himself into this classic tradition, rather than molding himself to it and playing a caricature of the style. This is a lesson I can learn over and over again – incorporation beats imitation any time.

How About You? – PDF
Scott Robinson’s Bio
Buy “Centennial”

Thematic Improvisation Through Games: Dovetail

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned a technique used by John Ellis where he picks up the last note of a phrase to begin his next. I’m sure we’ve all heard this before: one soloist ends on a long note, and the next soloist uses that note as a springboard for their own improvisation – check out Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderley on Milestones for a great example. I think of this technique as melodic dovetailing; it’s effective at drawing parallels between what has happened and what is to come. Rather than two disjointed phrases, you have a very clear question and answer relationship. Obviously, you don’t want to overuse this technique, but it can create great moments of continuity (especially for casual listeners) in a solo that may otherwise tend towards stream-of-consciousness. I prefer to think of this game as two-sided: melodic and rhythmic.

Melodic Dovetail

Miles’ use of this Dovetail is about as perfect as you can get. He restates the melody almost identically that ends Cannonball’s solo. As Miles’ solo continues, he uses Cannonball’s phrase as a point of departure for much of his solo that follows. In fact, if you listen to the end of Miles’ first bridge, he uses the same phrase again. Miles was a master of thematic, purposeful improvising, and is still the first place I go when I need inspiration for thematic development. When I present this concept to my students, they usually feel pretty intimidated; after some brief explanation, they understand more fully, are off and improvising themes by the end of the lesson.

We start with connecting one note – specifically, the last note of a phrase to the first of the next phrase. It doesn’t matter at this point if the preceding note will fit into the following harmony. The idea here is simply connection from one phrase to the next. As they get comfortable with just the last note of the phrase, I introduce the idea of using more space between the two phrases – connection over a longer interval. From there, we take longer and longer pieces of the melodies. I find this beneficial for my students in two ways: Firstly, they’re immediately immersed in motivic thought. Whether or not these first motifs are the coolest in the world, the student finds satisfaction in connecting phrases effectively. Secondly, students are more engaged in the notes they play, not simply wiggling fingers (a common pitfall for young improvisers). Because they need to remember the notes they play in order to repeat them, they give more thought to the melodies they create.

Rhythmic Dovetail

This concept is one that I haven’t found many examples of – partially because it’s harder to hear, and partially because it’s not executed as often (by non-drummers). I studied a lot of Michael Brecker in college, and learned a lot from his approach. He’s probably one of the main reasons I think more rhythmically about improvising (he was quite an accomplished drummer, and has a rhythmic language all his own). On one record, Time is of the Essence, Brecker brings in three drummers to play with his organ quartet: Bill Stewart, Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts, and Elvin Jones. If you take a listen to most of the record, Brecker’s melodies have been steeped in rhythm, most likely thanks to the presence of the three master drummers. Listen to “Renaissance Man” around the 2:30 mark. After a quick flurry of notes, Brecker ends the phrase with two eighth notes. As he continues on, he repeats the rhythm a couple of times before modifying it. After he modifies it, he plays another brief flurry of notes and ends that phrase with another modification of the two eighth notes. As he goes on, he plays yet another brief flurry of notes, ends the phrase with another modification of our two eighth notes, and then begins another rhythmic dovetail with a new end of a phrase.

As I mentioned, this technique is harder to hear, but adds a great deal of variety and has little to do with melody or harmony, which I find helpful for young improvisers. Brecker’s example is a good one to see where this concept can take you if used creatively. For my students, I treat this much in the same way as I do melodic dovetail: Come up with an interesting rhythm at the end of your phrase. Begin your next phrase with exactly the same rhythm. The notes can be different, as long as the rhythm happens the same way. As students get more comfortable, they recreate longer and longer phrases, based purely on rhythm. This, again, gets students paying closer attention to the solos they play, and more importantly, to how they end their phrases. Many times, I hear young improvisers simply trail off or end abruptly when they run out of air. This method helps to give finality to a phrase of music and helps students feel confident from beginning to end of a phrase.

Hopefully this will give you some new approaches to try with your students (or perhaps in your own practice). As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts about these techniques and your success (or lack thereof) with them.

Take a look at the examples I’ve discussed here.

John Ellis: Mestre Tata

Check back often for more analyses, recordings, and thoughts as I work my way through my series of transcriptions.


I love transcribing blues. Since coming to Chicago, it really hit home to me just how important the blues (both the language and the form) are to our art. Over the course of the last year, I catalogued as many of the blues in my listening collection as I could in an effort to see how many ways a blues could be approached. I never did anything with it, but it was enlightening to me just to hear the myriad ways all of the jazz heavyweights approached the form – consider the variety of melodies alone; from Charlie Parker to Ornette Coleman to Sam Rivers, everyone has their own take on both composing and performing the blues.

“Mestre Tata” has been on my radar for quite a while. I remember first seeing this DVD in college, having never heard of John Ellis before, and was completely blown away by this saxophonist. He had control over his altissimo, a great tone, and was playing all these cool, meandering lines through chorus after chorus of blues. At the time I had no idea how John was constructing his lines – they sounded so fluid and natural to me, but I knew he wasn’t just playing blues changes. This solo slipped away from my conscious efforts and I continued to grow and work. Now that I’ve revisited it, I’m still not entirely sure of his process, but I have a couple of theories that work for me.

I discussed in an earlier transcription analysis of Bob Reynolds the mixture of blues language with bebop. John employs a similar technique. This solo is drenched with the blues – he uses the blues scale and pentatonics all over the place – but John takes us outside of that world for extra tension, in effect, making the blues (a typically tension-filled scale) sound like home. My favorite instance of this occurs from the fourth chorus to the fifth chorus (mm 37-51). The first eight measures of the 4th chorus are solely blues material – the blues scale   alongside pentatonics and a momentary shift to the minor IV chord in the fifth bar. When we arrive at the last four measures of the chorus, John shifts into chromatic bebop language, full of chromatic enclosures and arpeggios that clearly outline the harmony. What makes this technique more interesting is that John employs it on larger and larger levels. To start out, he stays mainly in the blues world with momentary glimpses of chromatic language. As the solo continues, the ratio shifts to a more chromatic language. However, every time he brings us back into blues language, no matter how brief, we sound like we’re home because of the foundation set up at the start of the solo.

In tandem with his use of bluesy vs. non-bluesy language, John is a master at thematic development. The most obvious example of this occurs in the sixth chorus; through the first eight bars, John spins the same motif, changing it as necessary for the harmony. To end the chorus, he breaks into non-bluesy, melodic material. Moving on from there, John picks up the last note of his melodic material and begins a new chorus from there. I teach many of my students an improvisation game that deals with this technique (I’ll post about it in the next week). While I don’t think John is actively thinking about this game (or similar techniques), I’m sure he has internalized a variety of ways to develop themes and motifs across the choruses. Another example of John’s ability to maintain a motif across choruses occurs from chorus 10-11. Starting in the fifth bar of chorus 10, John starts an arpeggiated motif, planing through a couple of different keys before arriving at more chord-based melodic material. At the start of the 11th chorus, John reignites the arpeggiated motif, but shortens it into two triad pairs instead of seventh chords. This motif lasts almost the entire chorus before he finds his way back to our home base of blues language.

There are so many other readily recognizable techniques employed by John throughout this solo that I didn’t cover here. He’s one of the most unique players in our generation, and has myriad techniques (among them are his rhythmic feel, how he goes inside to outside and back again, and his affectation of notes). Whenever I think of John’s playing, I think of singable melodies and incredible time-feel. This solo is no different, and leaves a reminder that you can play the blues and still sound creative.

Mestre Tata – PDF
Follow John Ellis on Twitter
Buy “Right Now Live”

John Wojciechowski: West End Avenue

Here it is: the first in what will be a biweekly series of transcriptions lasting throughout 2015. Check back often for more analyses, recordings, and thoughts as I work my way through these solos.


In the summer of 2003, I went to Birch Creek for the first time. Although he wasn’t an instructor during my session, many of the other students at the camp talked about this saxophonist who had been a part of the first jazz session (I attended the second). Someone had a recording of director Jeff Campbell’s trio recording (West End Avenue), featuring John Hollenbeck and John Wojciechowski, and played this track. I managed to get my hands on the track and listened to it ad nauseam in the months that followed. It wasn’t until later that I got my hands on the rest of the record, and even later than that that I truly appreciated the music recorded. To anyone who enjoys chordless groups, I highly recommend buying it wherever you can – I haven’t been able to find it online anywhere lately, so if you have any leads, please let me know so I can share.

This solo is one of the first I ever really latched onto and needed to learn. Immediately, I was struck by the inside-outside language that John uses. Now that I’ve revisited the solo, it stands out even more because there isn’t much of it.

  1. The first instance, in mm. 42-44, was the first lick I ever remember wanting to learn. Now, I simply hear this as side-stepping E minor and moving up by a half step, but at the time, I had no idea what that was or how side-stepping sounded. The quick arpeggio in m. 43 tonicizes F major to my ear and keeps us there until John reintroduces the C# of E dorian in m. 44.
  2. The second instance, in mm. 75-76, I remember wanting to learn in grad school as I tried to hone my turnarounds. This is a simple tonicization of A minor: John plays a clear E7(b9) outline to lead to A minor. But what of the Eb-F-Ab? I interpret this as a preparation of E7 through the Eb diminished scale – I encounter it most frequently in the vocabularies of piano players. There seems to be a certain sophistication (almost old-school) when preparing your dominant in this way. Granted, there’s only a few notes, so he may have thought of this in an entirely different way, but this is my blog…
  3. The last instance occurs across the first half of the last A section (mm. 85-92). We hear John play the melody and then immediately begin to sequence. The first lies with his side-stepping motif from earlier. Then he picks up the last note (F), then moves away by a tritone (the C#, which lies within E dorian). To finish this sequence, he side-steps again (mm. 88-89). To get back to E dorian and close out his solo, he cycles through F major and Bb major after a couple of chromatic approach-tones.

To my ear, the most striking thing about this solo is John’s inventiveness within E and A dorian while going outside of that harmony only three times. The melodies are particularly memorable, and without flash, save for one exception (mm. 45-52). When I think of great modal solos, especially in a chordless format,  I think of players that can superimpose harmony at breakneck speeds. Anyone that has heard John play knows that he can burn with the best of them. In this solo, he has made a decision to focus on well-conceived, singable melodies. This is a solo I come back to when I need to remember that not every solo needs flash and monstrous technique. Thanks for the reminder, John.

West End Avenue – PDF
Follow John Wojciechowski on Twitter