This tutorial takes eight bars from Bud Powell’s solo on ‘Oblivion’ from The Genius of Bud Powell (19561), and works with it in different keys, at different tempos, and in different contexts. Doing such an exercise can be helpful in expanding the scope of your own playing.
(I play it here a bit slower than Bud does.)
Transposing the passage permalink
I like to take a passage or phrase and play it in all 12 major (or minor) keys, generally at a much slower tempo so I can analyse what’s going on.
I’ve made a number of annotations on the score of Bud’s solo above to highlight what I keep in mind as I went about transposing it, which you can reveal by activating the switch above.
You can also the score at the top of the page to as you scroll.
The key and chord progression permalink
The first thing I note is that we’re in the key of E flat major, and the first chord is A minor 7 flat 5 (commonly known as the half-diminished chord). I’ve labeled it ♯iv7♭5 (♯iv because A is the sharpened 4th degree of the E flat major scale). The chord progression is a circle of 5ths ending on I (the tonic). The chords that make up the progression are a mixture of half-diminished, dominant 7ths and minor 7ths. In fact, every second chord is a dominant 7th (I guess you’d call the first two of them secondary dominants, but let’s not get lost in music theory nomenclature).
For this transposition exercise, don’t worry about playing the left hand exactly the same as Bud does: feel free to use your own voicings.
Scale degrees permalink
I’ve highlighted some scale degrees (the numbers under or above the notes), which I use as anchor points. Starting at the beginning my thought process might be: the melody starts on the flat 5, moves up step-wise, then jumps to the 4th. I kind of ignore the following broken chord (C↘G↘Eb) as I can see it’s a simple minor 3rd to the 7th to the flattened 5th; but I do note that it then jumps to the sharp 9 of the D7, followed by the flat 9 of the same, and so on and so forth.
Likewise, starting on beat 3 of bar 6 leading into bar 7, I note that we start on the flattened 7th, move up to the sharp 9 and play an enclosure around the 5th of the next chord.
Example: transpose to G major permalink
By way of example, here’s the Oblivion passage transposed up a major 3rd to G major, at a slower tempo so I have time to think.
My brain hurts permalink
This is certainly a lot of thinking. In reality, if you’re transposing live on a gig — for a singer, say — there’s probably not enough time to think in this depth. In that situation you might lean a bit more on your ear. And over time you’ll become better at it (such as being able to spot patterns). And in the case of transposing for a singer (maybe the most common real-life scenario where tranposition is called for), you’re probably only worrying about the chords, which is less of a mental burden than transposing both the chords and melody.
In any case, studying in this methodical, analytical way allows us to learn from a particular musician’s note choices and phrasing, and see how they structure solos. This knowledge can then inform your own improvisations.
Transposing just a single phrase permalink
As well as studying whole passages of soloing, you can also take just a single phrase and play it in all 12 major or minor keys.
Here’s the phrase from bars 3-6 played over a ii7-V7-I6 cadence. I start in the original key of E flat major and move up chromatically.
- I’ve again added ‘scale degree’ numbers below the notes, so as I transpose I say to myself something like ‘start on the flat 3, fall to the 5th, go up chromatically for a couple of notes then go to the 6th, fall chromatically to the sharp 42, which begins an enclosure around the root, then fall to the 5th.’ I might also experiment just using my ear for the keys I’m most comfortable playing in.
- The left hand uses Bud Powell-style root-position open voicings, employing just the root and 7th, 3rd etc. Feel free to use your own voicings.
Using phrases from one tune on another tune permalink
You can take a phrase from one tune, in this case ‘Oblivion’, and use it in another; say, ‘There Will Never Be Another You’.
In this example I use a couple of Bud’s lines to build a solo. ‘There Will Never Be…’ is more of a medium-tempo tune, but the lines work just as well.
The annotations inline describe what I’m doing.
Rhythm changes bridge permalink
You potentially get a lot of bang for your buck when you try phrases out over the ‘rhythm changes’ bridge, as it occurs in many classic jazz tunes, like ‘Shaw ’Nuff’, ‘Bud’s Bubble’, ‘Salt Peanuts’ and ‘Oleo’.
In a contemporary jazz context permalink
It’s probably fair to say that bebop is the foundation of modern jazz, and its influence extends to contemporary jazz, even when the sounds are a bit more abstract or ‘out there’ when compared with straight-ahead stuff. Here’s an example of using the opening phrase of Bud’s solo as the basis of a more contemporary solo.
I’ve chosen a jungle/drum and bass beat over an E minor bass pattern.