Sonny Stitt – Barkan The Blues (part 2)

Wrapping up Tenor Month with part 2 of Barkan the Blues!

Part 1 ends where the piano solo comes in after rehearsal mark ‘Q’. Sonny picks up in bar 3 of section ‘R’ after the piano solo and blows for two choruses before jumping right into trading fours with the drummer for two more choruses (sections ‘T’ to ‘W’).

The drummer takes a chorus at ‘W’ and Sonny is back in with the head at ‘X’. At ‘Y’ it sounds like he’s going to play the head again, but really they go into a four-bar vamp/tag that carries them through the end of the tune. I did my best to pick up the changes that they are using on the turnaround, but it’s likely wrong!

This was a fun one to transcribe and play! I’m glad I toughed it out to the end. Although this concludes tenor month, I think I’m going to try to mix it up more in the future.

I should probably do a bari month at some point as well…




Woodshedding 101

If you think something is too difficult to play, it’s just because it’s unfamiliar. Remember that picking up your horn to make a single note felt impossible at first. But with repetition, everything gets easier.

Keeping that in mind, here’s my foolproof system for woodshedding any difficult piece, along with one weird trick that you have to try to believe!

Step 1 – Break it down

Play through the passage that you want to learn at full speed. Mark any sections that stress you out, whether you played them correctly or not. Sometimes you get lucky! If a passage makes you nervous, it’s because you don’t know it well enough.

Break the above passages down into manageable phrases that you can tackle one at a time, ideally not more than a few measures at a time.

Step 2 – Slow it down

For each phrase, slow it down to a tempo where you can play it effortlessly. Use a metronome!

If you want to truly master something, you need to practice it until it becomes effortless and stress-free to play correctly.

Step 3 – Practice backwards!

Here comes the trick: Learn the end of the passage first and gradually work your way to the beginning. Let me explain what I mean with an example from one of my recent transcriptions. Below is a four-bar phrase from a Sonny Stitt solo. The first and last lines are the complete phrase for reference.

Start practicing on line 2. When you can play that perfectly, effortlessly at your chosen tempo 5x in a row, move on to line 3. If it’s too hard, slow down your metronome and try again.

As you progress down the page, each line builds up the entire phrase from the back to the front. Once you can play the entire line perfectly, effortlessly at your chosen tempo 5x in a row, increase your metronome speed by 5-10 bpm and start again on line 2.

The more you play something, the more familiar it is, and the easier it is to play. Most people practice phrases from the beginning to the end. When they make a mistake, the stop and start over.

When you do this, you end up playing the beginning of the phrase far more often than the ending. This means that no matter how well you know the phrase, you’re subconsciously losing confidence the further you go. When it comes time for a performance, you’re more likely to make a mistake that might derail the entire phrase.

When you learn something from the back to the front, the opposite effect takes hold. Your confidence increases as you play! And if you make a mistake at the beginning, you’re more likely to be able to recover and finish the phrase strongly because you’ve done it before dozens of times!

Step 4 – Put it all together

By following the above steps, you’ll eventually learn entire phrases (by themselves) at full speed. Now connect the phrases in the same way: Play the last phrase of the song first. Then add the second to last, etc.

It’s not necessary to write things out as I’ve done above. I do this in my head as I practice. Use your own judgment to decide how to break down the phrases. I’ve shown a variety of ways above. You don’t always have to add 2 or 4 notes. There’s no right answer for every piece and every student. Find out what works for you.

Happy woodshedding!


Sonny Stitt – Barkan The Blues (part 1)

I wanted to end Tenor Month on a high note with a nice meaty solo. I’ve done a lot of short solos lately, so I picked something long. 5 pages, 16 choruses, 200+ measures of up-tempo Bb blues.

This is a Sonny Stitt solo that I used to listen to a lot in High School. I had it on cassette tape!  I remembered the track vividly, but I couldn’t remember the name or the album it was from, so I scoured his catalog looking for it and finally tracked it down. But I love this track because it’s so in the pocket and straight ahead. I read a review that trashed it, but I have to disagree.

This wasn’t hard to transcribe, and not too hard to play…at 200bpm. But he plays it at 230bpm, which is definitely out of my comfort range! I spent hours ‘shedding some of those lines and a few still got away from me. And after all of the altissimo work I’ve been doing lately, I missed the one high G!

One of the things that I love about Sonny Stitt is how he played both Alto and Tenor, something which you rarely see. And he has his own sound on each horn. That makes sense to me because I definitely approach things differently when I’m playing each different horn.

I’m going to try to finish the back half of this tune next week, but it might take longer. He blows a few more choruses, trades with the drummer, re-states the head, and blows some more. It’s as long as the first half! Tenor month may continue into October…



P.S. I updated the PDF to include both parts 1 and 2 of the solo, covering the whole track from start to finish. The video above is only part 1, stay tuned for part 2!

Bob mintzer – The Chicken

I have so much to say about this track! No, there is too much, let me sum up. I’m oddly obsessed with Jaco Pastorius. I listen to him more than I listen to some saxophone players. I wore this album out several times over. I had it on vinyl back in the day before it was released as a two-disc set.

I’ve always loved this track in particular, and this amazing solo by Bob Mintzer. I’ve met Bob a few times, the first was when he worked with my high school band. We commissioned a big band piece of his and he performed the premiere with us. I love his writing as much as I do his playing and have played many of his charts over the years.

I wanted to switch gears for the back half of tenor month and do a new transcription, something I had never worked on before. This fit the bill perfectly. The transcription flowed really easily since I knew the solo so well. But it’s quite hard for me to play!

I love Bob’s playing on this track – his sound is big and soulful. The solo is funky, yet has some beautiful jazz lines and phrasing at the same time.

As always, I get hung up on the altissimo, especially the stuff right over the break. But it’s getting easier. I really have to relax and try less hard (if that makes sense) to make it work.



One Year!

I started this blog a year ago, and I’m happy to say that it’s still going strong! You never know what to expect with this kind of thing…

I set out to accomplish some specific goals, so this feels like a good to reflect on the last year.

I started this blog because I wasn’t practicing enough. I was playing plenty of gigs, going to lots of rehearsals, and teaching a lot of lessons. I was playing a lot, but I wasn’t setting aside time for self-improvement. I have a full-time day job as well as a family with a toddler, so finding time to do all of the above and then practice is a tall order sometimes.

The personal practice time that I did have was focused primarily on transcribing, because I enjoyed doing it. I find it meditative and fulfilling. In recent years I had gone deep into what some might consider ‘niche’ content, mostly Maceo Parker and Lenny Pickett. But I wasn’t playing much of the stuff that I transcribed. Much of the Lenny Pickett stuff I couldn’t play at all. But I had hopes of publishing some day, so I focused on throughput.

I’ve since given up on the idea of publishing physical books. It’s an old-media concept. I rarely buy music books any more myself. I imagine that I’m not alone. I doubt that transcription books sell in large quantities or produce much revenue for any of the parties involved (especially relative to the amount of effort that goes into them). So I had the idea of starting this blog instead. Publish my transcriptions online. Give them away for free. Learn to play them. Practice in public.

I set a goal of publishing one blog post a week with a transcription of my own and a video of me playing it. Publishing them gives me a sense of accountability, even if no one else is paying attention. I notice if I don’t publish anything. And I cringe at every missed note in every video.

I’m happy to say that I’ve not only met my goal, but I’ve exceeded it! I published about 75 solos in the first year, exceeding my goal by almost 50%!

Many of the solos were things that I had transcribed previously, but not all. There were many weeks where I was able to transcribe, learn, record, and post a new solo entirely within the week – even meaty multi-page ones that required serious practice time.

There were months when I did more, and months when I did less. When I was traveling a lot I occasionally had to bank a future solo or two to keep the publishing pace somewhat steady, but the average worked out well.

Along the way, I learned a lot. My execution has improved noticeably (at least to me). People always say that you should record yourself when you practice and listen back to it, but how many musicians actually do this on a regular basis? It’s humbling, which also happens to be a super-effective tool for self-improvement.

I never set any goals for engagement with the blog, videos, or PDFs. That’s probably something I’ll think about more for the upcoming year. A few stats:

  • 9,000+ minutes of viewing on YouTube
  • 30,000+ PDF views on Scribd
  • 6,600+ views on WordPress
  • 2,500+ visitors to WordPress

I post these not to impress anyone (because they are not very impressive), but to compare against going forward. I don’t charge for my transcriptions. They aren’t perfect because I make mistakes. So I’d have a hard time taking people’s money for them. Besides, they are valuable educational tools (even with the mistakes), so I’d rather see a few more people benefit from them than to earn a few extra pennies here and there.

That’s all for now. Thanks for reading if you’ve made it this far. I know that the coming year will have some challenges (more on that later), but I hope that my Two Years! post will continue the positive trend.



Lenny Pickett – Business is Business

If you’re a fan of Tower of Power, but don’t know about Strokeland, go fix that right now, I’ll wait.

This is another killer Lenny Pickett solo. And what a great song! I just love a good hard-swinging 12/8 feel. I used to be intimidated by them, but it’s just 4/4 with a heavy triplet feel. Notating and reading it can be tricky sometimes if you don’t do it often, but it never gets old to play over.

I definitely got tripped up on some of the rhythms and a few of the high parts, but I’m amazed at how much easier the upper register has become for me just in the past few weeks since I started tenor month. This ‘practicing’ trick is useful!

Also, how great is Huey Lewis at this style of music?! I was already a fan, but now I want to hear more of him in this style.



Skip Mesquite – You Got to Funkifize

Funkifize is one of Tower of Power’s most famous songs, and this is the definitive recording. The tenor solo is short, but iconic. For years I assumed that this was Lenny Pickett, and then I learned that it was actually Skip Mesquite, the original lead tenor player for TOP.

Sadly, Skip passed away a few years back, but his work will live on forever.

The opening is the hardest part – a cold start on altissimo E, held out pure and clean for three bars before devolving into a wash of overtones. With these high solos, I have to hear myself, so I only use one earphone, which makes it harder to match pitch with the soloist.

The fourth bar is one of those effects that I think is impossible (and impractical) to duplicate exactly, but I did my best to approximate what’s going on.

The rest of the solo is straightforward, and super funky!

I don’t know the full back story behind how Skip left Tower and Lenny came on board, but it’s clear from this recording that Lenny Pickett didn’t invent the style from thin air, he was heavily influenced by those that came before him (as is always the case).

If you want to better understand your heroes, listen to who they listened to!