Thursday, January 20, 2011

Dick Oatts • “Master Class Demonstration: Bird Blues in (Almost!) 12 Keys” transcription

(Because this is not a commercially available recording, but is instead a "bootleg" of a master class, I'm providing an MP3 of it — Please see the NOTE at the end of this post.)

♫ MP3
Dick Oatts
Plays Bird Blues
This is a master class performance by Dick Oatts, showing what it means to REALLY be able to get around on your horn in all 12 keys. I've heard that in the class Oatts says something to the effect that he's not reallyPDF
Dick Oatts
Plays Bird Blues
trying to be creative here — he's demonstrating how it sounds to have no technical limitations in any key. To illustrate this degree of fluidity, he improvises over Bird blues changes (à la "Blues for Alice"), starting in D and modulating at the end of every 12-bar chorus through the circle of fifths: G, C, F, etc.

And: it's breathtaking! In just over 2 minutes Oatts spins out an impromptu etude that aspiring jazz saxophonists (and players of all instruments) at any level can pore over and shed for a good long time.

If you want to start slow, you could treat it as a sort of "Bird Blues meets Klose" exercise, maybe play a key a day, getting each 12-bar chorus up to speed, then later chaining the whole damn thing together. That alone would keep keep you off the streets for a while.

Then, you could start to mine the many beautiful ii-V and ii-V-I patterns to be found here, grabbing the ones that really appeal to you and shedding them in all 12 keys. You could also spend quality time studying Oatts' use of approach and escape tones, the unexpected way he anticipates and delays resolutions. It's beautiful, inspiring stuff. And that's just getting started.

Basically, these five pages can provide practice room fodder for literally weeks and months...

Before you get going, a few things to mention:
  • This isn't quite Bird Blues in all 12 keys: as he's finishing the chorus in E, Oatts doesn't turn around as expected into A, the only remaining unplayed key — instead, he modulates into the starting key of D, then abruptly breaks off. I'm guessing this is not because he's afraid of blues in A (heh!) — was he perhaps given a signal that time was short and he needed to wrap things up?
  • Any jazz solo transcription contains, AT BEST, 50% of the "data" that makes a solo beautiful and swinging: the notes and rhythms are just the bare bones of a great solo. For example, Dick Oatts is a master of saxophone articulation — he has many ways of playing, sorta playing, not playing, finessing, accenting, implying, stabbing, schmearing, and faking out any given note. This gives his lines a "signature" kind of forward momentum and swing feel that is very recognizable as "Dick Oatts" — AND, it's impossible to notate using any music notation system that would be accessible and readable.

    So, while I've noted some of the "bigger picture" accents and staccatos, the vast majority of wholesome goodness that makes his playing so very compelling is ... not on the page!
  • His "ghost" notes in particular pose challenges that haunt (I apologize for that...) the potential transcriber. Ghost notes are typically notated using an "x" for the notehead, and you'll spot them throughout this transcription. Ghosting notes is sort of the opposite of accenting them: the note is swallowed or played quietly or almost just implied rather than stated unambiguously like the notes surrounding it. It's a common jazz technique, but Oatts takes it to a whole 'nother level: many of his ghosted notes don't even ... EXIST!

    I'm an experienced transcriber, but I've never encountered so many instances where I can unmistakably hear the note, but then when I slow the track down and check it very carefully, there is ABSOFRICKINLUTELY NOTHING THERE! There's a hole where a note seems to be clearly audible at regular speed.

    There are several instances here where, listening to the performance at speed, the note is ... there, and I'm required by the Transcribers Guild to write it down. Slow the track way down, however, and ... note go bye-bye in car. (It's like it's some sort of ghost or something!) The Transcribers Guild doesn't cover this kind of hocus pocus, dammit — so I'm gonna write down the ding-dang note, but show that it's ghosted. Listen for this and you'll hopefully hear what I'm talking about.

That's enough. Get to work!

NOTE: Usually I provide an Amazon link to the solo I'm transcribing. If you don't have the recording, a solo transcription is best used for wrapping fish — however, for just 99¢ each you can download from Amazon many of the tracks I've transcribed in this blog, making these transcriptions genuinely useful! You can also download entire albums, or buy CDs. This whole 21st century thing is turning out to be pretty cool.

However, for the first time in this blog, I'm providing an MP3 of the recording, because it's a bootleg and otherwise you're not going to be able to find it. But maybe I could propose a deal: if you find this track great and cool and interesting, and don't really know Dick Oatts' playing (and if you only know his [outstanding!] big band work, you don't really know his playing), then howzabout you buy a Dick Oatts CD?

I'm surprised more jazz fans don't know Dick Oatts' great quartet and quintet recordings. And in fact, I'm afraid to say it, but if you're a serious jazz alto student and haven't heard much Dick Oatts, there's a fairly good chance you might be ... a loser.

So: buy Standard Issue, Volume 1, as a CD, featured to the left, or as an MP3 download. Oh My God what a great CD!!! I've played it so much the laser in my CD player has burned out all the pits in the disc, so now when I put it on it's just silence. (But, because it's a CD, it's PERFECT silence...) Or buy All Of Three as an MP3 download. Holy Carp! (There's so much more: check out his other Steeplechase stuff, like for example Saxology, the quartet with Bergonzi, as an MP3 download! Just typing about it makes my fingers tremble!)

If you're a saxophonist and Dick Oatts is relatively new to you, you've got some catching up to do...


  1. Eeek! As I've been playing through this very new transcription I've found the first (the only?!?) error: m. 20, on the and of 2, should be an A instead of a G. It's been corrected on the PDF, so any downloads from this point on will be correct.

    This is a brand new transcription, and as I'm playing through it there might well be some other mods I make. I'll use this comments section for errata, and I invite anyone who thinks they've found something that's wrong to put it in a comment here or drop me a line...

  2. Hi there, my names Dan Johnson, guitarist from UK. Been obsessively listening to Standard Issue for a while now, love Dick Oatts playing and sax trio stuff in general. Your transcription is great, I'll look forward to seeing what I can get my fingers round when I get time! I'm sure you're aware but I'll mention Loren Stillman as a similar vibe saxman, his trio alto has a couple of stunning takes on standards. I must transcribe him when I get round to it. Good blog, keep up the good work! Dan

  3. Great work Kelly! Dick Oatts is one of my favorites and this is a great demonstration of his mastery.

  4. Dan: you're not the first person to tell me about Loren Stillman -- I'll have to check him out. (And regarding Standard Issue, I've at least one track from that album that will be put up in the coming weeks...)

    Scooby: thanks for your kind words -- and your transcription web site is an inspiration, of course!

  5. (Dan Johnson) I'll look forward to the that Kelly! What's your favourite sax trio albums, is Way Out West your number 1?!

  6. Favorite trios? Way Out West is WAYYY up there, of course -- and the various boots and whatnot from Sonny's 1959 European tour -- that stuff KILLS, and is maybe my all out favorite stuff! Also: Garrett's Triology; Dick Oatts: All Of Three; Steve Grossman: Way Out East. Who am I forgetting?

  7. Thank you so much for this. I've been working on it for weeks now...
    It helps me so much !! Dick Oatts is the man !!!

    1. Hey Maxence: Yay! Thanks for your note! I'm with you on Dick Oatts

  8. Computers deal with digital representations of music, and the process of slowing down a track while keeping the pitch constant is by no means trivial and involves all sorts of hairy mathematics (the Fourier transform) plus ad hoc cutting and pasting, I just googled up a technical discussion here ...
    So, when a note disappears when slowed down, it could be because the slowdown software lost it. I have two slowdown programs, Audition and Transcribe, sometimes one is better, sometimes the other.