A high school student recently asked me if I did a lot of focused listening. I sensed he asked because he was wondering if it was worth all the work. He had just returned from the highly regarded Interlochen jazz camp where they emphasized listening to recordings over and over while focusing on a single instrument and then interactions among the instruments. I do something similar and have found it’s the most effective way to learn and memorize new songs.
What’s the method? Listen to the song until you can sing the melody. Then play the melody by ear on your instrument. Next, listen to the bass line to figure out the chords (using transcribing software is invaluable for repeating sections). The bass will often play a root at the start of a new chord. Try to hear if the bass is playing a major or minor third, and listen to the piano for more clues about chord quality.
I try to learn from a recording that’s considered definitive and/or easy to pick out the melody and bass. Sometimes I get stuck and then I’ll look at my fakebook. That might get me back on track or I might realize this recording is using different chords (a cool way to learn about substitutions) or the fakebook is just wrong. It’s surprising how many errors fakebooks contain.
So is it worth the work? Yes. Memorizing from a sheet of paper doesn’t have nearly the same sticking quality and the recordings are a much richer source of information. In the short time I’ve been using this method I’ve memorized more tunes than I did in all the years working out of fakebooks. I still use fakebooks and sheet music because I often need to perform way more tunes than I can learn in a short time, but I try to always be hammering away at one tune with this method. Tunes learned this way stick and it’s fantastic ear training, especially for being able to hear and identify chord sequences.
Try this approach with one of the designated tunes for the 1st set. Look ahead on the schedule and pick out a song you like. Spend the time to really learn the tune. Then come to the jam and play it without music and feel how liberating that is! Then pick a second tune and repeat the process. While you’re learning the second tune come to the jam and play the first tune – it’s okay to call the same tune in several sessions. Before you know it you’ll have a bunch of tunes memorized and feeling more confident at the jam.