In the latest entry of our “Featured transcriber” series, we chat with pianist Fred Greene. Fred’s Soundslice channel is full of some of the baddest jazz and gospel piano transcriptions that you’re going to find. In this interview, we find out more about his experience with these genres, ask him for tips on transcribing difficult piano passages and discuss his perspective as a teacher of modern music learners.
Soundslice: Fred, thanks very much for being the first pianist in our “Featured transcriber” series. We were blown away when you started posting your detailed transcriptions.
Fred: Thanks for having me! I’m humbled and excited to do this — it’s actually my first interview.
Soundslice: The first thing we want to ask (selfishly) is: How did you come across our website? The reason for the question is that we tend to be better known in guitar-playing circles.
Fred: I was looking for some type of software to sync videos, notation and a virtual piano keyboard. I’m not very knowledgeable when it comes to technology — I was having a lot of trouble finding something that was both easy to use and, honestly, free.
I happened to see a post on Instagram from you guys and I said, “that’s what I’m looking for.” It blew me away that the free sign up gave you access to all the notation features. It was also so easy to use! I thought, “If I can figure out how to use this, anyone can.” :)
I did notice that the site was was guitar-heavy, but it was still exactly what I needed to create the kind of content I was picturing.
Soundslice: Well, we’re glad you found us. Speaking of content, your channel is full of fantastic transcriptions, and from your Instagram profile, we see that you’re also a wonderful player. Would you tell us a bit about your musical background?
Fred: I started playing in church when I was a teenager. I was learning mostly by ear, trying to pick new songs off of the radio. I got more serious when I was about 15, and at 19, I decided I wanted to pursue music full time. I was already in college — I actually changed my major to music. It wasn’t until then that I had my first private lesson.
Like I said, until that point, I had relied so much on my ear. My reading and technique were garbage. My new teacher introduced me to classical music, and over the course of four years I focused just on that. Learning classical music really improved my technique.
Like any other music major, I studied music theory. I got serious about what it meant to become a student of music. After I earned my associates degree, I went on to UMBC [Maryland Baltimore County] to study jazz piano. That’s where I learned everything I know about jazz. I studied under Harry Appleman — he really broke down my playing and taught me to play with intention. I have always been a bit of a sponge when it comes to learning, and I soaked it all up.
Soundslice: It’s both impressive and inspiring to hear that your first private lesson wasn’t until you were 19. Do you maintain your classical chops?
Fred: Yes and no. :) I practice classical music from time to time, but it’s just for analytical study. For example, I love working on Bach’s fugues. Seeing how he maneuvers through chord changes is amazing. Or with Chopin, I love to see how he will voice a specific chord.
Soundslice: So you’re still pulling from that tool chest. Well, speaking of practice, in a video you recently shared on Instagram, you show yourself practicing 1-6-2-5-1 ideas along with a metronome. Is this a typical drill that you work on?
Fred: Wow! You guys really do your homework. No, I don’t always practice soloing with the metronome. It was something I used to do, but I’ve honestly gotten away from it. My goal this year is to make that a consistent part of my routine.
Soundslice: What’s that routine like?
Fred: This year, my focus is on developing stronger lines in my solos. I work on a lot of bebop, and as you can see, and I do a lot of transcribing of my favorite soloists. I’m interested in understanding why a specific line works melodically and/or rhythmically.
My favorite pianist is Bill Evans. He was a master of harmony, so that topic is what I spend a lot of time working on. Bill could take a simple chord structure, make it so big and complex, but still hold the listener’s attention. I’m always searching for that kind of thing when I sit at the piano. I am looking for my own voice.
Soundslice: Bill’s a master. There’s actually a nice collection of Bill Evans slices on our site (many made by you!) We’ve put them into a playlist here.
But a bit more about your practice: Lines seem like a straightforward concept to buckle down on, but how do you approach your harmonic studies? It can seem like such a dense topic!
Fred: Yes you are right! I develop my harmonic vocabulary by listening to my favorites — Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau — particularly to how they approach certain jazz standards. I try to learn by ear exactly what they play on those classics. I ask myself, “Why does this work so well?” and “Why does it sound good?” I then try to put what I’ve heard into a different context and make it my own.
[Here’s an example of Fred doing just that with his own reharm of “Someday My Prince Will Come.”]
Another approach I recommend is to explore your instrument! I think that’s the most underrated thing in music education. Some of my harmonic vocabulary was discovered by accident as I was just trying things out on the piano. I try to dedicate a few minutes of exploration in my practice session. Try it!
Lastly and most importantly, I am a student of music theory. I study and read about music, and I love analyzing why certain chords work well with others.
Soundslice: You are indeed a sponge, Fred! That’s a great tip about exploration. Noted! Since you mentioned music education, and I know that you’re an instructor, would you tell us a little about that part of your life?
Fred: I am a private music instructor at Music & Arts. I have over 50 students that I teach weekly — the ages range from 4-75. I love teaching one-on-one lessons, because each session is personalized. It’s humbling to watch a student grow as a pianist — I’m proud that I now have students that are pursuing music professionally, and going on to attend arts schools..
Soundslice: Your students are lucky to have you! This may be hard to answer, but do you notice any differences (for better or worse) in how younger musicians approach learning jazz compared to when you began your studies?
Fred: Well I consider myself young at 33. :) But to answer your question, I see mostly positive things with younger musicians. They have access to so much free information, just through YouTube alone. There are so many great tutorials and resources to learn jazz — nowadays you don’t necessarily have to go to a university. All information is in your pocket!
On the flip side, I do think the access to all these resources can make some people lazy. The way the greats learned was by doing the hard work of transcribing the language, understanding the language, and then adding their own voice to that larger conversation of jazz. It’s not enough just to mimic and sound like another musician.
Soundslice: Well let’s talk about transcribing. You’ve got a wonderful collection of jazz and gospel pianists on your channel. Is there an overlap for you between these genres? (Musical or otherwise.)
Fred: Yes! As I mentioned earlier, my first influence is gospel — specifically contemporary gospel. There is definitely an overlap for me. In fact, the only reason I got into learning jazz was because I would look up the influences of my favorite gospel pianists: They were listening to and practicing jazz. When I started studying jazz myself, I could see the similar chord voicings and scales. I admittedly don’t practice gospel as much anymore, but I still keep my ear very close to it. You may see it bleed into my playing — it’s part of my roots!
Soundslice: Well it’s a really beautiful combination of styles. Are there any pianists you might recommend listening to that also blur the line on these influences?
Fred: Cory Henry is the first pianist that comes to mind! I used to follow his playing before he became famous with Snarky Puppy and the “Lingus” solo. :) It’s hard to put him in a box, but you will still hear that gospel flavor with jazz chops.
[A Soundslice transcription from @cromerosaxofonista of that “Lingus” solo.]
I’d also recommend Shuan Martin! He’s played with Snarky Puppy as well as the legendary gospel artist Kirk Franklin. Nick Semrad is another great pianist to check out — he often plays with Cory. There’s a cool clip on YouTube of them playing a gospel song together. I’d say those are the guys that capture a nice blend of both gospel and jazz.
Soundslice: That’s a beautiful clip of Cory and Nick. Thank you for the recommendations!
One last question for you on transcribing: Do you have any advice for single note players (like me!) that want to get better at transcribing what they hear piano players do? It can feel a little overwhelming to be confronted with the polyphony of both hands.
Fred: Yes, it can be overwhelming. I would start with mastering hearing the right hand. Learn the solo without the comping chords in the left. I believe an underrated skill in piano transcribing is simply distinguishing what’s being played by what hand.
[Here’s a right-hand transcription of Bill Evans.]
You should focus on learning transcriptions from songs that you already know very well — preferably blues or something with a very simple chord structure. That way you’ll have some context as you try to hear what they’re doing.
When you move on to the left hand, study the art of left hand rootless voicings. From the early players to even the most modern, you’ll hear these same voicings recycled in the left hand. A great resource for this is The Jazz Piano book by Mark Levine. It has a whole chapter on it.
I would say, “Don’t cheat yourself!” I never settle for close enough when it comes to transcribing. Sometimes I can stay on one chord for thirty minutes or an hour until I get it just right! I’d also say, “Use Soundslice!” It has really helped me. I can isolate and loop a chord or section at a slower speed to make sure I catch every nuance of a chord!
Soundslice: Phenomenal advice (and praise!) We will gladly take it all. :) Since you plugged us, do you have any dream feature requests from us?
Fred: To be honest you guys are amazing! I can’t think of anything that you guys should add that you don’t already have. You’ve have made transcribing much easier for me!
Soundslice: Shucks. Fred, I think that about does it. Thank you again for taking the time to talk to us. We appreciate your craft, and we’re grateful to have you around the site!
Fred: It’s my pleasure! Thanks again for the great resource and platform. You guys are amazing.