One of the BEST things you can do is transcribe solos.
One of the WORST things you can do is transcribe solos.
While both of these can be true, no one can tell me that transcribing solos is a poor way of learning to improvise. We are imitators at heart and the best advice I could find was to find a musical mentor, available in the flesh or not, then listen to, transcribe, and learn as much as I could about the music and the man that I could. The second statement is a warning though, and an important one.
When we transcribe a solo we are looking at the finished garment. It is a whole, and as soon as we start to disassemble it into its component parts (its licks or phrases) it begins to lose its integrity, and we find ourselves in the peculiar predicament of owning a bunch of licks and casting about in search of connectors.
There is nothing wrong with playing licks (as long as you can make them work. If we took away quotes from the Jazz repertoire we would have a slim book indeed. Music is at its best when we are standing on the shoulders of our heroes. Each of us, however, is looking for his or her individual voice and that voice is not going to develop when we resort to glueing licks, scales and arpeggios together in the hope they will become a coherent solo. Besides everything else, it is a painful process (as you have probably found out).
The best thing we can do with licks is analyze them and deconstruct them. Learn how, why and where they worked. Learn how they are constructed. Break them down into their component parts. Start to think of licks, phrases and motives as modifiable modules or cells….strings of RNA floating around looking to mix, match, mutate and procreate. Change their lengths, orientation, rhythmic structure, mode, register. Add approach notes and passing notes. Displace them rhythmically. Take this simple strand for example:
A phrase can mutate to fit ANY environment….an infinitely useful perspective. Here are a few examples:
Treat musical motives and phrases like you treat words and phrases in language, and use them in the same way – as a vocabulary you draw upon to create a coherent solo.