As I’m sure you know learning tunes and lots of ‘em is one of the most important things a player can do, in fact you really have to do it. And the faster you learn them the better. But I mean REALLY learn them.
‘Learning’ a tune means totally absorbing it into your ear and into your memory, the melody, the changes, the form and rhythm, to the point where you don’t have to think about it while you’re playing.
The first thing to do, of course, is to choose a tune. Just make sure you choose a tune that’s not too ridiculously advanced for your present skills. You want to choose a tune that you can actually wrap your ears around.
You would then start by listening to a recording of the tune to get the basic sound of it in your ears. Then get a copy of the tune, the lead-sheet and look it over. You’re looking to get an overview of the tune. You’re looking for things like form (is it AABA, ABAC, a blues, etc), what key is it in, and what’s the time signature.
Then you would slice it up into pieces, break it down into small bite size chunks. Simplicity is king when it comes to practicing jazz. So start with something like the first phrase, just the pitches, no rhythms. If simplicity is king then repetition is queen. Repeat the phrase over and over 4 or more, or many times while reading it. Then repeat it from memory by ear. Pay attention to the melodic shape, the relationship of the pitches to each other and any other details that your ear slowly uncovers through repetition.
Then move on to the next phrase. And so on. Then you would go back and work on bigger chunks of the melody, like the first two phrases together, still just the pitches. Repeat this process until you have the entire melody memorized and can play it by ear without thinking about it. The more you repeat it, the deeper it will become engrained in your ears and your memory.
Use this same method to go through the chords, again keeping it simple, perhaps just two chords at a time, gradually adding the next. You may start with just the root notes of the chords, then the guide tones, then root position and so on. Repeat this until the sound is in your ears and you are not thinking about what you are playing, only listening and letting your ears guide your body. Now do this exercise everyday for a week and you’ll have the tune. Then review once a week for awhile. Call it sessions and put it in your listening rotation.
Now, slow and steady wins the race. This might seem counter intuitive, but the slower you go, and the more thorough you are, the faster you will absorb the tune, and the faster you will actually sound good playing it.
And the more thoroughly you learn a tune (the sound) the faster the next one will come. A lot of the same skills and information will carry over to the next tune and the more solid you lay your foundation as you go the better.
As you learn more and more tunes you will be able to learn new ones faster and faster. As you improve with this and your ears get stronger and stronger you won’t have to break the tunes down quite so much. Just let your ears be the judge.
The goal is to practice the tune until you essentially own it. Like you own happy birthday or some other tune you’ve been hearing your whole life. And repetition is the key. Repetition creates memory. Literally, repetition will hard wire the tune into your brain. And the only way to really be free and improvise on a tune is to get the tune hard wired into your brain.
One of the reasons that a lot of the great bands sounded so great is that they played the same book, or the same tunes on the road, night after night for months or even years. After awhile they could play the music in their sleep. And that’s when the magic happens.
Once you have learned several or many tunes from lead sheets and your ears are becoming more and more aware you should start learning tunes by ear, from recordings or from another musician. Remember this is music. It is all about the ears.