Your 'Bag of Licks'

Fillin' it n' pickin' 'em out!

Knowing major scales is one thing, knowing chord types is another; having a well-controlled internal metronome is incredibly important and listening to a lot of jazz is a no-brainer.  So why is improvising still quite difficult for many?

There is a world of difference between knowing and doing but there is a deeper area to investigate on the 'doing' side:  the fight between inspirational source and ego.  Put simply, your inspirational source will have you playing what you know and feel in no time; your ego will not.

Rather than highlight the negative in this article, I'll highlight ways one can continually learn to neglect and ignore the ego by focusing only on the inspirational source.  So, going deeper still, let's look into it and one of its favourite things: the bag of licks.

Your inspirational source is unique to you.  Unlike the ego, what flows from it affects your behaviour in positive, true ways, even if, like the ego, it is made up of your likes and experiences.  In other words, if you hear a nice 'lick' executed by a jazz pianist, your ego will one day say "You can't play that thing he did!" whereas your inspirational source will say "Play that thing he did!" and you will work it out and do it and be satisfied and motivated by having done so.

So what is a lick and how might the inspiration source use it during practormance?

A lick is a melody from a few notes to a few bars in length, sometimes repeated as long as desired, which works over one or more chords as a song progresses.  They usually sound bluesy or highlight a transition between two different chord types, as well as creating tension to resolve (or not!) a progression.  Having a few 'fixed licks' in your bag that you can pull out when it feels right is a great asset and, of course, the more the merrier.

The ego wants to find licks based on laws, scales, safe notes and safe fingering but how limiting is that?  By playing a chord or alternating between two chords (Dm7, G7, for example) with your left hand along with a metronome set comfortably (around 100bpm), observe your right hand fingers and see where they go.  This is the most difficult thing, to silence the over-analytical ego and just let the inspirational source have fun.

It is surprising how many notes actually sound acceptable when played against any chord type.  The ones that don't are only ever one semi-tone away from those that do and more do than don't.  That means, quite simply, that all 12 notes from the chromatic scale work with every chord type... even if you need to pass over a few of them quickly... but they still work as part of a lick!  The inspirational source knows this, the ego hates it!  No rules? What? You can't play that! It's not in such and such scale...


Before moving on, listen to some examples of licks used by the Greats. These are also known as 'signature licks':

Oscar Peterson's run from 0:21-0:24 is something he does often.  What about at 2:23-2:26? That descending idea is unique to him and is heard in other recordings, too.  The descending lick at 3:08-3:11 is not uncommon, either.

Red Garland often does what appears at 2:16-2:17 (then very soon after at 2:19-2:21) in this video.  The bluesy lick at 23:26-23:28 is not uncommon.

Thelonious Monk would play clashy-sounding chords, completely on purpose, of course.  Consider here at 16:55-17:03.  Very often, he would haphazardly hit (literally) interesting or purposefully out-of-key notes on off-beats.  An excessive example of this occurs from 27:12.

So, what can a lick involve?  In music theory, the word 'ornamentation' applies here:  an ornament is a decorative touch to a melody line.  It is not the lick itself, just how certain notes or note combinations can be played within a lick.

Examples of ornaments in licks can be crush notes (playing D and Eb together but releasing the tension note, the D, so that the Eb may continue alone), grace notes (playing 1-3 notes chromatically before the target note, from above or below, quickly as if all one note: C, Db, D to Eb), chromatic connecting lines between two target notes (G to D, via all chromatic notes as if sliding up a guitar or making a lovely run on a tenor saxophone) and a mordent or turn.  These are basically the same, implying the target note is 'decorated' using the note above and below, the former being like C, C#, B C and the turn being like C, C#, C, B, C.

Not only are the notes involved, licks can be rhythm/timing based.  A personal lick in this way for me would be no matter which notes I'm playing, even if I'm playing a fixed melody, I often highlight beats 1, 2 and 2.5 by 'clustering' a melody or collection of notes and doing nothing for beats 3-4.  That said, I may put the cluster anywhere but I'm highlighting the fact I like to cluster notes over 2.5 beats.  It's just what I do!  I also grace note from the b5 to 5 whether alone, as part of a melody or in a chord.

Licks may also involve highlighting notes of interest.  I personally like the 9th and #11.  Despite being a jazzer, I'm not such a fan of the 13th but I appreciate its quality.  I know people who don't like 11/#11 notes unless they're played quickly as passing notes in a longer phrase; I like to highlight them and by that I mean finishing a phrase on them, extending their duration or maybe playing them as octaves for a while before continuing with the piece/melody.  Again, that's just what I do!

So it is important to have your own bag of licks.  Regrettably, many resources exist online where one can start copying great artist's licks which is ok for analysis but certainly not to take away and 'use' since, unless you truly like them, you're denying the world of Your Own sound.  Oscar Peterson recalls a story in an interview in which he met a pianist who played everything note perfect by Art Tatum but when asked to play something that Art had not yet recorded, the guy couldn't play!

You see, despite having the technical ability to imitate Tatum, he couldn't play a thing of his own!  What a waste of an obviously very good technical ability and excellent ear.

Don't fall into that trap.  Listen a lot but don't 'become' them.

Start filling Your own bag and listening to your inspirational source.


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