What Are “Licks”, and What Are They for?


A “lick” is a short pre-learned musical motif or phrase that a jazzer will use in certain musical contexts. If you study the Charlie Parker Omnibook, you will see that, time and again, he uses the same set of notes with the same timing over the same chord changes. He was using licks to navigate those changes. You can say that licks form the basis of a jazzer's vocabulary, but when the player relies too much on them, his playing will sound tired and clichéd, no matter how many he knows. The dilemma facing the jazzer is how much to use licks and how much to create new phrases and lines. Getting the right balance is a very important goal for the improviser.

We need to play a certain amount of familiar material so that the listener can relate to what we are doing. If you never play something that the listener already knows, they will not be able to connect to what you are doing. But if you overdo it, and play mainly lines and phrases that we have all heard repeatedly, there is nothing new for the listener, and so they will get bored. To maintain interest (both our own and the listener's), we need a four level balance between what we expect, close to what we expect, related to but different from what we expect, and what we don't expect.

Of course , that also depends on the listener's knowledge. A new listener may not yet be too familiar with the vocabulary of the music, but an experienced listener will soon get fed up of hearing the same old clichés. It is even worse if the same licks keep cropping up in every solo. How did Parker get away with it? By spreading his licks sparsely through his spontaneously created lines. They became familiar anchor points, not just for the listener, but also for Parker himself. Once anchored, he could then fly off again to create some extraordinary flight of fancy.

There are some licks that will identify the genre of jazz that you are playing. Some will state your interest in a particular player. For example, I once heard a great clarinettist quote from an Oliver Nelson solo. He chose the same phrase that I use to signal my respect for Nelson, and immediately, I felt connected. In effect, I heard the clarinettist's quotation ask, “Listen, Oliver Nelson is part of my music. Do you know him, too?” And I did.

It is interesting that it was Oliver Nelson, because he wrote a famous book called “Patterns for Improvisation”. Now, these patterns did not have a variety of rhythms associated with them – they were just lines of quavers that fit over sets of chords. Often when you hear a sax player blowing a fast line of semi-quavers, what you are getting is unreconstructed Nelson. Even the late great Michael Brecker was often guilty of using Nelson's patterns in this way. But if you listen to Nelson himself, you have to listen hard for the patterns of notes, because he is changing the note lengths. They are there, but Nelson is turning the exercise patterns into music. He is giving musical meaning to the patterns.

And there we have the core question – how do we turn learnt licks and patterns into creative solos?

For a start, we have to experiment. We have to try out the phrases and motifs to see how they work. See which notes we can hold onto, which we can cut short, which we can ghost, or leave out, and which we can change.

Now, the safe player will really stick to what they have practised. They will have done all that trying out in the woodshed. Then, at the gig, they will use what they know will work over a given harmonic movements. They will avoid certain notes and rarely make “mistakes”. You can hear the preparedness in their approach, and it can be beautiful. Other players will be experimenting as they play. Part of what they do is to ask musical questions in their solos – how does this phrase sound over that chord. What if I stretch the middle note, what if I transpose the whole motif? What if it sounds terrible?

Ah well if it sounds terrible, you can always stop.

Or you can learn strategies of recovery – a swift chromatic run or line of fourths to get you back in, then use a nice clear expected lick to say, “it's OK – we're back. I am home again. ”

When I teach improvisation, I go into much more detail on how to make licks sound fresh and exciting, as well as showing ways to build your own vocabulary.