COLUMNS Just One Lick !
By Bill McBirnie
The great jazz pianist , Mulgrew Miller , once said during a clinic when the students were peppering him with a lot of questions , “ Just find a lick you really like … and make it your own !” This is absolutely THE best advice on how to learn to improvise !
You may think that learning licks will hinder you from developing your own style . Well , any great player is recognizable , in large part , because of their licks . In fact , that is what enables you to distinguish Lester Young from Ben Webster ; or Joe Henderson from John Coltrane ; or Cannonball Adderley from Paul Desmond ( setting aside the issue of their sound ). So , clearly , even amongst the greatest players , there is no shame in knowing a few good licks .
What is important here — and should be very encouraging for you to understand — is this : If you learn just a few good licks , and perfect them in all keys — and learn to generalize from the sound and the feel of them — then you will soon find yourself well down the road to becoming a good improviser .
Licks are a valuable melodic source , because they encourage you to see the key area as a small pool of notes from which you can develop further melodic ideas . And when you start to see a key area in that way , you will not be as preoccupied with whether the key signature is “ easy ” or “ hard ”. In fact , any of the flats or sharps will become — not an intimidating factor but merely — a distinguishing feature that you won ’ t need to think or worry about — because you know how the key area feels under your fingers .
A lick is a pithy phrase , or a stock pattern , that is peculiar to the idiom , or characteristic of an individual player . Any good lick will have the following three characteristics :
1 . It will display strong time ( i . e ., the rhythmic aspect ) 2 . It will have a nice shape or contour ( i . e ., the melodic aspect ) 3 . It will imply one or more chords ( i . e ., the harmonic aspect )
This first sample lick is one that “ flows ”. You can practice it , and loop it , as if it were an ongoing line in an improvised solo .
Note the structure of this lick . It outlines a III-VI-II-V progression ( also known as a “ turnaround ”). The relevant ( i ) chord changes and ( ii ) functions are included above so that you can see how the harmony ( the chord progression ) relates to the melody ( the line ). Come to a good understanding of this lick , and then start practising it . Make a “ template ” of it , and work it carefully through all the other keys .
This lick is interesting rhythmically because it has a Charleston figure embedded in it . It is also interesting melodically because it has a nice shape and contour . ( The first bar opens with a scale , followed by a leap and a pivot ; the second bar opens with an arpeggio followed by another leap and a pivot .) This lick is also interesting harmonically , because the underlying chord progression is very easy to hear .
Practicing a lick through the cycle of fourths is a logical way to proceed . However , moving the lick chromatically through all the keys is perhaps more beneficial because , by moving them up or down in half steps , this will force you to alternate between “ easy ” and “ hard ” keys — and this will strengthen your digital fluency in all key areas .
You will come to appreciate that , whether the key signature is ostensibly easy or hard , you are only working one key area at a time , and you are learning what that one key area feels like . Get to the point where you are not concerned with the key signature , because you want to know exactly how each key area feels ! This kind of digital fluency will eventually enable you to create melodic bits , quickly , onthe-fly — in any given key area .
So , this simple two-bar lick has a lot to it , including strong rhythmic , melodic and harmonic qualities .
Learn to generalize from the sound and the feel of it — in every key — because this will help you enormously when you start to improvise on your own .
Bill McBirnie is a jazz and Latin fute specialist who was personally solicited by Sir James Galway to serve as his resident Jazz Flute Specialist . Bill ’ s most recent release , The Silent Wish ( with Bernie Senensky ), was nominated for a 2020 Juno award as “ Best Instrumental Album of the Year ”. All of Bill ’ s Extreme Flute albums are available at BandCamp and iTunes . You can also find out more aboutBill at his website : www . extremefute . com .
32 CANADIAN MUSICIAN