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Discussion Starter #1
Had a discussion with a very good sax player in the D.C. area. In the discussion I mentioned how much I like Eric Alexander. He replied that he didn't like him that much because he played too many "licks" and that I should check out Lovano.

I am within my first year of playing after a 16 year break. Aside from scales and etudes, I practice scale and chord patterns (licks?) in all modes of each scale for improvisation using Aebersold. Is this type of improv practice a bad start for gaining the skill?

So that I am sure I know what a lick player is, are the players I listen to the most considered lick players:

Alexander
Stitt
Woods
Bird
Trane
Gordon
 

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Licks can help very much, but I do think that you should search and make up your own licks. Make variations on the licks you know, etc.
 

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PommesFrites said:
Had a discussion with a very good sax player in the D.C. area. In the discussion I mentioned how much I like Eric Alexander. He replied that he didn't like him that much because he played too many "licks" and that I should check out Lovano.

I am within my first year of playing after a 16 year break. Aside from scales and etudes, I practice scale and chord patterns (licks?) in all modes of each scale for improvisation using Aebersold. Is this type of improv practice a bad start for gaining the skill?

So that I am sure I know what a lick player is, are the players I listen to the most considered lick players:

Alexander
Stitt
Woods
Bird
Trane
Gordon
I believe that practicing digital patterns is a good thing to do. These should be pretty short so as to allow versatility in their use. Perhaps your guy was referring to the longer licks which are harder to apply in diverse situations. Would you care to name the player who said this? I might know him.

As to lick players:

Bird - lots of licks
Trane - fewer licks
Cannonball (not on your list) - fewer yet
 

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No, I wouldn't categorize any of the artists you listed as "lick players" but I believe however, that like a spoken language the jazz language contains some idiomatic and cliche' phrases. Also, phrases that a particular artist uses that become familiar in association with that artist could be deemed part of his "personality" ie; Joe Henderson playing a certain arrpeggio with a trill at the end or that certain "Bird" line that Bird always played in G and D. Of course, these are original to those artists and don't make up a lot of there playing.
 

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Discussion Starter #5
Hammertime said:
Licks can help very much, but I do think that you should search and make up your own licks. Make variations on the licks you know, etc.

I have actually come up with a few while going over some of the written patterns. I think I should start writing them down though.
 

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Discussion Starter #6
johnnysax said:
I believe that practicing digital patterns is a good thing to do. These should be pretty short so as to allow versatility in their use. Perhaps your guy was referring to the longer licks which are harder to apply in diverse situations. Would you care to name the player who said this? I might know him.

As to lick players:

Bird - lots of licks
Trane - fewer licks
Cannonball (not on your list) - fewer yet
I actually don't remember the guy's name. I met him at a Tim Warfield gig at Twins after he played the open blues jam at the end of the night. I only remeber that he had been a student at Howard University.

I listen to Cannonball and Dolphy also but not as much as the other players I listed.
 

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I think I know where your friend is coming from. Eric has a tendency to "plug in" certain licks with a degree of repetition. I have noticed that recently, however, he is getting away from that, and Eric live is very different from Eric recorded. Live he plays a lot more introspectively and with extended, sweeping phrases that don't sound like simple runs being pumped out. It's perhaps not as exciting all the time but it's certainly a lot more interesting.

Of the players you listed, a lot of them created their own arsenal of phrases which they tended to use. However I wouldn't call anybody a "lick player" unless they seemed like an anthology of licks from various past masters. At a certain point in his career, Josh Redman had this type of sensibility going on. And it certainly wasn't a bad thing. Stitt could be considered a more lick-oriented player, but again, he was creating his own language and tended toward certain types of chord shapes, especially on minor tonics, so who can really say?

I think the more powerful distinction to make is between a player who constructs creative lines and phrases in a way that makes sense and a player who mashes together cleched phrases one after another as if to say "look at how much jazz vocabulary I know!" The players you've listed invariably fall into the former category, and the latter is limited mostly to amateurs and college players found in your local jazz club.

FWIW, Tim Warfield is another player who went through a short phase of lick-arsenal-bombardment sort of playing but quickly moved away from it, finding his own, much more introspective style that we hear today. Just last week I heard Tim play at the local Loews hotel on Market street and he sounded fantastic, better than ever. He's a player that continues to move forward and every time I hear him, he sounds like he's that much better at constructing a convincing solo that's all his own, yet taps into the standard jazz vocabulary as a foundation.
 

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The danger in licks and patterns is that you fall into their use because they're under your fingers and it makes you repetitive.

The important thing at all times is to play with soul and play what you hear, IMHO.

Bird did that. If you listen to him play tenor he has the same things going on when he plays alto but with different fingerings... he's playing what he hears rather than what's under his fingers (which was probably everything, LOL).

So long as you are true to yourself and your art... and your heart and soul... then you've got nothing to worry about.

-Dan
 

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Here is a theory that I happen to agree with: 90% of a solo is stuff that you have heard before, and about 10% is new material. So, by practicing licks, you are making 90% of any given solo more interesting.
 

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I understand what the guy was getting at about "licks playing", but I think that it creates confusion due to the terminology, (this post is proof enough). It's a really tired comment. Any musical idea, or pattern, same thing, is a "lick". Think about it: how are you going to get away from playing licks? It's just a way of looking at it. I think it would be much more intelligent to refer to a "licks player" in a way that points out what you think they're doing wrong, such as: someone's not listening and responding to the music well, (unless, of course, they're all just playing licks, (DOH!)), or someone whose run out of ideas, (too much of the same thing), or even as a self-centered player, (look at me, me, me!!!).....
 

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I'd much rather hear someone playing licks rather than running up and down scales, arpeggios and /or patterns...assuming that the word "lick" implies a melodic fragment or at least something more melodic than a scale or pattern (which I think of as more mathematical than a lick) . To me the word "lick" implies a phrase that is part of an already established repertoire of "licks".

IMO a good improviser often strives to be more original, but its almost impossible to do this 100% of the time, so we fall back on either this repertoire of licks or else its scales, arpeggios and patterns.
 

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Jerry Coker points out in one of his books that a soloist needs to achieve a balance between predictability and unpredictability. Too predictable (too many familiar licks) and he is boring. Too unpredictable and he is unintelligible. A listener striving to anticipate what will be played next should have his expectations met some of the time. The rest of the time he should be (pleasantly) surprised.
 

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Daniel Scott said:
The danger in licks and patterns is that you fall into their use because they're under your fingers and it makes you repetitive.

-Dan
That's true, but if you think about Dexter Gordon in particular, what he seemed to do is take that danger and turn it an opportunity to develop an an original and incredibly expressive tone. What I mean is that, when I listen to him soloing, I often catch a sense that his patterns are very practiced, repetitious even, but that this gives him the freedom to just dig in tone-wise.

Could you say that "licks" give you a stable platform from which to project whatever tonal concept you're striving for, or, conversely, that if you're always looking for harmonic novelty and complexity, you might neglect tone?

Rory
 

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Pete Thomas said:
I'd much rather hear someone playing licks rather than running up and down scales, arpeggios and /or patterns...assuming that the word "lick" implies a melodic fragment or at least something more melodic than a scale or pattern (which I think of as more mathematical than a lick) . To me the word "lick" implies a phrase that is part of an already established repertoire of "licks".

IMO a good improviser often strives to be more original, but its almost impossible to do this 100% of the time, so we fall back on either this repertoire of licks or else its scales, arpeggios and patterns.
This is an interesting topic to me, because I've been thinking about this a lot in the past year as I've been working with one of my improv students.

He's an adult who has a good grasp of theory, can read the changes, and would play a solo that had no wrong notes -- but his playing at the same time came off as bland and flat and not hip. As I tried to diagnose what was missing, I realized that part of the problem was that his playing was pretty much entirely free of the jazz cliches and licks that are idiomatic to straight-ahead jazz.

I found myself in the paradoxical position of suggesting we work on incorporating some "canned" licks and whatnot into his playing in order to make his solos seem more creative....

And it's working: as he's been starting to add these elements into his improvising, he's sounding like a more "mature" player. The "licks" (Jerry Coker's "Elements of the Jazz Language" is a great place to start for someone exploring this topic...) give his playing "signposts" or "touchstones" that listeners can relate to and that are really a part of this idiom.

rleitch said:
That's true, but if you think about Dexter Gordon in particular, what he seemed to do is take that danger and turn it an opportunity to develop an an original and incredibly expressive tone. What I mean is that, when I listen to him soloing, I often catch a sense that his patterns are very practiced, repetitious even, but that this gives him the freedom to just dig in tone-wise.

Could you say that "licks" give you a stable platform from which to project whatever tonal concept you're striving for, or, conversely, that if you're always looking for harmonic novelty and complexity, you might neglect tone?
I think this is an astute observation. This is exactly the second half of what's been happening with my student. As he's been incorporating more idiomatic phrases ("licks") into his playing, he uses those perhaps less creative moments to assess not only his tone, but also his phrasing and, especially in his case, his time feel. We've also been using the licks as a way to force more space into his previously more crowded but less interesting playing.

(Regarding Rory's comment about about Dexter, I have a transcription of Dex's solo on "It's You or No One" on my website that perfectly illustrates the point: in fact, he plays the exact same 4-bar turnaround lick at 2 different spots in the solo, but the exquisite tone and time feel and execution means that I didn't even notice the repetition until I transcribed the solo.

And as for Eric Alexander, who was referenced in the kick-off post to this thread, I listen to and enjoy his playing for the sheer pleasure of perfect saxophony: great sound, amazing time feel, absolutely flawless execution. It's just a pleasure to listen to. And yet, I don't listen to him that much.

For creative playing that blows my mind, surprises me, and terrifies me, I'd be much more likely to listen to somebody like Chris Potter....)
 

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Hmm... depends what exactly you mean by licks. From the players you list I'm familiar with everyone but Alexander, and I wouldn't say they are "lick players". That's because, even if some of them are obviously influenced by others, the specific things they play, not only the phrases, but the entire concept of the music and style is unique to them. Some of them more than others. I don't call that playing licks.

My definition of licks is phrases you heard other players use and you memorize them so you can use them too, usually when the harmony is similar, etc. Most players that I hear playing licks today, play licks from players of even decades ago, and it is very obvious that they use them mainly when they can't think of an idea to play. This is not good imo. What I am interested and I like/want to hear is someone who is creative and has a reason behind everything that they are playing. So if you play a lick, ask yourself why you played it, and what is your intention with the music you play.
 

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There's a joke all Shakespeare profs tell about a student who said he doesn't like Hamlet. When asked why he said: "too many quotes.":D

Rory

ps. Kelly: your student is a lucky guy!
 

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Discussion Starter #17
Kelly Bucheger said:
He's an adult who has a good grasp of theory, can read the changes, and would play a solo that had no wrong notes -- but his playing at the same time came off as bland and flat and not hip. As I tried to diagnose what was missing, I realized that part of the problem was that his playing was pretty much entirely free of the jazz cliches and licks that are idiomatic to straight-ahead jazz.
This is the reason I starting learning patterns. I got myself to the point where I can play the scales and arpeggios through the chord changes but did it so much that I started doodling through the changes when I would get bored but ws not making music. Thats when I picked a couple of 3 and 4 note cells and am playing them through changes now. Some days I can embellish them into something interesting. This quote summarizes my challenges. I hope I can find someone to study with after I get settled in Germany so I can improve and get more patterns flowing.

Alexander's improv is so interesting to me and I think it is because of the patterns or licks that he strings together without pause.

I appreciate the input and ideas from everyone!! All we need now is a video teleconference so us beginning improvisors can get some high speed lessons:)
 

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Miles Davis said that the only time he became innovative is when he made a mistake and something came out differently than he intended it to.

Everyone is a lick player...including Joe L. The difference is that some players like Joe will phrase them or present them in a way that seems completely spontaneous. But Parker's "licks" are no less spontaneous than Joe's "licks. It's how he presents them.
 

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I'm a beginner, so what I say on this subject should be read in that context, but I reckon for a beginning improviser such as myself, learning licks might be a good way of learning "the art of the possible" or the language that's "idiomatic to straight-ahead jazz" as Kelly put it. It exercises the link between thinking about the sounds you're playing and actually fingering them and a "learned lick" can of course be the springboard for your own musical pattern or idea so it becomes a means to an end, not just the end in itself. In this way I think one could incorporate licks or ideas from licks into an improvised piece yet still make it entirely one's own.

The upshot for me of thinking this through is that up until now I've not learned any licks at all as I guess I've been relying upon (and getting a lot of mileage out of) all the ideas in my head from 15 years of bluesy guitar playing but I think now might be the right time to start. Luckily I have Nefertiti's Major & Minor and ii/V/I books so I don't think I'll run out of licks to practice any time soon!
 

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Wersax and Pete's comments reflect my first thought when reading the first post here. What's wrong with playing licks? Every good improvisor is playing licks. If you define a lick as an overused, tired cliche', then I might agree you should avoid that particular lick. If you're speaking of melodic fragments (which is my definition), then learn and use as many as possible, assuming they fit the tune you're playing. Finally, most of your audience will not be as familiar with the jazz language and the various licks that have become established. So in at least some cases, that Charlie Parker lick that you think is pretty common might actually sound fresh and new to the 25 year old out in the audience who has never even heard of Charlie Parker. I'm not condoning recycling all the common licks, but keep in mind that not everyone has heard all the same music.
 
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