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The Reason “Licks” Became a Four

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This article is in response to an article by renowned NYC jazz
Practicing saxophonist, Mike Lee titled, “How Did ‘Licks’ Become a Four
Recording Letter Word?”
Word?”. Click here to read it if you haven’t done so already.

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The Reason "Licks" Became a Four Letter Word » Best. Saxophone. Website. Ever. 4/4/19, 6(14 AM

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Mike and I agree on one thing. There is no faster way to go from a

clueless beginner to sounding like a jazz musician than
learning licks. I’m going to explain why, in my opinion, it’s a
shortcut you shouldn’t take and how it’s a dead end in the long run.

Magical Entropy
Jazz has a delicate balance between order and chaos chaos. There is
something terrifyingly chaotic about standing on stage without
knowing what you’re going to play and knowing you’re going to be
judged for it, so it’s understandable why many musicians prefer to play
it safe and prepare licks at home to play at their shows.

The problem is that chaos is where the magic is. Maybe not if you play
a couple of shows a month, but definitely if you perform nightly. If you
let yourself improvise every day on stage for thirty days you’ll notice
you make tiny changes to your playing every night and by the end of
the month they accumulate to something substantial. Your
understanding of your playing and the direction you want to take it will
be much richer and deeper .

The Safe Route

If your playing is mostly comprised of playing licks you will be
executing your licks better, but you will be stuck at the same spot
musically. Furthermore, you’ll find that the more you play your licks the
less impact they seem to have for you, the band, and as a
consequence the audience.

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The Reason "Licks" Became a Four Letter Word » Best. Saxophone. Website. Ever. 4/4/19, 6(14 AM

Let’s take the lick approach to the extreme.

Sit down and try to write the perfect chorus over a blues. You’re
welcome to use licks from any saxophonist in history you wish.

Did it work? Of course not. What limits players is rarely the

format (playing in real time), but their imagination

Breaking Out of The Comfort Zone

If you want to get better you will need to start noticing new things in


rhythms that are not in your wheelhouse (different subdivisions,

ways to switch between subdivisions, groupings, etc) RECENT COMMENTS

articulations Jamie Dech on The Reason “Licks” Became a Four Letter

sounds you’re not utilizing and harmonic tools you are not aware
of. Jamie Dech on How Did “Licks” Become a Four Letter

But beware – the same temptation to organize things too quickly can Eddy Bourjolly on A Killer 12-Key Workout Using
be detrimental here as well. If you want to play more triplets in Coltrane’s “Countdown” Transcription

your solo it’s not enough to learn a lick of triplets. You’ll need to Martin on Is it Worth Buying a “Pro” Model Saxophone?
insert triplets to your playing in a way that allows you to develop ideas, – Part I

improvise, and that leaves enough chaos for you to improve and Larry Weintraub on Susan Brecker On the Legacy of Her
explore. Husband, Michael and the Saxophone Competition in
His Name Page 3 of 6
The Reason "Licks" Became a Four Letter Word » Best. Saxophone. Website. Ever. 4/4/19, 6(14 AM

Being Prepared for “Real World” Musical

Another issue with learning licks is how inflexible it makes you as a
player when it comes to playing in varied situations. I’ve heard players
that spend their time learning modern jazz licks rife with substitutions
and superimpositions get completely and utterly lost on simple
swing songs since none of their licks work.

Ignorance is Not Bliss

Some might say that while basing an entire solo on licks is not
necessarily great; it’s good to learn some licks to use in your solos as
needed. It’s important for me to pause here and say that I don’t
encourage ignorance.

It’s essential to transcribe other players and figure out what

they dodo, but the next step should be an analysis of the components
and a thorough breakdown of the lick – not memorizing and parroting.

Examine if there are any physical movements inside the lick you find
difficult or awkward and learn how to smooth them out and
incorporate them into your playing. Figure out how the notes fit in
the harmonic context, the rhythms sit against the groove and
what is emphasized by the tone and the articulation that player
is using.

At the end of the day a lick is a pre-set combination of rhythm,

pitch and timbre in a way that fits a musical situation which will
never repeat itself identically. What you should do is train yourself
systematically in rhythm, pitch and timbre to be a creator of licks,
rather than a repeater of licks.

Danny is a co-leader of the jazz-fusion band Marbin

Marbin. To
download/stream a live recording the band recently made
available for FREE please visit:

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Danny Markovitch is a co-leader of Marbin. Marbin is a fusion band
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« How Did “Licks” Become a Four

Letter Word?

One Comment

Jamie Dech
APRIL 2, 2019 @ 11:12 AM

….. maaaaybe. But in a sense, aren’t even scales and arpeggios “licks” in
that they are progressions through sets of notes that we work to
become familiar enough with that they become second-nature, and
we own them to the point we can use them in truly unique and
musical ways. Perhaps if you think of licks as different forms and types
of scales, you two are closer than you think about the need to not Page 5 of 6
The Reason "Licks" Became a Four Letter Word » Best. Saxophone. Website. Ever. 4/4/19, 6(14 AM

merely memorize licks but practice them (as Jamey Aebersold would
say) with different articulations and timings until you FEEL them and
then they become a part of your style. Just a thought.

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