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Improvisation: Playing Licks


(Shouldn't there be a prefix "Improvisation"?)
In several discussions several of us have thrown shade on players "stringing licks together". I wanted to talk further about this, injecting a new element and I count on the possible chiming in from various points of view.


We've said, I have said that (in my opinion) good improvising is not just chaining a bunch of riffs together. There is a conditional aspect of this. If you are telling a story and using form and rhythm to do so, then phrases are a legitimate tool. If you picture soloing in a 12-bar blues, many of the best players are actually using common phrases or their own well-practiced phrases. The quality control here, though, is that they use form and melodic and rhythmic variation to create a "conversation" with themselves. Form is thought of as the structure of a song, such as AABA or blues with a bridge, or rhythm changes. The way I see it, you can also have form in a single part of the structure. Inside the 12-bar, there is the sub form tonic, dominant, sub dominant and sometimes other stuff like turnarounds. But inside of each of these is a whole world of structural possibility. This kind of thinking is not what you want to do when you are playing, but when listening to great music, it's a useful tool to understand what makes it great. I give you Oscar Peterson.

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So many bass solos confirm the joke "Drums stop, very bad. Drums stop. Bad. Bass solo."
I believe mostly, this is because for some reason, bass players (and I did play upright bass) often lose all sense of their role when given the spotlight. They turn into showy performers and usually have little or no structure.

Sonny Rollins performances in his saxophone trio, recorded live here, will never lose my admiration, and he is playing with a brilliant rhythm section. It is my opinion that the bass solo by Wilber Ware, starting at around 2:50 is one of the finest expressions of form and structure in a solo played with minimal rhythmic accompaniment.

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An idea for beginning improvisers

It's often suggested here that you take a few notes, and noodle around with them. I have a slighly different idea: find a lick you like, even something you heard from someone else, and turn it into something else inside a form. So, play the phrase, three or four notes, possibly simple rhythmically, like all triplets or all eighth or sixteenth notes. Now play it and eliminate one two notes. Play it a half stope up, or down. Play the notes, changing the last note. Doing this will generate a ton of ideas. You now need to put these together and achieve some kind of development. A firned of mine who went on to play in Tower of Power told me he had "springboard" licks. The exercise I described above isn't enough to actually make music, but it may be a springboard to help you get there.

So I'm all over the place in this little essay, but I hope you'll share your thoughts.
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Oscar's playing is an enclopedia of blues riffs, so to highlight just one example of what I say above, listen to this:
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Each phrase is just 8 sixteenth notes, yet it builds a crystalline structure, going up and up and the chorus ends with a question-answer in the last two bars that he repeats at the beginning of the next chorus. This is the stuff of genius.
Whatever works is fair in my opinion. The key still remains having something to say to a listener. Licks and hackneyed phrases can certainly be massaged into something more than a string of meaningless notes. A good GROOVE can at least give people something to dance to,

Where a lot of jazz improvisation falls down is when the performance is strictly about trying to impress rather than entertain. Post Big Band jazz certainly didn't cater to dancers, so that basic element of rhythmic entertainment/communication was lost. The strict formulae of play the head then each member does an improvisation can also be wearisome for an audience especially if there is no continuity (usually the case) and it's strictly a technical exposition.

Where should the focus be? The music, or the individual musicians and judging their ability to impress? Oscar Peterson is a great example of a musician who can make a piano sing and tells a story. I can't help but smile listening to his playfulness.

This is an excellent post from randulo as it highlights the major difference that I hear in what many people today play (in trying to play this style of jazz) compared to what many of the fine players did when the jazz idiom was new/fresh. The communication was theirs, direct and personal. When today's players simply copy the form and technique they are missing the point.

In my opinion today's players may not be totally to blame, as they have been taught to simply copy the technical aspect of those players. I can assure you that all of those players from the 1950s and 60s were not taught to copy players from 1910! You can play in any style that you want, but in every case if you are improvising IMHO it should be a personal expression with the intent of entertaining (not just impressing with technique). Oscar Peterson is once again a great example of a fine musician who gave his audiences a wonderful experience. You always got a sense of his love and joy. Technique is the facilitator for being able to say something. Oscar Peterson had plenty to say.
Wade, I think another difference is the ease with which we can find info, instruction and let's face it, licks on the Internet as well as the many music schools that turn musicians into virtuosos. In the days you refer to, there was none of that. You had to transpose a melody or solo, tune to the piano, learn from charts that weren't as easy to find, there weren't a million books. This is all fine, the net has served me well (look at this site, the Café). Working more in isolation without the global network, players were more into making it up. There are still a lot of greats plying their trade. The difference is there are probably more "hacks", playing fast and furious rehearsed stuff to impress themselves and other musicians. Musicians are the worst audience, so that's not a good plan. Talking to an audience through your instrument is supposed to be what music is about. In my initial post above, I suggest (on the Internet!) some ideas on how to develop a style, even if you begin with little licks, yours or someone else's. If that leads to just playing what you practice, it isn't the result I'd hope for. A great saxophone player told me "Practice like you play, don't play like you practice".

I don't know if this will make sense to anyone reading it, but I am occasionally impressed to hear an old recording of me and think to myself, "Where did I get that stuff from?". For every occasion like that, there are several where I hear a guy, me, doing exactly what I decry, trying to play fast or complicated that no one will hear. but himself.
Old recordings of yourself can be very revealing. Hearing yourself, with that sound you've been looking for and didn't know you already had. :rolleyes:
Then there's the one where you're out of tune and hadn't noticed at the time.

I agree that there's so much information out there these days. The internet is an easily accessible mine of information.

Back in the day my guide was a few LP's and this book.

101 Jazz and Blues Hits for Buskers | World of Books

I still use some of the arrangements as a starting point

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