Collecting licks for your jazz solos

Your life won’t last forever
Have you done enough?
Are you simply baying at the moon?
Do not go gentle into that good night

What is wrong with the above? Does anything seem out of place or incongruous?

It’s verbal Frankenstein. I created three mediocre phrases and then slapped a great ‘lick’ from Dylan Thomas in at end.

I have an idea… Let’s teach poetry by giving people great licks to insert into their poems that will make their prose sound better – more sophisticated.

Here’s a few licks to memorize and put into your poems:

  • To be or not to be: that is the question
  • Tis better to have loved and lost
  • Tread softly because you tread on my dreams
  • I took the road less traveled by
  • If I should die, think only this of me
  • I wondered lonely as a cloud

I’m writing this after watching a Youtube video of someone demonstrating a couple of dozen or so jazz licks by Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Oscar Peterson, etc.

While there can be value in hearing and seeing the notes comprising those three to four bar lines, the person posting the video gave no explanation of what to do with the licks . Tell me I’m wrong, but I fear people will assume they should memorize the phrases in order to regurgitate them within their ‘improvisation.’

This goes back to my post last year on jazz becoming a caricature of itself. My opening “poem” was a caricature of poetry.

Even worse, let’s just put the above six iconic poetry lines together and call it a poem.

After only one week since its posting, the Youtube video I mentioned has amassed nearly 40,000 views and nearly 100 comments praising it and encouraging more of the same.

If at the end of my grand jazz teaching experiment, I end up failing to influence a significant audience of jazz players it will because I never gave people what they so desparately wanted: the specific notes to play within their jazz solos.

But I can’t possibly know what notes to give you. They’d be my notes, my phrases, my emotion, and fragments of my story.

Seeing and hearing iconic jazz phrases is benefitial, but only within the proper learning context. To provide that context, the description I wish would have been written under that Youtube video goes like this:

Here are some phrases recorded by a few of the greatest jazz musicians to ever play this music.

Listen to them and compare the notes they played to the chords. Go ahead and practice them in order to strengthen your technical fluency and to feel the notes coming from the movement of your own fingers.

Resist the temptation, however, to memorize these phrases and insert them into your solos. They are not interchangeble building blocks for helping you sound like a master.

Each of these phrases were components of a complete solo, therefore, they each required a context for them to have their full meaning and weight.

One advanced way of using these phrases is to play and record one over a rhythm track of the tune (I’ve provided a list of the original tunes from which each was extracted). Then immediately following that phrase, play your own phrase. Listen back to the recording in order to judge the continuity of your phrase and the melodic composition of it.

Again, this exercise isn’t intended to create more building blocks to memorize and stuff into your performances, but to help you strengthen the compositional fluency of your own playing.

Last, remember that authentic jazz improvisation is a statement about YOU. It reflects YOUR life, YOUR emotions, and the story YOU wish to tell the world. The world doesn’t want to hear you tell Charlie Parker’s story. That musical identity has been taken.

Using the notes of others in order to sound like you are improvising is not jazz. While it may sound like jazz and impress others by your parroted note choices and technical fluency, the result is simply a caraciture of this music. If you choose that direction for your music, just be honest and aware of your choice.

Yes, there is a standard acceptable style to playing jazz in the traditional authentic manner, and you learn that style by emulating the masters. The question to ask yourself is, where is the line between learning the phrases and solos of the masters such as Bird, Trane, Chet, Miles, J.J., Wayne, Herbie, and others – and performance of my personal and unique musical voice?

In other words, how best will you tell your story musically without being a clone of others? What is unique within you that can’t be expressed using the notes and phrases of other players? Is your authentic expression being smothered by the urge to sound like someone else?

You may or may not possess the strength of talent or instrumental prowess of the masters, but regardless, are you allowing the full expression of YOU to come out of your instrument or through your singing? Be aware of limiting your improvisation to what has already been played and therefore risk drowning in a sea of sameness.

I’ll leave you with something Randy Brecker shared with me in one of my Jazz Master Savvy interviews with him. This was an important lesson brother Michael helped him realize.

Eary in Randy’s career, he went through a period of working through a Woody Shaw solo transcription book. One day after playing a solo for Michael, expecting Michael to be impressed by his developing jazz prowess, Michael’s reaction was…

Randy Brecker on emulating Woody Shaw

Did that mean Randy should not have spent that time learning Woody Shaw solos? No. Certain aspects of Woody’s playing crept into Randy’s style which added to his vocabulary. But that vocabulary was and still is very much Randy’s own.

As I wrote earlier, there is value in playing the solos and phrases of the masters, but only if you do it as the means to add ingredients that facilitate your own musical voice.

If Randy had dedicated his life to simply becoming another Woody Shaw, would we all know Randy Brecker as a 7-time Grammy winner and giant among trumpet players?

28 thoughts on “Collecting licks for your jazz solos”

  1. Dear Mike, great article!! Very strong ideas which with I totally agree with just one small point: I HATE your use of the word LICKS in your otherwise well written and informative piece. I get it that you are trying to get the attention of the people that use that term but its not cool with me anyway. Those great iconic solos are not just made up of LICKS, they are in the best solos like George Coleman’s solo on MILES IN EUROPE ON AUTUMN LEAVES or HERBIE’S SOLO ON THE SAME TUNE ETC are made up of creative interesting and spontaneous melodic ideas that are linear in nature and are PUT TOGETHER WITH A GREAT SENSE OF CONTINUITY AND COMPOSITIONAL UNITY that are much much more than LICKS!!

    Please forgive if I am too passionate about these things but they are very deeply part of my daily life and years of accumulated teaching and thinking and discussions with my jazz brothers like Lieb, Randy, John Scofield, Jabali, Ron Mclure, and of course, Mike Lake

    Mike, thanks for another great blog!


    1. Richie, I’m not considering any of the solos you mention to be created from licks. Exactly the opposite. I’m using the word deliberately and derogatorily as a contrast to the specific solos and artists you mention. The premise of the post is to say, “Let’s not use licks in our solos. Let’s improvise. Let’s compose.”

      1. Mike, bro, if you are saying exactly the opposite THEN SAY THAT IN YOUR TITLE OF THE BLOG PLEASE!! Change the title of your blog as you suggest to NOT use licks in our solos!! Let’s IMPROVISE!! Let’s CREATE!!

        Thats brilliant, true, and not misleading ,


        GREAT TITLE!!

        Totally counterintuitive in my opinion. I could be wrong but I don’t think so.

        Anyway WHATEVER title you use, it’s a great worthwhile blog!

        1. If people make it this far into the post and comments, I hope they will appreciate the jazz world’s single most passionate player, teacher, and advocate (and leading user of ALL CAPS and exclamation points). Don’t ever change, Richie!

          1. Haha !! Good one Mike. But if you look at the last comment I wrote ITS NOT ALL CAPS!! I think I am climbing down from my passionate ledge to at least the terrace!!!


  2. I’m trying to think of a Bob Brookmeyer “lick,” and… as far as I can tell, there are none. He was always inventing something new, never just filling space. Most of the greats — including Bird, JJ, Diz, Miles, etc. — were guilty of filling space. BB, nope, never. If he had any stock licks, I missed them somehow! Same goes for Kenny Wheeler (sorry to keep mentioning him in every comment, but he’s my guy, the past 10 years or so — the musician I most regret not having seen live)….

    1. John K., listen friend, I have no idea what you are talking about. You are claiming, and I quote, MOST OF THE GREATS –BIRD MILES WERE GUILTY OF FILLING SPACE, BUT BOB BROOKMEYER NEVER DID!! HUH?? I played with Bob and Kenny Wheeler and I can tell you that Bob, Kenny, Miles, Diz, Wayne, etc ALL have their own VOCABULARY and they have created this vocabulary over years and during their improvised solos sometimes might REFER TO ONE OF THEIR OWN IDEAS. I hate that fucking word LICK, but to say that MILES DAVIS WAS GUILTY OF FILLING SPACE makes no sense? Miles, who MADE A VERY WELL KNOW POINT NOT TO JUST FILL SPACE BUT TO EMBRACE THE SPACES IN BETWEEN HIS PHRASES!! He was KNOWN for that EARLY ON!! I don’t know which miles records you are talking about. KIND OF BLUE?? Sketches of Spain?? My Funny Valentine?? These recordings CELEBRATE AND EMPHASIZE MILES’ CONSISTENTLY CREATIVE AND ELEGANT SENSE OF LEAVING BREATHING SPACES BETWEEN HIS GREAT IDEAS AND NOT NOT FEELING OBLIGATED TO FILL IN ALL THE SPACES!!

      1. Richie so glad you pointed this out, the genius of the greats, aside from their profound composing abilities, was in their carefully procured phrasing and unique vocabulary yet spontaneous execution of it where the space between phrases is just as important if not more in certain tunes/tempos. People hear the language differently I suppose but the more experience we gain we naturally acquire the ability to hear what truly resonates in our own souls from the masters. And to me that deep inspiration and experience is what can guide in our own learning as players. By the way Richie I consider you up there with the Masters, Trust and Elm are two of my favorite albums of all time. Also I hate the word “lick” as well, also using the word “jazzy” describing music haha

          1. Point taken, Richie — but geezus, lighten up, these are off-the-cuff comments on a Web site! I stand by my original comment, though. Bird, for example: He played the clarinet lick from “High Society” so many times, it’s not even funny. JJ’s solos were full of his own cliches — that’s why he’s so easy to copy (badly). Miles, he had plenty of stock phrases, too — I may have been painting with a broad brush saying he “filled space” — that’s more true of the other guys I mentioned. But if you’re saying Bob and Kenny had stock licks, can you give some examples?

          2. Piano, rhodes, moog etc. Three decades ago as a kid i started listening to ecm, blue note records and all the miles and trane I could. All the ECM guys, including you and Keith, Chick, R.Towner, Eberhard W., Pat and Lyle, Frisell, Oregon etc y’all quickly became my heroes and my guiding light as a player. It seemed like the pianists and guitarists were heavily influenced by Bill Evans, another huge hero. When I first heard you on a record it instantly resonated and seemed multilayered with this way of conjuring an immediate unique effect, a complexity, tricky and edgy. So many layers touched upon so quickly in your playing and a serious command of the piano that seemed different. It was the three Abercrombie quartet albums at first and your tunes on them, wow! I guess I was trying to summarize but it didn’t really work out lol. So thanks for your wisdom, nuanced sophistication yet ballsy virtuosity, and the huge inspiration of your influence. I’m sure there are many others like me. Thanks for the magic, Richie.

          3. Hey Richie, looks like I put my comment in the wrong place below in response to your question

  3. Mike/Richie:

    I really appreciate your comments and insights. As a struggling tenor player I keep trying to crawl out of the self-loathing doldrums when comparing my playing with so many greats. I’ll never get there, but get “where” is the question? Your comments help me understand I can learn the language but the voyage and “where” is all mine and I should be satisfied that it’s my internalization and it can’t really be faulted.

    1. Neil, thanks for your kind words. It makes no sense to hate yourself and your own playing. And comparing yourself with the greats is a sure way to attain self loathing. You can never BE anybody but YOURSELF, and getting THERE means GETTING YOURSELF!! listen McCoy talked to me about Bud Powell, Oscar talked about Art Tatum. I talk about Bill and Herbie. It’s natural to love and hold up your favorite players as heroes. But YOU CAN NEVER BE THEM just like MCOY CANT EVER BE BUD!!

      Give up SETTING YOURSELF UP TO FAIL AT SOMETHING YOU CANT WIN. Plus jazz music, the great music we love, is about THE INDIVIDUAL PLAYERS OWN EXPRESSION OF THE PARTICULAR JAZZ LANGUAGE OF THE DAY. Classical music is mostly about THE COMPOSER like Mozart, Chopin, Bartok, Bach etc. Of course there is INTERPRETATION but the jazz musician is EXPECTED TO CREATE SPONTANEOUS HIGH QUALITY CONTENT. The interpreters of the great composers HAVE THE BENEFIT OF THE GREAT CONTENT OF THE MASTER COMPOSERS. Something else to consider is that it’s true that NOT EVERYONE HAS SOMETHING ORIGINAL TO SAY and if you feel after years of trying to FIND yourself there is actually not really enough to make a personal statement well then there is no shame in trying to enter another part of the music scene.

      Don’t waste time and continue to make yourself suffer cause you are not Trane, Sonny, or Wayne!! Best of luck to you.

  4. Janek Gwizdala, a great electric bass player and purveyor of learning jazz via his own blogs and vlogs, once said about learning jazz solos that once you learn the solo, you should play it over and over, a thousand times. Maybe more. The idea was not to insert the solo or parts of it into your own playing, but rather to integrate the sounds and harmonic language into your playing, subconsciously. Even if you are learning jazz phrases, for example ideas over specific four bar excerpt of changes from a tune, after you learn the phrase, just play it over and over.. a million times. The totality of the sonic landscape that you ingest, for example all the transcribed and learned solos and phrases and rhythms, in addition to all the listening you do, will emerge from your playing as “you”, not some watered down version of a specific jazz master you really like, for instance.

    1. Hi Mike…thanks for the thought provoking article! It helped to reinforce my thinking about the path I’ve taken to strengthen my improvisation skills. I’m a drummer and one of my never ending challenges is “what hip thing can I play” when soloing or trading 4’s, 8’s, etc. I have resisted memorizing and playing the “licks” created by the greats like Max, Tony, Roy, etc., even though it’s very tempting to have “ready made” stuff to fall back on in the heat of the moment. So my focus lately has been on developing my own vocabulary (via many hours in the practice room) and just going for it when gigging or sitting in.

      1. Cliff, you are already thinking in the right way. See, if you are playing with your boys and you are thinking WHAT HIP THING CAN I PLAY HERE you are already dead musically because you jump out of the kind of presence and full concentration and focus you need to contribute to the creative flow. The more you study the masters like Tony, Elvin, Jack, Jabali, etc. the more you will hopefully absorb their musical essences and their approaches to playing. THEN when you have really fully absorbed their lessons into your blood and into your deep memory and into your MUSICAL DNA then all that study work practicing WILL PAYOFF IN GIVING YOU A SOLID FOUNDATION THAT WILL BECOME THE UNCONSCIOUS RESERVOIR from which you can and will effortlessly draw from. No more THINKING!! Just PLAYING!! Good luck.

  5. Love this post – make SO much sense, and beautifully illustrated with the “poem”. I would never have been able to put what you’ve said into words but it immediately rang so true for me. I guess it’s what I’ve been thinking for years without ever quantifying it in any way.

    And just to “put the cat amongst the pigeons”, in my eyes your title does exactly what (I believe) you intended … it is there to catch the eye of anyone who does think licks are “it”, and then disabuse them of that notion as soon as they start to read. They’ll “get” it. Fab!

  6. I heard a story (possibly apocryphal) that Miles Davis was on tour & heard one of the band members practicing some tunes from their set in their hotel room. Fired him on the spot, told him to pack his bags & go home.

  7. Great post Mike. Recently saw a YouTube video with a tenor saxophonist improvising with a backing track on the tune Tangerine. He sounded as though he were playing a Dexter Gordon solo nearly verbatim.

    Also saw an ad on YouTube with a lady saxophonist selling a three-step course to improvising and playing the “right notes”. There really isn’t any secret about improvising. Find a good teacher and put in the work!

    1. Thanks James. While there are plenty of jazz resources out there, I think the trick is finding one that actually provides worthwhile advice about this music. That’s what is rare. It’s easy to teach paint-by-number jazz, and unfortunately, that’s what most people seem to crave. But I don’t find much that provides people with actionable tips on the essence of improvisation – spontaneous composition that expresses YOU.

  8. Very interesting article and certainly an area which, I’m sure a lot of jazz players must have held debates within themselves about. I suppose if you come into the music with a good understanding of how to create decent lines with good voice leading ..perhaps have acquired a good technique (maybe classically trained) along the way, it may be that you can become proficient without having to slavishly copy other players’ phrases.

    I’m largely self taught and did not have the benefit of an early solid foundation in technique and so, In my attempts to improve the quality of my lines, I have found that trying to memorise large chunks of the masters has been quite detrimental to my playing on the bandstand, ie trying to play using your intellect……

    More recently I have, however, found that by studying different players approaches to voice leading from one chord to another eg I Vi or whatever, by taking phrases which I find attractive, and have rhythmic patterns which are not part of my own phraseology, I can absorb small examples, maybe even just two or three beats, which, with enough repetition, can become part of an improvisation which seems to help me not to have to keep repeating my own stock phrases or patterns. So, I guess I’m deconstructing phrases into very small fragments which I hope can be absorbed so that I can hear them before I play them.

    Whenever I hear Sonny Rollins or Dexter or George Coleman’s phrasing in certain situations I find that my own attempts seem pathetic by comparison so, instead of trying memorise what they are doing, nowadays, I try to break them down into elements that are small enough to digest, and hopefully to hear. It seems to help, I am finding that I can listen to the band and think about where I am rather than what I’m long as I don’t try to force anything. As soon as you start to think about clever s### that you might have been working on for 3 hours that day, it all goes wrong.

    In the end, hopefully you are using your ears to play spontaneously on the bandstand, but I think you need to study the masters to hear better ways to voice lead or to produce more interesting lines. When you get up and play you have to forget what you’ve been studying and respond in the moment. If you have done some good work, it will come out..?

  9. I remember one of my lessons where my teacher said something to the effect, “That sounds like a lick”. He said it with contempt. He briefly continued the idea of never playing “a lick” and then we moved on to the myriad of other things that we needed to work on. Honestly, don’t we already have our hands full? Now we have to explore endless recordings for snippets of phrases that we can play over and over until they become “natural”? I will readily admit to spending hours trying to master transcriptions of other players. I piece it together until I have the whole of it. But then I move on to the next one. Will it affect my playing? Of course, I am hoping it will. But I am not focusing on any one instrument or player. Just playing the field.

    Someday maybe I’ll be out standing in my own field. I hope it’s warm and sunny. 😉

    1. William, I like your last sentences!! The old joke is still funny!! But seriously, it’s not that you must explore ENDLESS RECORDINGS FOR SNIPPETS OF PHRASES THAT WE CAN PLAY OVER AND OVER ETC. I have been playing and recording all my life and also TEACHING. My experience has been that if you are a sax player, for example, you need only to transcribe learn and fully absorb about 5 ESSENTIAL JAZZ SOLOS. I would suggest a Bird solo, a Sonny Rollins solo, a Hank Mobley solo, a Miles solo, and a Trane solo.

      As to exactly which ones, that’s up to your teacher. But IF YOU LEARN THESE SOLOS AND MAKE THEM YOUR OWN IN YOUR BLOOD, IN YOUR DNA, IN EVERY WAY AT ANY TIME, you will have a great foundation from which to support YOUR OWN ATTEMPTS AT FINDING YOUR OWN LANGUAGE OF PHRASES. BTW, your work DOES NOT END AFTER THE TRANSCRIBING OF THE SOLO THE LEARNING AND MEMORIZING OF IT. Then there are other equally important steps that will ENSURE YOUR ABILITY TO INTEGRATE THZESE GREAT SOLO IDEAS FROM THE MASTERS INTO YOUR FUNDAMENTAL VOCABULARY. It’s way too much to go into here in a COMMENTS SECTION ,,but i hope you will be warm in a sunny field happily working and playing your own stuff.

      good luck

  10. Richie, thanks for your comments. I am working on the solos but have a hard time with memorization. I’ve tried various approaches and some have worked. For example, I worked on the Jaco solo from Havona using TAB (gasp) but it worked out. I can’t play it at Jaco speed but I have it down reasonably well at 75%. I’ve worked on a Bird solo but needed the music to play it through correctly. Again, at about 75%, but I play bass (electric and upright). The prelude to the first Bach Cello Suite was slowly memorized, but no movements beyond that. I use music for almost everything I play but I have also tried to learn solos by ear. That is really hard for me. I have very good visual memory but not so good aural memory. I improvise on virtually every tune that I play and I try as best as I can to do it without the music. Also, I think melody much easier than I think harmony. As a bassist, I break the harmony into quarter notes and that seems to work. Meanwhile, I try to play the melody well on every tune I play. There are a few tunes that I can play from memory but I wish there were more.

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Michael Lake

Michael Lake

Trombonist, author, composer, marketer

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