The Science of Licks

Continuing from my recent post on the philosophy of licks, one of the measures of a good lick is how it messes with the listener’s cognition and fries his brain. It arrives too fast for you to take it all in sequentially, and you ask what just happened?

This was my reaction to the second half of the bridge of this ditty by John Coltrane called One Up One Down:

He used this title more than once for different tunes. This was the one recorded 1963, live at the Half Note, not the one at the Newport Festival. The passage I refer to starts at 0:20 of the video.

OK so I hear that and I’m going WTF just happened? The normal solution would be to write down the notes and try to figure out what it is about them that puts your brain in a twist. But even laboriously transcribing it note for note leaves one not much the wiser. Here it is:


The thing is, when you play this slow, its sounds like nothing at all. Playing it, you think: this is going to be a mess. It adds weight to Thelonious Monk’s dictum that “the inside of the tune (the bridge) is the part that makes the outside sound good.”

The basic scale of the “A” section of the tune (the “outside”) is 2 1 1 3 1 2 2 with F# as the tonic. You could describe it as the fifth mode of B jazz minor with sauce added. This bridge uses that mode for a framework, with a couple of chromatic excursions.

Hidden within this “vocalise” are four-note phrases that sound as if they belong to pattern exercises. The four notes spanning the middle of the first measure suggest a {-1 +4 -1 -3} pattern, also used in Bud Powell’s Wail and in the bridge of Jimmy Rowles’ The Peacocks. The second half of the second measure suggests a {-1 +2  -1 -1} pattern. Both patterns have a linksum of -1, meaning they descend in semitones.

The third measure starts with a visit to E major, followed by a descending arpeggio in the basic scale, culminating in the fourth measure with a typical Coltrane phrase-final rhythmic figure (since become universal) ending on a throwaway C natural. So cool!

With all this going on in three-and-a-half seconds the “fried brain” criterion is met; cognition has been licked – at 240 bpm.

What I wonder is: can we use this type of example to build a book of cocktail recipes for making amazing licks? Cognitive science might one day provide part of the answer, but the serious business of actually composing boss licks still depends on the pudding for its proof. And we may find there is a minimum speed threshold for each lick to work.


About jazzpanflute

jazz panpipe pioneer and designer
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One Response to The Science of Licks

  1. Pingback: Why Saxophonists are so Annoying | Intervallic Awareness for Improvisers

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