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I see alot of websites and blogs that claim that the key to becoming a successful jazz musician is to load up on licks. Now while this may be useful to create mood in some contexts, it's not possible that licks alone can make a jazz musician. If this were so, jazz would be easy, and everyone would be great, given that they were on the same page for technical proficiency.

However there are some great pianists who sound undeniably "licky" to me. One of them is Oscar Peterson. I'm sure that he improvised many beautiful melodies, but (please correct me if I'm wrong) a substantial part of his playing seems to be running up and down the scales, and playing bluesy licks.

In contrast, Bill Evans seems like the pianist who barely uses "standard" licks. And if he uses licks, he has so many that he only rarely uses one more than a couple of times. In my opinion Bill Evans' playing is melodically "fresh" i.e he really puts new ideas on the keys every time he plays.


Now don't get me wrong, I love Peterson's playing, but I have this aching thought that his glory lies solely in his technical proficiency. I would love an answer that could prove this wrong, with examples, maybe explaining Peterson's style and why his playing sounds "licky".

In a similar vein, how useful are licks in becoming an individual and innovator in jazz piano? Are licks irrelevant if one's goal is to sound unique, and put his/her ideas on the piano?

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My response might be more abstract than what you are looking for, but I think it's ultimately a healthier mentality. I've included a more concrete example of its implementation at the end.

In my opinion, approaching music with a 'lick'-based mentality tends to limit your ability to be open and interactive with yourself and the ensemble/band. I find if more effective to remain open, perceptive and vulnerable during performance. I use the practice room to enhance technique and knowledge, and live my life as honestly and genuinely to bring as much humanity to myself and thus the music. Over time, and with dedication, it comes together.

Using licks tends to force the direction of the music, both for the person employing them and for the people they are playing with (or in the case of someone playing licks, playing at). This dampens creativity and takes you away from the exploration of the music - which is its lifeblood!

It doesn't have to be improvised (in the context of jazz) either. Chamber music needs to have its interpretation freed as well to avoid the things I have listed above -- but this is another discussion, sadly.

More concretely in the application of the above, you might find yourself leaning towards familiar ideas and be tempted to do the opposite in response in order to avoid playing 'licks'. This is, in my opinion, ironically the exact same problem, and leads down the same dangerous rabbit hole. In this case, it's more effective to let yourself go where you think you want to go and instead build awareness around it. The next time you presented with the same issue, you'll be more aware as a person and eventually grow enough (as a person and musician) for it to be a non-issue eventually. Beware the swing of the pendulum! (pun not intended.)

In short - be you, learn as much as you can, be awesome and authentic, have fun, and in time this won't be a question for you anymore.

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