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Julia Wolfe’s Lick felt unfamiliar, right from start with the title. What is a “lick?”
A lick refers to phrases or solo lines practiced beforehand for use in jazz improvisation.
I thought a lick is something like a pattern.
It can certainly be thought of it that way. Since jazz musicians practice their licks to in all 12 keys in order to ensure that they can be played right away regardless of the tonality of the piece, I suppose licks can be seen as a sort of a pattern. While there are unique and difficult licks that jazz musicians have developed for their personal use, there are also widely used licks that have become somewhat of a cliché.1
Ultimately, it sounds like a lick has both improvisational and deliberate elements to its meaning. As the title implies, Julia Wolfe’s Lick is expected to incorporate some elements of jazz. Before discussing the influence of jazz in Lick, however, it would be beneficial to talk about jazz itself. What sort of music is jazz?
Although it is difficult to give a simple definition of jazz, several common traits can be found in early jazz. First, jazz rhythm is based on swing. Technically speaking, in a 4/4-time signature, the first half of each quarter note, i.e. the 8th note, is dragged slightly past its proper length to give it a syncopated feel, resembling a triplet with the first two beats tied followed by the shorter, third beat. The syncopated beat here is accentuated as well. The start of phrases and transitions tend to be syncopated on off-beats as well. Even in contemporary jazz, which does not insist upon a 4/4-time signature as much as the earlier forms, swing is seen as almost a fundamental, default rhythm.
While there is a great variety of jazz forms today, their origins can be traced back to early blues and swing.2 These two forms comprise a significant portion of the jazz standards,3 much of which have been composed in the 1930s and 1940s and still widely enjoyed to this day. Blues are rather like a musical haiku comprised of 12 bars, whereas swing more closely resembles a compact form of a sonata, with its 32-bar AABA structure. Both forms hardly go over two pages when transcribed onto sheet music. The fundamental form of jazz is to play such short tunes as the theme and repeat them across multiple iterations in performance. A typical arrangement would start off with the theme as it was originally composed, followed by a repetition of the theme reinterpreted through improvisation before returning to the theme at the end. While the band leader usually played the solo portions in early jazz, the distinction between the soloist and accompanist gradually disappeared over the years. In today’s jazz, anyone, or everyone in the ensemble can play a solo as needed.
Harmonically, jazz is widely tolerant of elements viewed as undesirable in other genres of music. Unlike in western classical music, the tonic chord4 in blues includes the 7th5. However, this 7th is not a leading tone but rather a half step flatter than a leading tone, implying that the note cannot be, and is not even meant to be resolved. Jazz also frequently varies the tension note6 in a chord to adjust the complexity, darkness, and dissonance of the sound. The dominant 7th chord7 is already full of tension on its own. The second and fourth pitch in the stack clash to create an uneasy resonance typical of augmented 4th or diminished 5th. This interval was intentionally avoided in medieval church music, which designated the sound as the “devil in music.” The blues scale, a primary scale found in African American music, has what is called the “blue note.” The fourth note in the blues scale, the blue note is in fact a diminished 5th from the tonic. The “blue” in its name does not so much refer to the blues as a form but more to the emotional aspect of the blues often used to characterize the music and lives of African Americans. Jazz also makes liberal use of substitute chords8 while non-diatonic notes and passing notes are often given equal standing as the notes in the default melody and scale (assuming that they are organically arrayed).
It is as if jazz encompasses and incorporates what is often referred to as unstable, passing, and peripheral.
Jazz relishes in tension. This is related to the aforementioned sentimentality of the African American culture. Jazz has embraced noise and the marginalized. Its walking bass dances around as if trying to forget about the arduous way of life while its cymbals relish in the rhythm of the swing. Jazz performers become so completely immersed in the music they spew out, turning the appreciation of such performances into such a treat. Jazz is also so easily compatible and localized with any music and culture. All these elements of jazz have elicited empathy of modern audiences across races and boundaries. However, the most crucial element of jazz that makes jazz an important art form for the 20th century may very well be its improvisation.
Why is improvisation important in jazz?
Jazz strives to live in the moment. The present, the here and now are important in jazz. Jazz improvisation is much like an unscripted conversation. As it would be difficult to imagine having to carry out a conversation based on a script dictated by someone else, jazz musicians find it equally difficult to imagine playing music exactly as it is written. The important thing for jazz musicians is to incorporate the situation of the performance as it is happening. That is why jazz performers often do not even run rehearsals for performances that feature only standard repertoire without original compositions. Even if they do rehearse, jazz musicians do not do a full run, but rather simply exchange opinions on the larger flow of the performance, such as what songs to play and how to begin the introduction. Improvisation is an art of the performer. While in western classical music it is the composer who not only invents but develops the theme to be delivered to the performer, in jazz performers must develop the theme themselves.
How does improvisation take place?
In jazz improvisation, performers alter the melody and harmony of the theme. Sometimes they even create their own tunes, insert some licks they prepared beforehand, or instantly develop a motif they picked up from the rhythm or lines played by other performers. An improvisation session may include the vocabulary of both classical music and jazz, incorporating traditional, spontaneous, and newly created elements. When such diverse range of elements are so organically meshed together, it may sometimes become difficult to distinguish whether the performer just invented something new, mimicked something else, or simply played a scale.
For the untrained ear, jazz improvisation is not always so easy to listen to. I have been recently listening to the big band music of Kenny Clarke and Francy Boland. My impression of their music thus far is that it “feels stationary while it is in motion.” They mainly feature the theme played by the ensemble followed by a solo improvisation section. Usually, one would expect that the solo section would present some kind of a catchy melody, but in this case, the improvised solo sounds more like garbled murmur at first. There is definitely a busy velocity to it, but it is difficult to tell where the music is headed. Sometimes the music begins to feel unclear.
Well, it is clear. But not everyone can immediately notice the clarity therein. The performer is clearly cognizant of how the theme is being altered and developed. However, to the listener, the clarity may be obfuscated as the variation drifts further apart from the original theme, especially because the performer creates and plays new melodies based on the analysis of the harmonic background of the original melody rather than simply playing a variation of the melody. The way a performer can vary and develop a theme is as diverse as the number of jazz performers in the world, but that does not mean that the theme is completed removed during an improvisation. For example, when Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock, and Jack DeJohnette play a jazz standard as an ensemble, they do not disperse and explore completely distant, unrelated territory during the improvisation section before converging to the theme again. Rather, they remain in the same moment and location from the start when they play the theme together, all the way through the improvised section and the return to the theme in the end, conversing with each other throughout the entire process. While the exact notes of the melody played at the beginning may seem to disappear, the melody itself still exists in each of the performer’s minds, interlinking with each other in real time to flow with the music.
In jazz, the concept of composition differs from that of western classical music. Jazz composition does not hold the composer accountable for notating something predetermined or complete that must be replicated faithfully. In jazz, writing and playing music are both indistinguishable components of a single process. In jazz, performance is in fact a process of composition, something that is created as part of an actual experience. Jazz music truly gains its “jazziness” when it passes through the performer’s body. Even jazz enthusiasts remember jazz tracks based on the great performers and their albums, not by the composer. In most cases, the composers of legendary tracks also happen to be the performers anyway. The jazz standards so beloved by instrumental and vocal performers alike are appealing not only for the beauty of the song itself, but also because they provide a solid foundation for improvisation. These standards become more complete as the performer adds their own unique color, nuance, and improvisation (or scat). The vanishing of the thematic melody in jazz performance is more of a revelation of the theme’s true nature than the obfuscation thereof. Jazz improvisers relish in the interesting relationship between the theme and the improvised variation. Conversing with the ensemble through that relationship is what makes jazz performances such a treat to witness, especially as soloists share that conversation with the audience as well. The greater the distance between the variation from the theme, the more intriguing it will be to trace the variation back to the original theme, especially when the theme seems to have been removed. The exhilaration from finally understanding that relationship also becomes that much greater with the distance from the theme.
There are many types of improvisation. Each performer likely has their own expectations and goals for each improvised solo. The approach and rationale employed towards such expectations and goals can also greatly vary across performers. One might pursue a poetic, horizontal murmur that penetrates through chord changes, much like Lee Konitz. Others may follow more closely in the footsteps of John Coltrane, turning to mathematical transformations of the chords and the vertical connection of scales as the harmonics are sprayed across like paint on canvas. But since there is no such thing as a completely new thing in this world, all improvisation is based on some sort of tradition. Jazz improvisation seeks for freedom within the boundaries permitted by such traditions. A performer may try to imbue their personal life and emotions into their solo performance, but may unwittingly make use of meticulous musical calculations or devices to do so. Conversely, another performer may try something more experimental involving physics and celestial bodies, only to have aspects of their contemporaneous culture and personal emotions inevitably flow into the performance. Perhaps jazz improvisation can be said to entail the search for the balance between the familiar and the unfamiliar. Such balance has changed over the passage of various eras. Artists of each era conducted different experiments to break or bend existing conventions to evolve jazz and improvisation into their current incarnations.
I’m curious as to what changes such experiments underwent and what they are like today.
Until the resurgence of big bands in the 1930s, jazz existed as a form of popular music and dance music. The 1940s saw the advent of bebop as well as an important change in the world of jazz. As African American performers began to take on stronger self-identity, they lost interest in simply providing musical accompaniment for the leisure of white audiences. Jazz strives to become a concert music, or a music that must be appreciated. So artists began to introduce complex chord progressions and difficult techniques to create music that is far too fast and serious to casually dance to. Charlie Parker was at the epicenter of such innovation in jazz. As the spirit of resistance and artistic experimentation bloomed, jazz continued to undergo many transformations. Whereas the New York bebop was a struggle for survival and recognition, the West Coast jazz in the 1950s California was imbued with the cynical, existential, nihilistic romance of young middle-class white performers. During the same era, Miles Davis introduced cool jazz, which presented a cool, modern ambiance completely different from the loud, heated jazz that had existed before. Incorporating the modal technique in his playing, Davis featured an improvisational technique beyond the conventions of tonal music. In the 1960s, avant-garde and free jazz appear. Charles Mingus interchanged between the counterpoint of classical music and spontaneous polyphony, while Ornette Coleman developed the harmolodic theory that surpassed the understanding of music theorists at the time. Coleman rejected the harmony in western music theory and performance technique, as well as the capitalistic system of featuring the solo artist as the main star. Instead, Coleman derived inspiration from philosophy and poetry as he adopted the raw, group-based improvisational style of early New Orleans jazz. On the other end of the spectrum, jazz became even more sophisticated, absorbing the music of all classes to widen its coverage as a global music. Brazilian samba gave birth to bossa nova, while Afro-Cuban music found greater success in New York than in its birthplace. Jazz became closely associated with the African American civil rights movement, paving the path for robust performances featuring very cerebral, spiritual, and African-esque music. In the late 1960s, Miles Davis meets Jimmy Hendrix and goes electric with his trumpet. His jazz-rock experiment paved the path for the era of fusion jazz of 70s and the 80s. Davis continued his experiments into the 90s, pushing the boundaries of jazz into acid jazz, which many hesitate to even label as jazz. Following the death of Davis, the external expansion of jazz stagnated for a bit, while those who grew tired of the electric sound heralded the return of acoustic jazz through neo-bop. Meanwhile, the internal expansion of harmony and rhythm did not stop. Jazz ceased to become a solely American music as it began to incorporate exotic melodies and complex, odd meters from folk music across the world including the Balkans, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, India, and Asia, reaching a status as international music. Over the past 40 years, ECM Records has produced albums featuring ambient music and delicate chamber music as it discovered introduced jazz artists with multicultural backgrounds, including those hailing from Scandinavia. Since 2010, a trend called neo soul has been particularly noteworthy in jazz. Neo soul is a modern reinterpretation of African American B-music that had been underappreciated in the past. Although the movements listed here are indeed influenced by the trends of each era, they are still played in today across various venues with their original form still intact.
Now would be a good time to begin talking in detail about Julia Wolfe’s 1994 composition, Lick. When I first heard the piece, I got the impression that the theme was never presented. Instead, it felt like an endless continuation of just transitional phrases. As I did could not recognize the theme, it was difficult to determine where the destination is, if there even is one at all. At the same time, however, I felt that the piece was indeed moving towards somewhere, and if that is the case, it has to be moving towards a certain direction. But it was difficult to guess where that direction is. What kind of music do you think Lick is?
Lick incorporates traces of a wide range of music. The jazz influence is self-evident. In many ways, Lick is reminiscent of the avant-garde and free jazz of the 60s. The way the notes are accentuated in the introduction is a style that is used not only in avant-garde jazz, but across all sorts of jazz and related genres. From a strictly jazz perspective, the piece features various elements that occur during the interplay with the soloist during improvisation. For example, the piano and percussion frequently feature comping9 and fill10. These traits are usually not marked in the score, but rather executed spontaneously by the performer to accentuate rhythm as appropriate, whether the intent is to bolster the beat, go with the flow, to urge something, to create tension, to break the beats, or create a sense of syncopation. It might sound similar if one removes bass walking in “Hat and Beard,” the first track of Eric Dolphy’s 1964 album Out to Lunch! There are also portions that reminds me of the curt rhythm in the melody of Monk’s “Trinkle Tinkle.” It also conjures images of the introduction of “Signal Path” by the jazz fusion band Tribal Tech, which was very active around the time when Lick was composed. There is also resemblance to the introduction portion of “Beirut” by Steps Ahead during their Tokyo Live performance. Towards the middle, Lick begins to feature bits of vamp11 patterns that resemble Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage”. The pattern is not fixed, but continues to change its form. Sometimes what resembles a melody does appear, but it does not quite play the role of the protagonist that melodies usually serve. Instead, it seems to serve a different, yet uncertain mission such as supporting other players or encouraging the players to cooperate and escalate the mood as a group. It feels more like everyone is supporting each other, rather than having a singular protagonist. In the latter portions of Lick, all these elements mesh together in a similar fashion to the group improvisation of avant-garde music in its heyday.
Wolfe stipulated “funk” right on the first page of the score for Lick. Rooted in black music, funk is a cousin of jazz. There is also a subgenre of jazz called jazz funk (or funk jazz). It differs from jazz in that it has a stronger soul color to it, while emphasizing rhythm as well as concise and clear harmony. Some of the great jazz funk artists include the guitarist John Scofield. In that regard, including electric guitar in the scoring was clearly an obvious choice. The electric guitar also has the most conventional sounding part among all instrumental parts in Lick. In contrast, the piano is assigned with the most rule breaking passages. The way the piano is used to express such percussive frenzy in Lick creates a sound that might as well as have been exactly duplicated from the performance of the 60s free jazz pianist Cecil Taylor. Forgoing traditional jazz harmony while featuring abstract and intuitive improvisation driven by immense energy, Taylor’s music was more akin to compositing or constructing percussive sounds from the 88 keys of the piano rather than a typical musical performance or composition. Meanwhile, two string instruments split the responsibility for the bass line in Lick, a role usually covered by a single bassist in a typical jazz ensemble. Conversely, Lick has a single player cover both the drum set and vibraphones, which are usually distinctively played by different performers in a jazz quintet or sextet. To compare the role of the percussionist in this music, the first half is closer to comping in hard bop, whereas the latter half sounds like the subdivided rhythm of the drummer Nate Wood’s funk performance when he played with the band Kneebody. The saxophone is a modern instrument, invented only four years prior to the 20th century. Therefore, music written for saxophone is bound to be modern music. In that regard, Lick could not be any more appropriate for the identity of saxophone. The history of saxophone is almost synonymous to the history of jazz, especially as the sax found its own voice and status as a staple instrument thanks to jazz. The thin timbre of the soprano saxophone allows the instrument to serve polar roles in jazz, either in saccharine smooth jazz or very avant-garde sort of jazz. On one end of the spectrum is the music of Kenny G, while the other end has the music of Coltrane and Steve Lacy. While Lick lies within the jurisdiction of minimalist music, it makes an unexpected jab by presenting an unfamiliarly sharp, sensitive voice of the soprano sax as opposed to the more familiar sound of the instrument so popularized through the music of Philip Glass. There is no way to tell whether Wolfe really found distinctive and direct inspiration of all these aforementioned jazz artists and albums. However, one can sense that such influence has accumulated internally and culturally across an extensive period of time. This sort of music is impossible to reach through merely superficial experimentation or research.
What is interesting is that the piece does not feature any licks despite its eponymous title. A “lick” is virtually a melody. Licks usually have the cliché-like quality that makes them instantly recognizable, or at the very least are very well organized and prepared. No phrases seem to bear such qualities in Lick. Instead, the piece is rife with very coarse and spontaneous lines. It is not just the absence of licks that makes this piece so peculiar; Wolfe has written directions that allude to the popular music genres of funk and rock throughout the score, but the piece is missing many elements that genre music should have. It feels like everything that can provide a sense of convention, a framework, and account for harmony and timekeeping is completely missing from the piece. It is as if Wolfe shaved away everything that is obvious and left only the un-obvious behind. Left behind like the remnants of a defeated army or widows, the fragments of music maintain what is but a shell. It almost feels like watching a film that features a war story or an era after a revolution, where many devices that have lost meaning and purpose (accompaniment without the melody, empty embellishments) continue to function anachronistically. To other listeners, Lick may resemble a movie grounded in realism, while still others may see it as a black comedy. Listeners who have a penchant for tracking down the traces of various types of music imbued in the piece and filling the gaps like a puzzle would find Lick most intriguing. For other listeners who have difficulty imagining any semblance of completeness in the piece, listening to Lick may feel like an obstacle course.
While each instrument and musical ingredient repeatedly gather and disperse without interfering with each other, they are not being arrayed without context. The reason that there is a sense of motion in the piece might be because the complete and archetypal version of Lick wherein all the gaps have been filled is really flowing behind the scenes. The reason Wolfe left directions like funk, groove, and rock throughout the piece may be her way of reminding the performers to not forget about the feel of such music as they play the piece.
Lick may be deeply influenced by jazz, where improvisation is a key component. Hearing it conjures up images of the spontaneity of jazz. However, it seems like Lick is far removed from actual improvisation. If anything, it sounds like music wherein improvisation has been finely predetermined.
That is correct. That is why I thought Lick is more of a playful work than something serious or avant-garde. In fact, some portions are written to make it sound like the performers made a mistake and failed to play properly in conjunction. On the other side of the board, this is an excruciating piece to play for the performers. For jazz musicians, the fact that the parts that they usually fill on their own have been already predetermined like a script must feel alien. Worse yet, this script intentionally avoids repetition. Although it does repeat in a pattern-like manner, it also continues to change each time, making it difficult for the performer to acclimate to the piece and leaving no room for the artist to reflect a unique part of themselves in the music. This piece is only playable if the performers maintain the highest state of awareness. In fact, it feels more like carrying out a mission than playing music. It almost feels like becoming a part of the greater whole. I remember reading about something like the following: oboe lines composed by Mozart is a pleasure to play for the performer since the melody remains consistent even when taken out of the context and examined by itself. In contrast, Beethoven’s oboe parts are appended to all sorts of instrumentation across the entire orchestra, making some of the lines seem meaningless when read by itself. Lick is an extreme example of the latter case. In some regards, it feels like the players have become the laborers of a factory line. If the minute progressions of music exist solely in the vision of the composer, this piece would be hardly different from Beethoven’s era in the early 19th century. Since no music or sound of Lick presents a clear guide, good teamwork between the performers becomes paramount. Performers who are not adept at sight reading tend to focus solely on their part, unable to listen to the entire music. They easily lose their way since they only see the tree, not the forest. The problem is that Lick presents an opposite case. The moment one tries to hear the music as a whole, there are several traps that may cause just more confusion. Once a performer loses their way, there is no entry they can use to return, and no way for the performers to aid each other. The performers must therefore discover how they can avoid interfering with each other, who should listen for whose part at which point to rely on, and how to adjust the cues. This music is challenging like that.
1 Example of a lick used by many musicians. https://www.youtu.be/krDxhnaKD7Q
2 Here, swing refers to the form of the piece as opposed to the aforementioned swing rhythm.
3 An acknowledged, popular piece of music in the jazz repertory. Center for Jazz studies Columbia University Jazz Glossary.
4 The chord that uses the tonic as its root (the base note). It is the most fundamental chord in that given tonality.
5 The pitch which is seven steps away from the root.
6 The 9th, 11th, and 13th from the root, stacked beyond the octave. Their large intervals from the root creates tension.
7 Comprised of the root, major 3rd, perfect 5th, and minor 7th from the root. The dominant 7th is a default 7th chord used in jazz.
8 The technique of using a chord in place of another in a sequence of chords, or a chord progression. Usually their components are similar to those of the original chord.
9 Flourishes or rhythm used to empower, raise tension, or spur on music.
10 Short musical passage or rhythmic sound that helps “fill” the gap in the melody line.
11 A repeated chord progression or rhythmic figure leading either into or out of a tune or composition. Center for Jazz studies Columbia University Jazz Glossary.
Sungwan Kim is a saxophonist based in Seoul. Kim applies his expertise in jazz and improvisation and actively collaborates with artists across all sorts of genres, including world music, visual arts, and dance. He has performed in many performances and stages including the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, DC Jazz Festival, and Jarasum Jazz Festival, etc. The albums with Kim’s contribution have been nominated for the Best Jazz / Crossover category in 2013, 2015, and 2017 Korean Music Awards.