sax life logoCraig wrote this article for the February, 2016 issue of Saxophone Life Magazine.  It appears here courtesy of SLM.

It’s definitely impressive to hear jazz musicians improvise at incredibly fast tempos. What is, however, far more inspiring is hearing how the great masters are able to create beautifully crafted, swinging melodic lines, regardless of tempo.

omnibook coverThat truth first became crystal clear to me while playing through The Charlie Parker Omnibook. I’m not ashamed to admit that I had to first woodshed Bird’s solos at half his brutal tempos, in order to master them with clean precision. And yet, even at a snail’s pace, it’s amazing to discover that Bird’s improvisations still swing. They retain their melodic and rhythmic freshness at any tempo. And Bird makes the harmonic context clear, even without the presence of the rhythm section. His singular reputation may stem in part from his uncanny mastery of high speed execution, but the dazzling inventiveness which characterized his playing rarely diminished as the velocity increased.

While working through solo transcriptions such as those found in The Omnibook, I draw a box around phrases which are particularly provocative, in terms of melodic freshness, rhythmic energy, and harmonic expressiveness. Leafing through Bird’s Omnibook just now turned up 23 of my “best lick boxes,” and at least 15 more in transcriptions by Ralph Moore, Dexter Gordon, and Hank Mobley.

Let’s look at a few of the coolest riffs I encountered in solos by Charlie Parker and other great masters and try to discern what makes them remarkable. When you discover a phrase which attracts you, you can add that idea to your working vocabulary by shedding it in all 12 keys. If you hit a road block while transposing the riffs shown here, email me for a free chart. Better yet, download “New Ears Resolution,” and learn to play by ear effortlessly without clams.

From “Celerity” – Bird uses a characteristic bebop device in this solo. It’s a ii-V change a half step above the home key. That modulation is indicated by the red box on the chart shown below. The solfege syllables shown also reflect the momentary key change. By thinking in terms of “the key of the moment,” you gain a profound understanding of the intervallic logic, and your note choices improve dramatically, when transposing the melody into new keys. The chart below gives the lick in the first two keys on the circle of fifths. See if you can work it out in the other 10 keys, as you play along with the audio track.FIG 1 CELERITY

You are hearing 4 saxophones with no added effects.

This same modulation occurs in bars 7 & 8 of the John Klenner (not John Klemmer!) standard “Just Friends.” It’s important to note the two ways this song is played. If you are gigging with a “trad” band, they won’t change key, opting instead for a passing flat-iii diminished chord. The difference is subtle, but it changes the scale over which you solo, as shown below.


From “Red Cross” – Once again, Bird has raised the key a half step (as indicated by the red box), but this time the G and Ab chords are both tonics. Try to hear the key change in bar two, and you will find the phrase much easier to play and remember. The chart below shows two iterations of the lick. Practice moving up the chromatic scale, and see if you can play the phrase in all 12 keys while listening to the audio track.


From “Cheesecake” (as heard on Dexter Gordon’s Blue Note LP “Go”) – A device used by many master improvisers is the repetition of a “sequence.” This compositional tool was used extensively by J. S. Bach. It involves the reiteration of melodic and/or rhythmic shapes on different scale degrees. Sequences give your improv a well-crafted feel, adding momentum, unity, and coherence. Dexter Gordon masterfully uses sequences in his composed melody of “Cheesecake” (compare bars 1 and 5; 9, 11, and 13; 17, 19, and 21). There are also several effective instances of sequence in Dexter’s solo on this classic jazz standard, such as the example shown below. It is built using a quote from Gershwin’s “Fascinatin’ Rhythm.” (Although players such as John Coltrane generally eschew musical quotes, Dexter uses them freely, as do Sonny Stitt and Paul Desmond. In particular, note the sequenced quote from Rube Bloom’s “Fools Rush In” which Dexter plays just 4 bars after the one shown here.)


Over the years, I’ve assembled a book with hundreds of my favorite original and “stolen” riffs. When you encounter a lick that knocks you out, it’s immensely helpful to shed it in all 12 keys. Start at a comfortable tempo. Increase the pulse only after effortless mastery is achieved. You can move around the circle of fifths (in either direction) or traverse the chromatic scale (up or down). These licks are not meant to be static. Rather, they evolve as you work with them. You’ll find yourself adjusting a pitch here, swinging a rhythm there, and shifting accents, slurs, and ornaments. Below are two examples showing how a riff might evolve, as you migrate through the 12 keys. It is preferable to leave space between iterations for breathing. It’s also nice if you can sculpt the lick so that it ends on the note you’ll use to start the next iteration.


Hopefully these few examples have stimulated you not only to borrow ideas freely from the world’s great saxophonists, but also to create your own personal vocabulary as well.

However, if you’re at all like me, you abhor the thought of merely parroting a bunch of licks on the bandstand.

“Coltrane’s playing consciously avoided established patterns and phrasing. ‘You can get bogged down in clichés.’”[1]  Becoming a “lick player” is not at all what this discipline is about.  I rarely play “licks” on the gig. Instead, I like to respond in the moment to the compositional and emotional environment created by the song, the band, the audience, and my own heart. The process we have examined here will help you develop your own individual style in the context of a historical jazz framework. By emulating the masters, we develop a florid jazz vocabulary, fluid phrasing, facility in all keys, and mastery of the horn.

Approach this challenge joyfully, and your audience will experience your performance with joyful anticipation as well.

[1]   Ashley Kahn. A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album, p. 48.


  1. I go back to old school when it comes to transcribing going to you tube and just singing and playing I do not thing it’s important to write it down but hearing the chord changes and seeing how the improvisers negotiate the changes is important to me I come from listening and singing to tape recorders to slowing down computer programs I am not a nerd but I like Transriber because you can zero in to a half beat to get a g or gsharp stop slow down the sound you get taking part of Parkers embraceable you I was so impressed by the opening piano intro I believe it was Duke Jordan I could hear the bass notes popping out slow down clean notes coming through my speaker made it easier to take down the chords for kicks I like to further use the hamony by using passing chords reharm staying close to what’s done maybe some voicings in fourths etc also thinning out left hand instead of rootless chords using thirds and sevenths and adding example D7. Might use LH. f Fsharp c. For D 7let bass add roots etc..


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