Easy ii-V-I Lick
The idea is not to learn a bunch of phrases by rote and then plug them in to create a paint by numbers solo though.
Rather, we want to build a large vocabulary of these phrases. That way in the moment we are able to improvise our own melodies using fragments and building blocks we’ve learned in the process.
It is very important to take lines like the one we are about to learn through all 12 keys.
If you’ve never done this before, I challenge you to download the pdf for this lesson and learn this lick in all 12 keys. It may take you a day, it may take you a week, doesn’t matter. The result will be a big leap forward for your saxophone playing.
If you can make learning phrases in all 12 keys part of your daily practice routine, over time you will be able to make significant improvements.
I’m playing this lick today on alto sax in the key of concert Bb — that puts me in my G.
You can take any ii-V- I lick and break it down into little melodic fragments. When improvising, we are basically creating our own melodies out of the various building blocks we have in our vocabulary.
Breaking it Down
So let’s take a look at what’s happening here.
The entire lick is made up of straight eighth notes until the very last note and each measure has one chord in it.
On the ii chord we are playing straight up the dorian scale from the root to the 5th. Let’s think of that as our first fragment. Just going up the scale.
The second half of this first measure we jump from the fifth to the 7th and then change direction and head back down the scale.
This new fragment contains what we call an enclosure. This is a very common musical device where you have a target note in this case the F# and we enclose it with lower and upper neighbor tones.
The F# is our target note because it is the third of the 5 chord that is coming one beat later. We are getting to the target note a little early, but that is okay.
Our next fragment which begins in measure 2 on the V chord starts with a bit of chromaticism. We play from the root of the 5 chord down the scale with the addition of this chromatic passing tone.
Some of you may recognize this as part of the bebop scale. The extra chromatic passing tone in this scale makes the chord tones land on the downbeats.
By the way, if you are feeling a little lost with all the talk of chord tones and scales, I have made a course explaining all the music theory you need to know in order to study jazz improvisation called Harmonic Foundation
In the second half of the measure we have another fragment. This one is a mirror of the our earlier fragment that had the enclosure. This time our target note is the G of the following measure. We are enclosing it with its lower neighbor F# and the upper neighbor A.
So as you can see, this easy ii-V-I lick will get you practicing the enclosure technique which is a staple of the bebop language. For the first enclosure the lower neighbor is a whole step below, and the upper neighbor is a half step above. In this second enclosure it’s reversed. The lower neighbor is a half step below and the upper neighbor is a whole step above.
If you take this lick through all 12 keys, you will have practiced 2 of the most common ways to play an enclosure on every single note. Your fingers will remember the work you put in and that vocabulary will start to come out in your improvised solos.
The final fragment of this lick is on the 1 chord. We play this very common 1235 scale pattern which is often associated with Coltrane’s Giant Steps solo since he used it a lot there, but you’ll find that pattern everywhere you listen.
The Finer Details
Now let me point out a few important details you may not have noticed.
First, this lick follows a pattern where the root of the chord is the first note in each measure.
I built it that way on purpose. I’m calling this an easy ii-V-I lick, and I wanted it to be very clear to anyone starting out. Effective ii-V-I licks will usually have a chord tone on the down beats especially where the chords change. Every downbeat of this particular lick is a chord tone.
When I say I built this lick what I mean is I put together a bunch of common melodic fragments from my vocabulary in a logical and musical way to make this phrase.
I learned these fragments from listening to great improvisors in the jazz tradition and transcribing what I heard.
So my lick here is not so much an original thought — It’s more like rearranging the furniture to get a new layout in your living room. You’ve got the same couch, but when you put it over there it changes the whole room, right?
When you learn enough jazz vocabulary you’ll want to start experimenting with this on your own. Try taking little melodic fragments and rearranging them.
Let us know how this lesson when for you in the comments below, I love hearing from my students!