The Smooth Jazz Lick

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The Smooth Jazz Lick

I don’t listen to a lot of smooth jazz, but when I do, I always hear this recurring thing that I am calling the smooth jazz lick. In this video I’m going to teach it to you.

Now, please don’t make any judgements based on the words smooth jazz. If you’re a fan of that style of playing, you’re going to love this. If you are not, you should know that this lick can also be found in all different styles of improvised music. I use it all the time and so do some of my favorite non-smooth jazz saxophonists.

As always there is a free pdf download of this lesson available to you in the Better Sax shed.

The smooth jazz lick is not so much a lick, as it is an embellishment. 

I’m going to demonstrate it in 2 very commonly occurring circumstances.

Over a Major Chord – The Smooth Jazz Lick

First, over a major chord.

In this example, the underlying harmony is a major 7 chord. I’m playing the major 3rd preceded by or embellished by a lower neighbor a half step below. Followed by the 2nd scale degree which is preceded or embellished by an upper neighbor a half step above. Then, I continue down to the root of the chord. I could even keep going down the major pentatonic scale if I wanted to extend it.

So I am thinking of this as major pentatonic scale based with that flat 3rd note being used to embellish both of my melody notes.

Without embellishments, the melody ends up being just mi re do right? or 3 2 1 in scale degrees.

If you watched my video about the Blues Scale trick as played by David Sanborn you will recognize a familiar pattern here. That pattern is adding that same flat 3rd to the major pentatonic scale and using it to lead into the major third which is a very strong chord tone. This is essentially a common application of the idea we talked about in that lesson.

Over a Minor Chord – The Smooth Jazz Lick

Now, playing this over a minor chord.

Notice I played the same exact notes, but the chord is in the relative minor now.

So instead of 3-2-1 being our unembellished melody, we have 5-4-3 or sol fa me in a minor key.

Now the note that was the flat 3rd on the major chord is now the flat 5th on the minor chord. That’s also part of that blues scale we talked about.

I can also play the smooth jazz lick in this way over a major chord. That’s going to give me a very bluesy sound since I’m essentially playing the blues scale over a major chord harmony.


Another thing to point out here is that this is an embellishment that I think can often get confused with a bend. 

While bending notes judiciously is certainly part of the saxophone playing tradition, it has to be done with great care. In this case, less is usually more.

Most of the time what you are hearing on recordings is lower neighbor embellishments done with the fingers rather than a scoop or bend done with the embouchure.

So practicing the smooth jazz lick can help you get out of  the bad habit of scooping and bending notes with your mouth which sounds less authentic and controlled.

Wrap Up

And that’s it. Like I said in the beginning, this is more of a way to embellish chord tones than a lick. You can take this idea and use it as part of any melodic idea you have. When I hear smooth jazz, I hear a lot of this type of embellishment going on but that’s not to say it doesn’t work really well in more traditional jazz improvisation or other styles as well.

In the video you can hear me demonstrate over one of the new backing tracks from Better Trax. This is….. from Groove and Soul Standards vol 1 which is a collection of 10 contemporary tunes that are really standard repertoire for all musicians. These backing tracks are great for practicing along with, but are designed to be used in professional performance situations as well.

You can also hear me playing on the brand new BetterSax Alto Saxophone in this video. For more information about the Better Sax Alto? Check out this post here.

Please let me know how this lesson went for you in the comments below! Would love to hear about your progress!

Want more mini lessons? Check out this lesson “Applying a Pattern to Any Scale in all 12 Keys.”

Also be sure to follow BetterSax on Facebook, InstagramLinkedIn, and YouTube to stay up to date with us for news, giveaways, and other saxophone tips and tricks.

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