10 Hot Licks in Honor of Chick

A 2011 lesson from the KEYBOARD archives.
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By George Colligan

Chick Corea is one of the most influential and important pianists in modern music. His influences run from bebop and European classical music to Afro-Cuban, Brazilian, Flamenco, funk, and beyond, but his pianistic language has a certain signature. Here are 10 licks in the style of Chick that will elevate your own piano explorations. Remember to use small ideas to make your own big ideas. What follows are just the “words”—your job is to build your own sentences and paragraphs!

1. Four-Note Patterns

For starters, this four-note pattern is based on perfect fourth and major second intervals. I consider it to have a suspended sound, in that there’s no sense of major or minor to it, which makes it more versatile. This pattern can fit over a Dmin7 chord, but also work over the following chords: Gmin7, Amin7, Cmin7, EbMaj7#11, CMaj7, BbMaj7, G7, F7, D7sus11, C7sus11, and G7sus11. This illustrates just how useful even four-note ideas can be for developing your improvisation.

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2. Chromatic Planing

What academics call “chromatic planing” refers to moving the same intervallic structure, regardless of the official key center. Chick Corea might play this in his right hand and compliment it by moving perfect fourths in his left hand. Practice this pattern by moving it around in whole steps, minor thirds, and any other way you like.

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3. Smooth Hand Lines

This is a variation of our first four-note pattern, except that it moves in a way that fits under the hand nicely. I find that many of Corea’s lines are technically quite smooth, which lets you play them quickly. Notice how this line turns back and forth, giving the illusion of complexity, while still using the same four notes throughout.

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4. Fingering Variations

A further variation of Ex. 1 is arpeggiated up an octave. A hallmark of Corea’s style is that he often uses the same type of hand motion with many types of intervallic structures. By using the same basic fingering shapes with slightly different notes, you can open your playing to new possibilities.

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5. Intervallic Alteration

Here’s how Chick Corea often alters the interval arrangement of a familiar melodic idea. Here, instead of the suspended structure we illustrated in Ex. 1, we use a triad with a flatted ninth type of sound. This pattern works on dominant 7b9 chords or #9#5 chords. It even works on regular dominant chords.

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6. Diminishing Returns

The diminished scale is one of the most useful scales in jazz, and is built using a series of half-steps and whole-steps. For instance, in the key of C, the diminished scale would read C, Db, Eb, E, F#, G, A, Bb, and C. It’s a symmetrical scale, and one which French composer Olivier Messiaen called a “mode of limited transposition.”

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7. Bebop and Bud

This is a variation of our previous diminished scale idea, with a shape influenced by the style of Bebop pioneer Bud Powell, who was a big influence on Corea. This melodic idea ends using a sixth, imbuing a humorous, almost Thelonious Monk sound to the pattern. (Monk was another strong influence on Corea’s playing.)

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8. Chromatic Concepts

Many musicians in the post-bop era of the 1960s often played this type of lick, either on its own, or combined with another melodic idea. This pattern can be thought of as using a combination of surrounding goal notes and chromatic tones, both hallmarks of many bebop lines.

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9. Pentatonic Patterns

Here’s our good friend the pentatonic scale. Corea uses this frequently, but often in unexpected ways. One application is using the minor pentatonic scale whose root is the major seventh of the underlying chord. For example, you’d play the G minor pentatonic scale over Abmaj7. Try it—it works!

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10. Scalar Shapes

Varying your hand motion can create compelling shapes from a scale. Here we use the same pentatonic scale as in Ex. 9, but it is played in a smooth, Corea-like fashion.

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Pianist and composer George Colligan has worked with Cassandra Wilson, Buster Williams, Don Byron, Ravi Coltrane, and many other acclaimed artists. Most recently, he joined drummer Jack DeJohnette’s new quintet, and released Pride and Joy on the Piloo label. Colligan is Assistant Professor of Jazz Piano at the University of Manitoba. Find out more at georgecolligan.com