#57 The Lick

Made some long drives over the weekend with my buddy Mike, and as the driver, he also had full control of what we listened to. He showed me a live reggae show that he enjoys: Rockpalast Live 2019 by Richie Spice and the Element Band. While I loved how tight the band and the arrangement was, my biggest question was: did Richie Spice know about “the lick” too?

In my undergraduate years, the famous (or infamous) video of the lick came out. That’s where I learn about the very cool song Baby Come Back by the Players. In music, “a lick” is a short melodic idea. There is much discussion on the differences between a lick and a riff on the interweb. I don’t have a conclusive answer but it seems to be a consensus that a lick is usually used in passing in a solo (such as Chick Cirea’s solo in Spain (right at 6:11-12), whereas a riff tends to be a recognizable part of a song (like the melodic hook you think of when I say Smoke on the Water)

“The lick” is a particular melodic idea that is so commonly used by (mainly jazz) musicians, to the point that someone could make a (fun) video out of it. And ever since I have watched the video, I can’t help but notice it whenever “the lick” is being used. I have even joined The Lick Facebook page and contributed a few times of my own discovery from listening.

Santana’s Oye Como Va is a famous song that used “the lick” prominently as the main part of the composition. So is that the lick being used as a riff?

Back to the first question: I doubt Richie Spice knows about the lick. It’s probably his good musical sense that helped him hear and develop this little melody that “expands the same tone” with a nice contour: ascends by steps, descends by two skips, but over shoot, so that it ascends back up by step, which happens to bring the melody back to the open note. You can here Richie Spice used “the lick” as an ad-lib vocal filler in between lyrics to full effect.

My favorite “discovery” of the lick usage is of course from the classical guitar literature: measure 54-55 of Cancion, the third movement of Suite Venezolana by Venezuelan composer Antonio Lauro:

I know it’s a stretch, and Lauro probably didn’t know “the lick”, but I can’t help it!

#56 Why reggae – episode #3a

It must just be a self-romanticized thought, but I have always felt an indirect connection between Jamaican and Hong Kong – both were British colonies, and both are islands with extremely hot and humid weather. Yes the connections are superficial, but for a Chinese teenager to make a reggae connection, that was more than enough.

Of course, before I knew it, Chinese immigrants in Jamaica actually had much to do with propelling Jamaican music and culture.

Let’s start with Byron Lee, who was from Kowloon, Hong Kong. Kowloon is a peninsula attached to the Mainland China, but it’s part of Hong Kong’s territory. Although saying one is from “Kowloon, Hong Kong” strikes me as a bit odd (it’s like telling someone you are from Pittsford, Rochester), but if he did move to Jamaica when he was 8 to 9 years old (as Wikipedia says), that means he must speak Cantonese? Anyhow, I wonder how “playing Chinese” actually helped his career – his band was called Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, with a debut single in 1959 is called “Dumplins“. His music does not sound Chinese at all, but we can learn and sound like them. Give us a job, and we will deliver. Just listen to the music with your eyes closed? And I have only learned this years later: Byron Lee and the Dragonaire appeared in the first James Bond movie, Dr. No. Pretty cool?

As usual, let me digress to an anecdote. When I was attending IU, I was really into scratching and DJing. Not having the money and space, I befriended a few fellow buusiness majors who DJ on the weekends and carried gears for them. I remember one early morning, after packing and cleaning up for a party, we sat down on a couch and watched VH1. A music vdeo of 2 Live Crew’s Me So Horny came up, and suddenly, one of my DJ friends yelled: “what the F is this fat Chinese dude doing?” Little did we know, one of the MCs of 2 Live Crew, Fresh Kid Ice, was of Asian descent. And guess what? Although he was born in Trindad and Tobago, his family was from Hong Kong. I didn’t confront my friend at the time, as I assumed he menat no disrespect, but why can’t Chinese people be an MC? I must thank him though, as that might have pushed me to learn music that is not of “my culture.”

Byron Lee and the Dragonaires.

During the pandemic, I found out about Stephen Cheng when I tried to learn more about Chinese-Jamaican musical connection. Born in Shanghai in 1923 (or 1921?), Cheng moved to Hawaii in 1948, then moved to New York and attended Columbia, and then studied singing at Juilliard. Being able to sing in multiple languages got him a gig in Trindad and Tobago, and when he visited Jamaica, he recorded Always Together – an odd rendition of a “Taiwanese folk song” Girl from Ali Shan, sung in Chinese operatic style, but backed with a rocksteady beat provided none other than Byron Lee. The song is now a cult reggae classic, but apparently Cheng had a rough musical career, being suspected as a spy.

(Where do I find the tape where he sang Yesterday????)

Stephen Cheng with his band the Dragon Seeds

#55 Adagio from Concierto de Aranjuez

From RoboCop (2014). Early on in the movie, a guitarist tried out his newly installed robot-arms. He was playing the Adagio from the Concierto de Aranjuez, by Joaquín Rodrigo. Apparently, the robot-arms don’t work if emotions are evoked. But how does one play without emotions?

Listening to Leo Brouwer’s arrangement of the Adagio (second movement) of the Concierto de Aranjuez (from the collaborative album Leo Brower Con Irakere), I was reminded of two arrangements of the same piece performed by jazz musicians: Concierto de Aranjuez (Adagio) by Miles Davis (on his album, Sketches of Spain, arranged by Gil Evans); and Spain by Chick Corea. In my junior (or sophomore?) year, I played a non-degree recital, and put together a quartet of friends – a bassist, a pianist, a percussionist, and myself – to play Spain. We basically did the Chick Corea version: began with the Adagio as an introduction, then launched into the main part of the song.

I have never looked up other versions of the Adagio, but sure enough, it has been rearranged numerous times. I went through a few versions listed on Wikipedia. The Modern Jazz Quartet rendition (with Laurindo Almeida as soloist) stays fairly close to the original, as is the one by jazz harpist Dorothy Ashby. Ashby’s version intrigues me though, as she played the whole piece as a harp solo. Buckethead’s simple arrangement lets the melody takes its course, but listening to Santana wailing over a reggae one-drop is interesting to say the least…

Of course, I would have to include the effortless performance by Paco de Lucía. Unlike all the other recordings, Paco de Lucía performed the complete concerto (not just the Adagio), and apparently learned the whole piece by ear.

And there are two versions I would like to mention that are not on the Wikipedia list: the first one is by the Brazilian guitarist Dilermando Reis. On top of playing a steel string guitar, Reis took a “Liberace” approach and shortened the movement to merely four minutes. Contemporary guitarist Don Ross also played the Adagio on a steel string guitar, but in addition, he had Carlo Domeniconi turning pages, and gave a “finger style treatment” to the cadenza!

#54 How it all started – 7

Back in the day (90s and early 2000s), students in Hong Kong had to do two public exams: the HKCEE and HKALE. They were the type of exams that could determine one’s life, as the results would count toward university application. I took my HKCEE in 2000, and having achieved a big task (without knowing my results yet), I asked my mom to buy me a fender.

We went to Tom Lee, and the sales could have handed me any guitar and I would have said yes. I was mostly trying Fenders (Gibson seemed a lot more expensive somehow), and ended up with a strat. Not just a regular strat. It is an “American double fat strat” with two double humbuckers (so is it still a strat?). I knew nothing about guitars (I still don’t), but I knew I should get an American one. Mr. Sales Guy mentioned “jazz” (do people play jazz on strat? what did I know about jazz then?), and rhythm guitar. I might have checked out some Jackson and PRS too, but… Fender!

It was a busy day, and at one point Mr. Sales Guy had to step away, as Eason Chan was there and needed his help. There was a moment Eason was next to me. We were both waiting for the Mr. Sales guy to return. Eason was friendly, and we had the most useless conversation. “Are you buying a guitar?? He asked, in his bright orange Hawaiian shirt and straw hat (I remember seeing him in the same outfit in the newspaper next morning). “Yes!” I replied. He was a budding singer at the time, not like what he is now.

I bought my Fender around year 2000, at an equivalent of USD $800. It was a lot of money, especially for a spoiled 17 year-old. I can’t thank my mother enough. At the time, I thought I would play that guitar a lot to make up for how much it’s worth. I still play this guitar today, and it’s my main axe. It’s the electric guitar I feel the most comfortable playing.