Licks from the epic gig in Zaire, 1974
I pulled out some BB King records and every time he didn’t play I was playing. I had my phrasing just the opposite of the real thing.
Tempo: Various CD: TRACKS25-28
Will im prove your
Phrasing Stylistic authenticity Expression and delivery
Originally intended as the precursor to what was then touted as the greatest boxing event of all time, the legendary Rumble In The Jungle fought between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, Zaire ’74 was a three-day celebration of black music. Many of the artists considered it a spiritual homecoming and a return to their African roots. James Brown, Sister Sledge, The Crusaders and Bill Withers gave inspired performances alongside traditional African singers and musicians, such as Miriam Makeba and Manu Dibango.
Although an injury sustained by Foreman in training caused the fight to be delayed (it took place a month later with Ali coming out the victor), the festival went ahead regardless. It was a resounding success, too, with an attendance of over 80,000 people.
For me, one performance stands out head and shoulders above the rest. Having celebrated his 49th birthday a week earlier, BB King was at the height of his creative powers. Leading an orchestra featuring a mixture of regular sidemen and hired session players – including a fresh-faced upstart called Larry Carlton on rhythm guitar - King delivered a blistering set with scintillating playing from start to finish. Video footage shows a man that is clearly on top of his game, commanding the band with complete authority, controlling dynamics from a whisper to a roar and dictating the feel of each tune effortlessly. He gives a vocal performance to die for; in fact, his vocals and guitar are so entwined that we may as well consider them one and the same. While many rate 1965’s Live At The Regal as his finest moment, for me, Zaire ’74 is where it’s at.
There are two full solos this month, based around King’s playing from this concert. The obvious beauty of his style is that it’s organic, and while his preference for certain melodic ideas and rhythmic patterns might change to suit his mood, you’ll hear him revisit many of these devices in his playing from then until now. The trick is to think less about licks and more about short musical motifs and themes.
A motif is similar to a lick, but shorter. This brevity allows greater freedom when we come to connect ideas. While a lick has a fairly predictable outcome – from the first note you have a good idea of what is about to happen a few bars down the line – a motif can be developed infinitely; certain aspects might remain constant, such as rhythm, choice of notes, the scale you’re using and so on, but the musical outcome is much less predictable.
Great improvisers deal more with motifs and less with licks, and BB is no exception. But it’s still worth learning these solos, as not only are you establishing the building blocks of a language (as you might learn set phrases if you were attempting to learn to speak Spanish, say), but you can also study other crucial skills, such as the pacing of the notes, the development of ideas and the overall shape of a piece, rather than simply independent and disconnected musical ideas. As is so often the case, a balanced outlook and approach to learning is your best strategy, so get stuck in and, most importantly, remember to have fun when you play – just as BB most certainly did in Zaire all those years ago!
BB King with a Gibson ES-355, years before his signature ‘Lucille’