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Modal Jazz

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I was working through some tunes from the Real Book today, trying out some solo licks. Eventually I came to "So What", and found that the solo section was 16 bars of D-7, eight of Eb-7, then eight of D-7 again. I found it a bit harder to keep my solo interesting without changes. I wound up taking the chords from the head and just planing them up and down the keyboard.

Anyway, I'm interested in learning about modal jazz, especially in relation to soloing. As far as I can tell, it consists of sticking with a chord for a long time and getting increasingly far out in scale choice. Like using Ab lydian over D-7.

Any thoughts?

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There's many different approaches. One being to use the understood standard chord/scale relationships and create melodic, and motivic solos... Miles was the king of this. he didn't really take it outside, he just spun very melodic and rhythmic lines using the modes and upper harmonies of the chords. Very economical with everything in it's right place.

Miles Davis - So What (Solo starts at 1:30)

Dig the transcription and analysis: http://www.stevekhan.com/sowhata.htm

Another approach is as you describe: taking it OUT, and getting back IN. Coltrane's band devoured that scraggy. With this, you're relying heavily on sequences, and tying unrelated things back to something familiar. Finding common tones/pivot notes to allow you to sidestep away from the "key" and back again is a good way. I've been experimenting with various "triadic coupling" techniques lately. Taking basic triads, and pivoting from one to another, alternating inversions etc...

i.e. F D Bb Eb C Ab D Bb F C Ab Eb and so on... Perfect over Bb7 chords...or F7sus or AbMaj7 or...whatever!

Find two triads (step down, step up, tritone whathaveyou) and attack with them. With experience you develop your own vocabulary of hip patterns and substitutions to help you obscure the "key" but then be able to bring it "home" ...


Coltrane's Impressions (Same progression as So What) Dig McCoy's quartal voicings; also his and Tranes solos

Fun stuff. THIS is my bag...and it's atually a pretty hard thing to explain, and teach. I'll ponder more on this...

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I was going to write some long explanation of some concepts but I think it might be better if you discovered them yourself(else you tend not to understand them and not really get better).

1. Learn as many "scales" as you can. Think of them as just crutches though. Ultimately you want to be free from scales. (this refines your sense of key and mode and how to recognize what works and what doesn't)

2. Play with motivic ideas and bounce them around in "random" keys but over the original harmony. (this is to show you that the other 50% is contextual. The point here is that give the listener something to grasp onto then you can use it in very strange ways and it won't necessarily sound wrong)

3. Learn to connect random chords together melodically in a smooth an natural way. (can you make a vamp of D - G# sound just as natural as D - G? or what about C - Bb?)

4. Over a static harmony you have to rely more on variational aspects. If you have a good grasps of the different colors of the chromatic scale(which 1 is suppose to teach you) then you will be able to express those different colors. For example, you might be able to make a masterpiece painting but if it is in just one color then no one will like it but if you use several colors even a simple painting can look good and have meaning. To do this though you gotta have a good grasp of everything else.

Here are some exercises:

A. Play random chords together(in 2 or 3 chord vamps, say) and try to make them sound natural as any others.

B. Use motives and develop them into meaningful phrases but as in part A.

C. Play using different "colors"(modes, scales, or whatever you want to call them) using part A but change it each time.

D. Do the same but as A,B,C but this time over a static harmony. (try C but "imply" the colors... it's hard but if it was easy...)

(hint on C: Say you have A Bbm B7 Fdim

You might try the key of A on the whole thing which implicitly produces different colors over the different chords as they go by. Try to make it work. Then you might try changing the colors explicitly by using A maj over the A chord, Bbm phrygian over the Bbm chord, etc...

The main point is, which I'm kinda telling you even though you gotta figure it out yourself, is that you are always expressing a color and idea. In general you can't move from one color to another and it sound good if the colors are too far apart(Although if your good you can) But there are many "connections" and colors "mix". By learning to "paint" with the colors and learning to draw cool things you learn to make music. (of course you can use a few colors and draw really cool things or use a lot of colors and draw really simple things but the goal is to do both)

Over a static progression, it is similar except you have to imply the colors since you don't have the harmony helping you out. It's similar to a piece without any harmony. Here you have to imply everything. (and it is a bit different because you think to think differently... or at least you are a bit limited since you don't have "help")

Remember though, it's just 12 notes. It's about how you use them. We group notes that relate well together into "scales" and "modes" but ultimately they are all the same... just a hierarchy of notes where at different points in time the hierarchy changes(and we can choose from the best notes or the worse notes).

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BTW, I guess I should mention a few things to be aware of as it might make it a little easier:

First is that any note you play(and in generally actually several notes and potentially even more) setup expectations or, in some sense, can change the hierarchy of notes. In general this follows the harmonic series(as most things in music do).

An example will make this clear: Suppose I have an Em harmony and I play an F. Well, the note hierarchy will, in general, prefer a C over a C# because you have establish a phrygian like sound and C is the 5th of F. If you were to play F# then C# would be, in general, more natural. Of course you have the choice but it sounds more consonant but you might not be wanting to do that. (but it's good to be aware of) This isn't always true of course as the major scale has a tritone in it. It depends on a lot on context too. (main point here is that you can use this to your advantage for setting up "modulations" as those tones can help point to the next tone)

Also, even though the harmony might have it's own quality it is easily overpowered. Blues does this all the time. Of course again, it has a certain color and the main thing is to learn these colors and how to use them together. It's no fun to paint with just one color or to have an infinite number of colors but not know how to combine them.

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You can always play some random stuff in a totally random and unrelated key, and then end or resolve on a chord tone...

Like the Dmin in So What, you could do something like play Jingle Bells in F#...And then you could resolve it by playing it up a half step in G. That's just an example I'm pretty sure's been done before...


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Well, technically you can do anything you want until congress makes it illegal and even then you could probably get away with it in prison until you get murdered for it.

But resolving a single tone doesn't necessarily make it ok. If you play entire dissonant piece in random keys then resolve the last tone to a consonance doesn't change anything. There has to be a balance. Too much of anything becomes boring and too much dissonance can, in general, just sound like a mess. (of course it tends to work out for horror films ok but there are other factors going on too)

I'm not sure I get what you are talking about. If you are talking about playing random notes over random harmonies, then sure... you can do that... it will sound like crap in almost all cases and chances are it will show that you have no idea what your doing(as anyone, even a computer or baby can do that with no problem). Of course in the right context it might work but probably not for very long...

Music is an intellectual process and when people listen, that is what they are listening for(more or less for different people). This is not to say that some "random" part won't work as it can for several reasons... but in general terms "random" music is just crap because it has no intelligence. (and those wanting to push it as intellectual just show there ignorance)

Of course the nice thing about random stuff is the wide array of colors that get expressed... but most people wouldn't call a painting where someone through random colors on a canvas as "art"... of course there are always the few... and sometimes interesting patterns do emerge(because even order exists in randomness).

The main point I as trying to express in my posts is that to understand how different aspects of harmony and improvising relate it helps to understand what they express. By choosing "random" harmonies we are sorta "thrown in the deep end" and are forced to deal with it head on. This helps us develop a better understanding and we can then apply it to more normal circumstances.

For example, Over a static harmony, say, Em, you can play in minor(natural, harmonic, melodic, phrygian, etc...) or major(ionian, lydian, mixolydian, double harmonic, etc..) or use some of the more exotic scales.

If the harmony is static, say 100 bars, then it would be quite boring to listen to the same color for that long for most people under most improvisers. But by using the various colors you can create more interesting solos. It's not about just randomly throwing colors on a canvas but about putting colors together that flow in an interesting way(and there is much more too it than just knowing which colors you have).

There are a few things to realize and which I my "exercises" would help teach. First, that quality tends to be easily changed or at least partially changed. The Em chord above can be made to sound like Emaj by just playing the maj3rd. But this is a color!! It's a bit strange though because if you play in major you are sorta weaving in an out of major and minor unless you only play the 3rd. The reason here is that the melody tends to be more significant(usually louder and timbre is different) and so it's 3rd overpowers the harmonies 3rd. We, of course still here the root and 5th.

Similarly we can do the same with the 5th by playing the dim5th. If we convinced the listener that we have a maj3rd instead of min3rd and play it then it tend to sound like a aug4th... specially if it really is(i.e., we have played the P5th and convinced the listener of that). If we play the m6th and +4/-5 then we have entered into a new color that is much farther out and we must setup more cues to the listener so they don't get even confused more and it gets harder and harder the farther away we get from the original tonic.

Mainly though the most important tones are the root and 5th, if we contradict them and the harmony is clearly heard then the listener cannot determine what is what. This can be great at the right time(for modulations or "smoothing" between colors) but if you don't do it on purpose then it tends to sound like crap(or just one of those great moments that never happens again).

An analogy is language. Most people have a pretty large vocabulary but just knowing the vocab doesn't mean you can make meaningful sentences. Sure you can throw random words together and get a "sentence" but it is crap. 50% of it is knowing the grammar and the other 50% is knowing the vocabulary. If you have a larger vocabulary then you can make more interesting sentences and express yourself better.

Just because you can do it doesn't mean you should.

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modal jazz was a paradigm shift from ...bebop and hard bop.


...as long as he stayed on the scale that is being used.


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I assume "modal jazz" is the idea of modes in a jazz context. This is no big deal though in many respects as modes have exists(in some form or another) for centuries.

The idea has nothing to do with harmony or melody but with ones using different hierarchies than the commonly used major or minor system.

Wiki says "Modal jazz is jazz using musical modes rather than chord progressions as its harmonic framework."

Which is absurd because "musical modes" is any opposite to chord progressions. Modes is a concept and can be used to create "chord progressions" as well as melodies just as the standard major and minor keys are used.

I'm not sure who wrote that wiki page but a lot of it is crap. It's obvious that the person who wrote it wasn't a musician and doesn't have a clue about modes outside what he has read in women's choice magizine.

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