A Lesson in Modal Jazz

Hi folks!  This article is not for players who are brand new to piano, or brand new to improvisation.  That said, if you are a newbie in either category, you may still find it interesting.

I wanted to give you a brief introduction to the idea of “modal jazz.”  We’re going to look at probably the most famous example of modal jazz, a tune called “So What,” by Miles Davis and Bill Evans.  This track is eternally famous because (1) the modal jazz idea was pretty new at the time, and (2) because “So What” is the most well-known track on the best-selling jazz album in history, called “Kind of Blue.”

It seems to me that contemporary modal improv, which had its birth in the late 1950’s, led the way to the most groundbreaking improvisational rock of the 1960’s, and has never stopped being at the heart of improvisational pop/rock/jazz solos until this very day.

My goal here is to show you enough about modal improvisation to start jamming along with these guys, as they improvise on this classic tune.  The way to “jam along” here is to play your own improvised lines along with each soloist in the recording.  In that sense, you and the soloists will be improvising simultaneously. This kind of interwoven conversation is not unheard of in jazz, so don’t feel like you’re interrupting the masters LOL.

There are three links below to YouTube videos of “Kinda Blue,” as taken from the original recording.

In a nutshell, modal jazz is more concerned with exploring scales and modes than with creating melodies based on chord progressions.  I’ve included a link to an excellent Wikipedia article on modal jazz, in case you want to know more.  For now, this article is sufficient in terms of experiencing and practicing the modal approach.

(1) “So What” explores improvised melodies using the “Dorian” mode.  (The terms “scale” and “mode” are sometimes used interchangeably, and the distinction is somewhat academic, depending on the context ).

(2)  If you start on “D” and play every white key on the piano, going up or down one white key at a time (as in D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D.), you have just played a Dorian scale.

(3) Academic note: The scale of “C Major” uses only the white keys, as well (C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C).  It is considered the “parent scale” of D dorian mode.  I won’t go any deeper than that in this article, because this post is about jamming, and we want to jam now.

(4) “So What” improvisation alternates between D dorian and Eb dorian.  So here are the two scales you will use:

D Dorian = D, E, F, G, A, B, C, (D) 

Eb Dorian = Eb, F, Gb, Ab, Bb, C, Db, (Eb)

(5) I’d like you to discover when the band goes from one mode to the other (D dorian and Eb dorian) by just listening.  Feel free to peck at the piano or keyboard to confirm your suspicions. As I said, “So What” alternates between the two dorians. That is, D dorian, Eb dorian — D dorian, Eb dorian…over and over. The original chart has a fixed number of measures specified for each mode, but it’s better for ear-training to fly without instruments.

(6) Once you are comfortable with the notes of D dorian and Eb dorian, try playing your own lines along with the masters as you listen to the recording.  You can try imitating their lines, and/or you can just belt out some of your own. I recommend both: the former is for validation, and the latter is for finding your own voice.

The track starts with an intro, and then sets up a groove.  The chords used in the set-up groove are Bill Evans’s famous “So What” chords.  (More on those chords in another post.)

OK!  If any of the above is unclear, or if there is not enough information, please comment on this post and I will respond!

Three links to “So What”

Wikipedia article on Modal Jazz

Wikipedia article on musical modes

Please comment with questions, feedback, etc!



















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