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!



















Video: Ray Charles “What I’d Say” — Practice your blues licks with this one!


What’s up, Blues Cats and 12-bar Chicks?

If you want to get better at your blues piano playing, who better to learn from than Ray Charles? Try playing this video while throwing in your own blues licks on top.  Also try to imitate or paraphrase some of Brother Ray’s.

Here’s some insight to help you:

(1) The key is E.  You can start joining in by using the E-minor blues scale, throughout the whole jam, right hand only.  The E-minor blues scale is E, G, A, Bb, B, D, (E). Even if that’s all you practice here — which is quite valuable — it still helps to realize the following things about the chords involved . (If you’re especially ambitious,  you can try playing these chords in your left hand, while riffing with the right.)

(2) The chords are E7, A7 (added ninth, optional), and B7.

(3) The chord progression is a classic 12-bar blues, in its most basic form, outlined here:

E7 — 4 measures (bars)

A9 (or just A7) —  2 measures (bars)

E7 — 2 measures (bars) 

B7 — 1 measure (bar)

A9 (or A7) — 1 measure (bar)


E7 — 1 measure (bar)

B7 — 1 measure (bar) 

Now go back to the top.

(4) Repeat the above progression over and over, as you would in any 12-bar blues.  EXCEPTION: You may notice that the B7 in the turn-around does not happen in the 12-bar introduction, where Ray is playing the left-hand bass line and nothing else.  Here, E7 is implied throughout the last two bars.

(5) In the sections where the band stops, but the singing or soloing continues (called a break, or “stop-time”), the prevailing harmony is four bars of E7, as usual. Each time this break happens, we are sitting at the top of the 12-bar cycle. Therefore, each break leads us right into the A7 at measure 5.

So here’s the video, and have fun!

Blues lick #12 from “A Study in Blues Piano”

Hi folks!

Below is a sample lesson from my course “A Study in Blues Piano — Focusing on Twelve Licks.”

You can get the full course at a big discount by following the link below:

“A Study in Blues Piano” from PianoWithKent

Blues lick #12 — Chromatic Sixths

Get an automatic discount for the entire course here:

“A Study in Blues Piano” from PianoWithKent (DISCOUNT COUPON)


Versatile left-hand voicings for Jazz Chords on piano (Part One)

“Rootless voicings” for the left hand on piano are great for handling big jazz chords that normally can’t be covered by one hand alone. This lesson shows you how to play a rich sounding II-V-I in the left hand, while allowing the bass player (or you, on another beat) to cover the root. This is part one of a pair of lessons. It stands OK by itself. The second lesson is just another way of doing the same thing with the notes in a different arrangement.

How to learn ALL your dominant seventh chords in about an hour

Never try to learn your chords by rote! It’s all about patterns, man!

In this video, you’ll learn that there is one simple pattern (“major-minor-minor”) that every Dominant Seventh chord shares. Learn this one pattern, and you will be able to learn EVERY Dominant 7 chord in one sitting (about one hour). There is no need to memorize each one separately!

Over time, you will start to have the most commonly used dominant seventh chords at your finger tips, but with this system here, you will immediately be able to build any dominant 7 chord from any root, and always be certain that you are using the right notes!

Continue reading “How to learn ALL your dominant seventh chords in about an hour”

Easy 3-finger Technique for Impressive Pentatonic Runs on Piano (that’s right, only 3 fingers!)

Hello improvisors and jammers: Here’s a powerful way to play impressive pentatonic piano/keyboard licks when soloing in rock, blues, or jazz settings, using only three fingers in your right hand.  This video uses the famous “minor pentatonic” scale (“pentatonic” refers to a five-note scale). With a little work you will be amazed how fast you can fly across the keyboard using this simple trick of the trade!

Für Elise and other Easy Sheet Music with Letter-note names

“Für Elise” Notes (Beethoven, “Bagatelle in A minor”)


OTHER SHEETS (with Letter-notes included):

Here’s a collection of easy-to-read, easy-to-play sheet music I created a few years ago.  This collection resides on my older website, which is has been purged of most stuff, but still has these sheets on it.  The notes are all labeled with their associated letter-names (such as E, Bb, F#), as an aid to reading, for those who don’t read well.

These are all free and can be downloaded as PDF files.  See link below.

Be advised, these are easy arrangements, some of which are also abridgedClaire de Lune, for example is simplified, and only covers the opening theme.

Here is a list of the pieces:

Claire de Lune (intro)

Star Spangled Banner

Ode to Joy 

Happy Birthday

Moonlight Sonata

Minuet in G (Bach’s)


Here’s the link:

Easy Sheet Music with Letter-note names (downloadable)







Chord Symbols: add2 or add9? (includes my video on using added ninth to chords)

Hi everyone!  I received a question online today (on my YouTube channel), an excellent one, and one which is subject to debate.  The question is in response to one of my videos about using add9 chords on piano.  (A link to the video is included below.)

I thought I would share the thread here:

VIEWER: Isn’t the D in Cadd9 supposed to be an octave higher? I guess I’m just confused as to why it isn’t Add2 instead.

ME: Hi Jordan, this is a very good question, and one that is subject to debate. Technically, the voicing of these add9’s that I am using here are really “add2”. In general practice however, add9 is favored in chord symbols found in sheet music, and is meant to imply add2 or add9, depending on the voicing choice of the player. It’s interesting to note that add9 chords played on guitar have the ninth tone on top sometimes, and sometimes the 9th is not the highest tone, often depending on ease of finger positions. This is also true in a piano player’s choice of voicing. Again, to recap, add9 technically has the 9th as the highest tone in the voicing, as you indicated, but when using chord symbols, add9 is preferred for either one.

 VIEWER: That definitely makes more sense. Thanks for the clarification.
ME: Certainly, your question is much appreciated! Two other interesting points: A very popular, jazzy left-hand voicing for the MINOR 9th chord (as in Am9) — which, by the way, is NOT an add9 chord, because it also contains the 7th (I talk about that difference in the video) — is this, using Am9 as an example: G, B, C, E, where the root is implied, and can be played before or after the first cluster (or covered by the bass player). I bring this up because here you can see that the “9th” is not the top note in that particular voicing. (You might try that out, it sounds very cool!) Another thing: In my full two-handed voicings in the video, such as Cadd9, left hand plays C and G, and the right plays C-D-E-G. On close inspection you will note that the 9th (the D) is actually voiced far above the root (the left-hand C). But that is not mandatory to voice add9 that way, just a certain nice-sounding choice.
 Here is the video lesson which prompted the question:
 See ya soon!