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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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.

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!
Kent

Learn about the Major pentatonic scale, and its cousin, the “Relative Minor” pentatonic (video lesson)

Learn about the Major pentatonic scale, and its cousin, the “Relative Minor” pentatonic scale (a video lesson). The relationship between any major scale (or key) and its relative minor scale or key is explained here as well, in terms of traditional music theory.

Video: Pentatonic scales, Major and Minor

A Good Way to Learn All Your “Thirteenth” Chords (by Pattern, NOT by Rote)

Hello again, piano people!

Todays’ post is about learning “thirteenth chords” on piano. In this video, you will learn a good way to learn and retain all twelve of the standard 13th chords without resorting to rote memorization.  In my experience,  I discovered early on that learning scales and chords by rote — that is, note-by-note, without any understanding of the patterns they all have in common — is the worst way to go.  Learning the underlying patterns that consistently define all scales and chords is absolutely where it’s at!

 

More on “Fourth Chords”

Ain’t life grand? As in grand piano?

Here’s a follow up to my recent post about “Fourth Chords.” I made this second video to give more insight regarding how “fourth chord” shapes can be superimposed over various roots, to create refreshing voicings for standard chord types, such as major, minor and dominant seventh chords.  The goal here is to focus on the practical side of putting these shapes into use!

Video: Fourth Chords, Part Two

“Fourth Chords” — Very Useful (Part One)

“Fourth chords” are chords built as a “stack of fourths,” rather than as a “stack of thirds.”An example of a “stack of fourths” would be: D, G, C, and F, where D is the lowest pitch, and the rest make up a series of fourths above that.

The greatest thing about these stacks is that any given stack can be superimposed above multiple roots, to create a variety of voicings for various chord types.

Using the stack mentioned above as an example:

A “Dmin7” chord using the stack D, G, C, and F, results in a nice open-sounding voicing, with an added 11th (the “G” note is the 11th).

OR,

D, G, C and F also sounds great over a B-flat root, creating a “Bb69” sound! That is, a B-flat major chord, with an added 6th and 9th. (G is the 6th, and C is the 9th).

And so on…my video here explains this in depth. (Check back soon for Part Two, with more insights on this.)

Essential Theory: Fourths and Fifths

NOTE: Website pianodrumteacher.com, mentioned in the video, is my older site, soon to be retired.

DESCRIPTION OF THIS VIDEO:
Piano and Music Theory – FOURTHS and FIFTHS – “Perfect and Not-so-perfect.” Essential knowledge for building chords without rote memorization, and for understanding chord progressions, plus understanding general music theory.

Understanding “Thirds” – how standard chords are built!

Hi folks!

In order to understand tutorials on piano playing, it is essential that you know some basic terminology from the world of music theory.  So here’s an important video on “major and minor thirds.”

If you aren’t clear about major and minor thirds, you might want to watch this.  Afterward, you can read the rest of this article, using your newfound vocabulary!

Stacked Thirds

Chords are often understood and learned as a series of “stacked thirds.”  For example, a major seventh chord can be seen as the following stack:

Major third, Minor third, Major third.

Let’s look at the CMaj7 (C Major Seventh) chord as an example of stacking thirds to build a major seventh chord from any root.  The notes of the CM7 chord are C, E, G, and B.  Starting from the root C, we can stack thirds to create the chord.  First we pile on the E, which is a major third above C.  Then we put a G on top of the E.  The musical distance (interval) from E to G is a minor third.  Finally, we top off the stack with a B, which is a major third above the G.  We now have a really tasty sandwich!

OK so here’s the vid with some tips on finding major and minor thirds on your keyboard, starting from any piano key.

Questions, comments? Please jump in. Let’s make this a community!