Students of jazz improvisation have always been keen to study the various scales and modes used in jazz—the Dorian mode, for instance, or the melodic minor scale. Such scales are woven deep into the fabric of the music, to be sure, but when we listen to our favorite players in the idiom, it rarely sounds as if they’re playing by the textbook rules. At the same time, the work of top-gun improvisers rarely sounds chaotic. The most enigmatic soloists actually seem to operate within a logic all their own. Let’s look at some of the principles that guide these players beyond scales and make their work all the more engaging.
To keep our brains on an even keel while navigating these choppy waters, we’ll examine how several soloists have tackled the same simple tune—Miles Davis’ “So What.” Each player has his own strategies for coloring outside the lines, and, as we’ll see, some principles are shared in common. You won’t need a slide rule to get through this lesson—just an open mind and an open ear or two.
After Davis pioneered cool-school jazz in the ’50s, the visionary trumpeter was looking to take music in an even fresher direction when he recorded his classic ’59 album Kind of Blue. “So What” is the disc’s moody opener. The song is built on a 32-bar AABA form, and its chord changes couldn’t be simpler. (In, fact if the tune had one less chord, it wouldn’t have any changes.) Each A section hangs on Dm7 for eight bars, while the B section simply shifts the general harmony up a half-step to Ebm7 for eight bars. This stark harmonic landscape stood apart from popular jazz tunes of the day, many of which were filled with numerous chords and shifting key centers. “So What” set the tone for Kind of Blue and went on to earn the album its reputation as the first modally oriented jazz recording—though the album also includes blues-based tunes (“Freddie Freeloader”) and II-V-I tunes (“Blue in Green”).
Hiring pianist Bill Evans for the Kind of Blue session ensured the album would be something new, as Evans’ cerebral approach upended jazz conventions while retaining a deep, swinging groove. Evans was integral to Davis’ conception for the album, not only playing piano, but writing the liner notes and contributing an original composition “Blue in Green” (credited to Davis).
By the time Evans gets his at bat on “So What,” there’s not much left to be said in a purely melodic way. Davis has already played a brilliant solo, for the most part working the D Dorian mode (D, E, F, G, A, B, C) over the Dm7 chords, and Eb Dorian over the Ebm7 chords. Davis is followed in turn by saxophone heavies John Coltrane and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, also favoring modal sounds. Evans stakes his territory with sparse rhythmic jabs, dense chord clusters, and angular lines. In Ex. 1, Evans uses only a four-note subset (D, E, A, and B) of the scale’s seven available tones. This isn’t exactly thinking outside the box. Rather, Evans uses so little of the box that we forget the box is there. What’s more, he largely avoids fundamental Dm7 chord tones (D, F, A, C) and instead emphasizes the 9 (E) and 13 (B) by beginning and ending each phrase on either E or B. Stratospheric!
Evans again uses the D Dorian exclusively in Ex. 2, but pushes the tension envelope by harmonizing his lines in close diatonic seconds (i.e., major and minor seconds, as dictated by the scale). This technique is more easily accomplished on the piano than on the guitar, due to the quirks of standard tuning, but you can see here that it’s far from impossible. Experiment by harmonizing your own melodies in diatonic seconds.
Other intervals are worth exploring this way. Seconds and sevenths sound the least settled. Fourths or fifths offer harmonic ambiguity, but are generally more consonant than seconds and sevenths. Thirds and sixths tend to be the sweetest intervals, so avoid these if it’s friction you’re after.
While we’re exploring “So What,” let’s check out an excerpt from John Coltrane’s solo. Where Evans bends the modal rules, ’Trane forgoes modal formality in Ex. 3 in favor of crafty chromaticism. Notice how, in bars 1 and 3, he ascends from A to D via just two tones (B and C#), but then runs back down using all possible passing tones (C#, C, B, and Bb). Using extra steps on the way down blurs the sense of being definitively in one scale or another—adventurous soloists rarely stay in one scale for long. And dig how ’Trane employs quintuplet rhythms (bars 2 and 4), elasticizing the feel of his lines and avoiding the dum-da-dum-da-dum trap that some soloists fall into when they string together lengthy eighth-note runs.
It’s interesting to note that Coltrane released his own seminal album, Giant Steps, in the same year Kind of Blue hit the stores. Giant Steps takes a giant step in the opposite direction of Davis’ understated magnum opus. The tenor titan’s tunes on Giant Steps are harmonic obstacle courses with unusual chord movement. In his club gigs, though, ’Trane still liked to stretch out on two-chord jams as much as the next jazzer. His early-’60s sets often included “Impressions”—his original melody over the Dm7-Ebm7-Dm7 structure of Davis’ “So What.” Because of Coltrane’s prominent influence on the jazz scene of the ’60s, “Impressions” became a classic in its own right, being covered notably by jazz guitarists Wes Montgomery and Pat Martino.
Montgomery is not known for “outside” improv, but his melodic skills were so solid that we can learn outside principles from his relatively inside lines. Montgomery thumbed his way through Coltrane’s “Impressions” on a few live recordings in 1965—on Smokin’ at the Half Note (as an auxiliary member of the Wynton Kelly trio), on a Belgian television special (available on CD as Live in Belgium 1965 and on DVD as Jazz Icons: Wes Montgomery Live in ’65), and on Complete Live in Paris 1965. The Belgian take is a particularly blistering one—though Montgomery always sounds relaxed, no matter the tempo or dynamic. Let’s look at a few choice moments from that outing.
Example 4 stays mostly within the D Dorian mode, thus is not an example of scofflaw ingenuity. It does, however, illustrate a principle that is very useful for outside playing—melodic sequencing. See how measures 3 and 4 are closely modeled on measures 1 and 2, but start a fifth lower on E (bar 2, beat four) instead of B (pickup note to bar 1)? That’s melodic sequencing.Montgomery doesn’t stray from D Dorian here, but he easily could have without losing the narrative—for example, by shifting his second phrase (beginning at bar 2, beat four) up a half-step and starting on F rather than E. A phrase may be relocated to start on most any other note, so long as its contour bares enough thematic resemblance to the original phrase.
In Ex. 5 from the same “Impressions” solo, Montgomery only leaves the mode once—for F# in bar 2. Again, this is accomplished by using a repetitive melodic shape to sustain interest. The rising fourth in bar 1 (A to D) is followed by more rising fourths (G to C, F# to B). Montgomery cleverly varies the rhythm in the final bar to keep things from sounding too mechanical.
Melodic sequencing is not the only trick in Montgomery’s bag. He uses chromaticism and neighbor tones for a sidewinder feeling in Ex. 6. Against Dm7, Montgomery leads with Ab—the b5 of the chord. He resolves this blue note down to the 4, G, and then continues stepping scale-wise through D Dorian. He bypasses the B we’d expect on the last eighth-note of bar 1, skipping instead to A. This makes the C (beat four) and A (and of beat four) the upper and lower neighbors, respectively, of the B that launches bar 2. Next, he steps G down to Gb, which seems to be leading towards F, but Montgomery leaps to F’s lower neighbor, E, before pinning the F on beat 3. Measure 3 illustrates more neighbor-tone activity, foreshadowing the D to come on beat 3 with its upper neighbors E and Eb and its lower neighbor C#. After the sliding into the home-base D, Montgomery sprints up an Fmaj7 (F, A, C, E) arpeggio, beginning on E, coolly suggesting Dm9 (D-F-A-C-E).
Guitarist Pat Martino was born nearly 20 years later than Montgomery, but the guitarists’ careers overlapped in the ’60s, because Montgomery was a late bloomer as a recording artist, while Martino released his first albums as a leader in his early 20s. Although the younger guitarist’s style was fiercer and incorporated more modern melodic concepts, there was little doubt whose spell Martino was under when he recorded “Impressions” for his 1974 album Consciousness. Martino transposed the tune to the key of A minor. Since all our examples so far have been over Dm7, let’s take a moment to recalibrate our heads. Am7 contains the chord tones A (root), C (b3), E (5), and G (b7), and the A Dorian mode is spelled A, B, C, D, E, F#, G. We’ll need to keep these in mind as we analyze Martino’s minor excursion.
In Ex. 7, Martino starts out simply enough, ascending a Cmaj7 arpeggio (C-E-G-B) to suggest Am9. (We’ve already seen Montgomery use this maneuver, with Fmaj7 outlining the upper tones of Dm9.) In the second half of the measure, he climbs the first four notes of some type of A minor scale—perhaps Dorian. (With only four notes to go by, it’s impossible to say.) In bar 2, he plays root (Eb), 2 (F), 3 (G) and 5 (Bb) of an Eb major scale, utterly subverting the Am7 chord at hand. His next moves are even wilder. Beginning with the Bb on the and of beat two in bar 2, he descends a Cm7 arpeggio (Bb-G-Eb-C, high to low). This is followed by a descending Gm7 arpeggio (F-D-Bb-G, high to low), and then makes a line from the chord tones of Dm9. Martino returns to the Cmaj7 arpeggio in bar four, again suggesting Am9.
Martino begins Ex. 8 with a chromatic flourish, paraphrasing “Flight of the Bumblebee” as he connects all the dots between chord tones E (the 5 of Am7) and C (the b3). Here he uses the same kinds of upper- and lower-neighbor techniques we saw in the previous example. On beats three and four of measure 5, he actually uses a double dose of neighboring tones, buzzing around the A to come on beat one of the next bar. He first plays the upper and lower neighbors B and G#, and then follows with Bb and G. When the A finally comes, it’s a relief to the ears.
The allure of Davis’ “So What” endured even into the 1980s, when the winds of change had swept jazz through several new phases. Jazz-rock fusioneer (and studio ace) Larry Carlton revisited the tune for his live 1986 recording Last Nite. Where Martino’s approach to “Impressions” is dense and highbrow, Carlton’s take on “So What” is spacious and thematic—an approach Davis likely appreciated.
If you look at the overall shape of Carlton’s line in Ex. 9, it seems he’s just taking the scenic route down from the high F in bar 1. First, he steps down a second-inversion D minor triad (F, D, A, top to bottom), then down an A major triad (E, C#, A). The highest notes of these two shapes are, respectively, F and E. Thinking scale-wise in D Dorian, it follows logically after F and E that Carlton ends bar 2 on D—immediately trailed by C in bar 3. B follows from the C, but now we see Carlton using the B as an upper-neighbor of the chord-tone A that ends bar 3 (abetted by lower-neighbor G# in the same bar). While he’s on a roll, Carlton lets gravity take its course in bar 4, descending yet further from A down to D—with a bluesy Ab (b5) passing tone—then finally skipping down to A to end this line.
In our final example, Carlton descends an Am7 arpeggio (G-E-C-A, high to low) to insinuate Dm11 [Ex. 10]. Next he pegs a sustained F to bring our ears back to a prime chord tone (F is the b3 of Dm7). His three-note descent from E down to A (bar 3) outlines an A minor triad, for a Dm9 sonority. He follows with a prickly Ab minor triad, and then ends his phrase on relatively sonorous G major triad—the notes of which suggest Dm13 (B is the chord’s 13, G the 11). Such triadic superimposition is a key element of Carlton’s style, and is a cunning way to introduce dissonant chromaticism while using small consonant shapes.
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