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In the Mode
Easing into Modal Jazz
by Ted Eschliman
Back to simple
Many think of jazz as being extremely complex harmonically and rhythmically. More often than not this is true, at least in comparison to its roots in American folk songs, but at one point during its century long history, the harmonic cadence took a drastic turn for something dramatically slower: during the development of "Modal" Jazz. Note, we aren't referring to tempo or speed, rather to how fast chords change. Classic Modal Jazz is extremely sparse in chords, using a different scale, or, more appropriately, "mode" for a long period of time. A very early example of this would have been from trumpeter Miles Davis' 1959 album "Kind of Blue," the classic standard, "So What," which used only two chords D minor and Eb minor throughout its entire 32 measures. Through the intense repetition and lack of distraction from the rapid-fire chord changes and tonal center ambiguity characteristic of the 50's Bebop era, jazz had taken a brief detour into something more similar to its earliest roots. Another kind of sophistication emerged: the only thing different was the "attitude" of cool.
For the uninitiated, just what do we mean by the word "Mode?" The simplest way to put it is in the context of patterns and scale degree relationships based on the Major Scale. If you started a D scale on its first note, the pitches would be D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, and D again. If you started the same scale of pitches on A, and kept the relationships, you'd have a similar scale, but unlike the A Major scale, you'd have a G Natural instead of G#. This would be a Mixolydian Mode with its lowered 7th: A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G, A. You may already know this, but many Fiddle tunes use this mode; it's quite common. In particular, "Old Joe Clark," "Liza Jane, "June Apple," and "Red Haired Boy," to name a few examples. You may have always thought these were in a Major key but that lowered 7th scale degree betrays its true nature. (Try playing those tunes with the raised 7th and see how long you last in the jam before you're thrown out with the spoon players…)
In total, there are seven modes, but we just want to talk about one in particular for this lesson, the Dorian Mode, because it was quite commonly used by some jazz cornerstone figures like Miles, John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, and Bill Evans. It's similar to the Mixolydian, except for one note, the 3rd. Lowering this gives it a whole different vibe, and frames it more like a Minor key. In the aforementioned Miles tune "So What," the chords are D and Eb minor, but the soloing is frequently in D and Eb Dorian. If you look closely, it's the consistently raised 6th scale degree that gives it away.
So should you think of the Dorian mode as being a series of notes based on the 2nd degree of a Major Scale? Perhaps, but we prefer to frame it in its "minorness" and consider it a Major scale with a lowered 3rd and a lowered 7th. Don't get bogged down in semantics and do what works best for you, however. Here is what it looks like:
Speaking of Fiddle tunes, did you know that "Cluck Old Hen" is actually a Dorian tune? How about the Drunken Sailor Hornpipe? You can probably think of more. Interestingly, like John Coltrane's classic composition "Impressions," the fiddler and the post-bebopper are going to take a similar approach in improvisation, worrying much less about harmonic changes and more about melodic nuance. This is also a great step out for a beginning jazzer who might be intimidated by the rapid-fire chord changes of Coltrane's "Giant Steps" or other Bebop milestones. (Pun intended…)
In the book "Getting Into Jazz Mandolin" (yes, it's really out, now!!!), we introduce an exercise to help familiarize your fingers with Dorian Scale patterns. We want to give you a teaser of what you can do with modal skills, so we're offering a sneak peak at the above song, "Dorian's Grey" that incorporates the Modal concept into some remedial improvisation. Some hints about what notes to use:
- Think of the notes of the Dm chord (D, F, A) and the Gm chord (G, Bb, D); use the other notes as passing tones
- Try to get away from playing scalular, or in stepwise motion. Think about jumping around in arpeggios
- Think of the upper extensions of the chords, the 9th, 11th, and 13ths. You can play these upper triads and pull the roots out of the harmony by improvising on an E minor triad over the D minor chord, and an A minor triad over the G minor chord.
- Relax and enjoy the simplicity of the harmonic structure and incorporate more rhythmic nuance. Swing!
Also, a plug for the book. We've had a hot New Orleans ensemble lay down some great jam tracks for the accompanying CD. (This alone is worth buying the book!) You can hear some great examples of what can be done with this tune on the support audio of our "Webtracks Page on the JazzMando site.
Shortcut audio link: Dorian's Grey; Don Stiernberg
Shortcut audio link: Dorian's Grey; Mark Wilson
More audio tracks for Mel Bay's "Getting Into Jazz Mandolin": Webtracks
Have you been enjoying the great resources at Mel Bay's MandolinSessions.com? If you're new here, be sure to click on the Back Issues button above. If you've been a regular, take the time to drop us a note with some feedback: a question for a future article, an observation about something that is helping your playing, or just let us know what part of the world you are in. Some of you have already done this, and we treasure it when you take the time. Contact us at http://jazzmando.com/contact_jazzmando.shtml , and of course drop in on the JazzMando.com website, for the latest “Tips and Tricks” and jazz mandolin-related news! If you have an RSS Reader, take advantage of our RSS feed feature!
Have you been enjoying the great resources at Mel Bay's Mandolin Sessions? If you're new here, be sure to click on the Back Issues button above. If you've been a regular, take the time to drop us a note with some feedback: a question for a future article, an observation about something that is helping your playing, or just let us know what part of the world you are. Some of you have already done this, and we are treasure it when you take the time. Contact us at http://jazzmando.com/contact_jazzmando.shtml , and of course drop in on the JazzMando.com website, for the latest "Tips and Tricks" and jazz mandolin-related news! If you have an RSS Reader, take advantage of our RSS feed feature!