By Peter Spitzer - Jazz Author, Musician, and Instructor
In musical parlance, the word “mode” simply means “scale”; it is often used to describe a scale other than major or minor. Our present-day major and minor scales derive from the “modes” of medieval music, which in turn derive from the music of ancient Greece. Modes were used as a resource by some relatively modern classical composers like Debussy and Bartok, who felt the need to go beyond traditional major/minor tonality. In the 1950s, jazz musicians also began to work with modal approaches.
The term “modal jazz” refers to improvisational music that is organized in a scalar (“horizontal”) way rather than in a chordal (“vertical”) manner. By de-emphasizing the role of chords, a modal approach forces the improviser to create interest by other means: melody, rhythm, timbre, and emotion. A modal piece will generally use chords, but the chords will be more or less derived from the prevailing mode.
Miles Davis, always a trend-setter in jazz, utilized this approach in his composition “Milestones” (1958), on the album of the same name. The structure of this tune is AABBA. The A sections are based on the G dorian scale; the B sections are based on the A aeolian scale (see “The Classical Modes,” below).
His next album, Kind of Blue (1959), is the definitive example of modal jazz, and was a pivotal moment in the evolution of jazz.
Miles’ modal work was preceded by a number of contributing influences. As we have noted, modal resources had been used in classical music of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Jazz and popular music had also seen the occasional use of what could be seen as “modal” usage, in the suggestion of non-major/minor tonality (e.g., Burton Lane’s “Old Devil Moon,” or Ary Barroso’s “Bahia,”), and in the use of extended solos with minimal harmonic movement (e.g., Benny Goodman’s version of Louis Prima’s “Sing, Sing, Sing,” or the open montuno solos in mambos of the 1940s-1950s). In addition, American audiences in the 1950s were becoming aware of scale-based, non-chordal Indian classical music through album releases by Ali Akbar Khan (1956) and Ravi Shankar (1957).
George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization was a mode-based approach to music that influenced certain New York jazz musicians in the 1940s-1950s, notably Miles Davis, pianist Bill Evans, and arranger Gil Evans (both Bill Evans and Gil Evans worked closely with Miles, and contributed to “Kind of Blue”).
The Kind of Blue album represented an intersection of these influences, and a further expression of the “cool” style that Miles had explored for much of his career. It abandoned the virtuosic, densely-chorded branch of 1950s jazz that led to John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and “Countdown” (recorded at about the same time in 1959), in favor of simplicity and harmonic space. The album’s personnel (Davis, trumpet; Coltrane, tenor sax; Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, alto sax; Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; and Jimmy Cobb, drums) interpreted the compositions with a pensive, impressionistic ambience.
The compositions on the album (“So What,” “Freddie Freeloader,” “Blue in Green,” “Flamenco Sketches,” and “All Blues”) are by Miles Davis, with the exception of “Blue in Green,” which was written by Bill Evans, and “Flamenco Sketches,” probably co-written by Evans and Davis. “So What,” “All Blues,” and “Flamenco Sketches” are conceived modally. The other pieces are not exactly modal, but share the same mood. The making of Kind of Blue is documented in two excellent books, by Ashley Kahn (Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece) and by Eric Nisenson (The Making of Kind of Blue: Miles Davis and His Masterpiece).
The modal approach was pursued further in subsequent recordings by Miles and by other jazz artists. John Coltrane’s work in the 1960s with pianist McCoy Tyner advanced the modal concept in an intense, even spiritual direction (e.g., his albums My Favorite Things, Impressions, A Love Supreme), and deeply affected the subsequent development of jazz.
By the late 1960s the use of modal resources had become widely accepted in jazz. The modal approach also became a common feature in popular rock, funk, and jazz-funk genres, in the form of extended scale-based soloing over a harmonic support of only one or two chords.
The Classical Modes
The modes that we have inherited from the classical tradition are listed below, with some brief comments. Many “modal jazz” tunes use these scales, though soloists will not always limit themselves strictly to the notes of the mode.
- Ionian: This is another name for the major scale. From C, the notes would be C D E F G A B C. This scale is built with half steps between degrees 3-4 and 7-8; the other tones are separated by whole steps.
- Dorian: Like a natural minor scale, but with a major sixth. From C, the notes would be C D Eb F G A Bb C. Half steps are between 2-3 and 6-7. This is one of the most-used modes in jazz. The b3 and b7 notes allow for a “blue” sound in solos. “So What” is in 32-bar AABA form, with each A section using a D dorian scale, and the B section using an Eb dorian scale. Coltrane’s “Impressions” uses an identical structure, with a different melody.
- Phrygian: Like natural minor, but with a minor second. From C, the notes would be C Db Eb F G Ab Bb C. Half steps are between 1-2 and 5-6. This scale conveys a “Spanish” sound.
- Lydian: Like major, but with a raised fourth. From C, the notes would be C D E F# G A B C. Half steps are between 4-5 and 7-8. This scale was taken by George Russell as the basis of his “Lydian Chromatic Concept.”
- Mixolydian: Like major, but with a minor seventh. From C, the notes would be C D E F G A Bb C. Half steps are between 3-4 and 6-7. Like dorian, this scale can be used to produce a “blue” sound.
- Aeolian: Another name for natural minor. From C, the notes would be C D Eb F G Ab Bb C. Half steps are between 2-3 and 5-6.
- Locrian: Like natural minor, but with a minor second and a diminished fifth. From C, the notes would be C Db Eb F Gb Ab Bb C. Half steps are between 1-2, 4-5. Not used much.
These modes are often taught as the “modes of major,” as they can be generated by using the major scale interval pattern, but with different starting points. For example, using the white notes of the piano, C to C produces C major (ionian): D to D produces D dorian; E to E produces E phrygian; F to F produces F lydian; G to G produces G mixolydian; A to A produces A natural minor (aeolian); B to B produces B locrian.
The Chord Scale Approach
One contemporary (and widely-taught) approach to improvisation views every chord as having one or more scales that can be played over it. Although it involves the use of modes, this approach to soloing does not necessarily make a tune “modal.”
Scale resources in this system include the classical modes listed above, as well as the set of modes generated by ascending melodic minor (C D Eb F G A B C), whole tone scales, diminished scales, and pentatonic scales. This set of scales will provide at least one mode that will fit almost any given chord. Historically, this approach owes quite a bit to George Russell.
For more information on modes and chord scales, see Peter Spitzer’s “Jazz Theory Handbook,” or virtually any other jazz theory book.
Mel Bay Jazz Theory Handbook
Mel Bay Publications, Inc.
(Jazz Theory Handbook is a great jazz theory resource for beginners and established musicians. Click the graphic to see our review.)