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Modal Jazz Improvisation on Three Basses – Bass Practice Diary 31

Modal Jazz Improvisation on 3 Basses – Based on Flamenco Sketches – Bass Practice Diary – 20th November 2018

This week I was inspired by the chord changes of Miles Davis’ modal jazz masterpiece Flamenco Sketches. I used the chords as the basis to improvise using three basses, fretless electric, acoustic upright (double bass) and acoustic bass guitar.

This is the second video I’ve made playing jazz with these three basses. If you’d like to find out more about why I’m using them, then check out my previous video called Playing Jazz with Three Different Basses.

Miles Davis and his Compositions

Once again, I’ve featured a composition by the great jazz trumpeter and band leader Miles Davis. My previous video featured a composition called Solar. It wasn’t a conscious decision to feature the same composer twice. However, it does reflect the influence that Miles Davis’ music has had on me and my own jazz education.

The two compositions, Solar and Flamenco Sketches, actually have very little in common. Other than that they’re written by the same composer. Solar is what jazz musicians would refer to as a Bop tune. And Flamenco Sketches is an example of Modal Jazz. They represent very different stages of Miles Davis’ career even though they were only written about five years apart.

Also, in this video, I’m only using the chord progression for Flamenco Sketches as a basis for improvisation. Whereas, I played the melody of Solar as well as an improvised solo, which is more or less consistent with the Bop style.

The album Kind of Blue, is one of the most famous jazz albums of all time. It was released in 1959 and it marked a complete change of direction in modern jazz. It’s debatable whether or not Miles Davis actually came up with the idea of Modal Jazz. Because there are earlier compositions by other composers, that could be described as modal jazz even though the term wasn’t used to describe them at the time. But Kind of Blue undoubtedly established modal jazz as a major movement in modern music, and it marked a sea-change in jazz.

What is Bop?

The concept of modal jazz is actually very simple. In order to understand it, you must first understand Bop, which had been the prevailing style in modern jazz up until the late 1950’s. Modern jazz really started with a style of music called Bebop, and particularly two gentlemen, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

Check out my video about playing Charlie Parker Bebop melodies on fretless bass here.

Miles Davis began his career as a teenager, playing with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. So his background was in Bebop and he continued playing a style of Bop called Hard Bop throughout the 1950’s when he lead his own band. The composition Solar first featured on a Miles Davis album in 1954, and it is typical of a Bop style jazz melody.

The style of Bebop was all about complex melodies and fast moving chord progressions. In order to play it you needed both technical skill, to keep up with the pace, and also exceptional understanding of harmony and ability to navigate fast moving chord and key changes. The Hard Bop movement was a bit less high paced and a bit more soulful, but it still relied upon the melodic and harmonic style of it’s predecessor Bebop.

What is Modal Jazz?

Modal jazz, by contrast, doesn’t rely on chord progressions. Where Bop compositions tend to change chords in virtually every bar. Modal compositions tend to stay on just one chord for extended periods. The improvisers role in modal jazz is not to navigate continually shifting harmony as in Bebop. It’s to create melody from modes.

Modes are essentially scales. Each chord implies an accompanying scale which the improviser can use to create a tune. Flamenco Sketches is a classic example of a modal jazz composition, it is essentially just five chords, or five modes. Very simple in theory, but it’s also one of my favourite jazz compositions.

Flamenco Sketches Chords

Flamenco Sketches starts in C major, I would use a C lydian mode to improvise on this first section. Find my video about Lydian Sounds here. The second chord is Ab7sus4. The sus4 chord voicing is intentionally ambiguous, because it doesn’t define the chord as being either major or minor. Therefore there are a number of different ways you can approach it. Miles Davis uses a major triad starting on the fourth Db, which I’ve tried to emulate in my improvisation.

The third chord is a Bb major chord, and again you can use a lydian mode here. This precedes one of my favourite moments in any jazz composition. Which is a change from the Bb major to a D phrygian dominant mode. This has to be one of my favourite chord changes. I remember seeing Ron Carter’s band play this piece in London in about 2003. It was such a beautiful concert. One moment from the concert that I can still remember all these years later was when the band changed to the D chord in Flamenco Sketches. Ron Carter had an extended range on his fourth string so he could reach a low D on his bass. I’ve tuned the fourth string on my upright bass down to a D in the video to emulate this.

It’s the phrygian dominant mode that gives the piece it’s Spanish flavour. You can find my video about the phrygian dominant mode here. The Spanish sound is integral to the composition. For this reason, this section of the song lasts twice as long as the other four modes. The final chord is a Gm7 chord, you can play a dorian mode here.

Artificial Harmonics

The original idea for this video came because I was practicing a technique for artificial harmonics which I’ve adapted from the guitar. I’ve never done artificial harmonics like this on bass before. I use a different technique usually. I haven’t done a video about artificial harmonics yet, but I will do one soon. So stay tuned to my Bass Practice Diary if you want to learn this technique.

I was using this technique on a guitar and I started wondering if I could use it to play chords on my acoustic bass guitar. Once I found it worked I immediately had the idea of playing the chord changes for Flamenco Sketches using the technique. I recorded it and added the improvisation on double bass and fretless bass, and that’s the video!

 

 

Playing Chords on the Bass – Part 4 – Chord Extensions

In Part 4 we’re going to look at chord extensions.

In this video lesson you’re going to learn how to play chords with chord extensions on the bass.  I’ll also explain what notes you can leave out and why, in order to make your chords sound more interesting.

What are chord extensions?

Extended harmony is where chords get a lot more interesting sounding but it’s also where the theory gets more complicated. Chord extensions are notes that we can add to basic chords like triads. Having established how to play triads in Part 3, we can now look at adding chord extensions to them.

The most common chord extension by far is the seventh. In Part 3 we looked at how triads are made up of a root, a third and a fifth. And there is an interval of a third between each of these notes. In order to make a triad into a seventh chord we just continue this pattern of stacking intervals of a third. We add a note that is a third above the fifth and we call this note the seventh. Seventh chords have four notes in them root, third, fifth and seventh.

Four types of seventh chords

If you watched my video about “Intervals” then you’ll know that there are two types of sevenths, major and minor just like there are major and minor thirds. Fifths however are not major or minor and so the fifth is the same in both major and minor chords. For this reason, it’s the third and seventh notes of each chord that define what type of chord it is.

For example if you have a chord with a major third and a major seventh in it, it’s called a major seventh chord and a chord with a minor third and a minor seventh is called a minor seventh chord. The word used to describe a chord that has a major third and a minor seventh in it is “dominant” and dominant seventh chords are very common.

The chord symbol for a dominant seventh chord is just the number 7 (eg. G7, A7, C7 etc.) minor seventh chords are written m7 (eg. Gm7, Am7, Cm7 etc.) and major seventh chords can be written a number of ways such as with a small triangle or sometimes with an upper case M, but most commonly they are written maj7 (eg. Gmaj7, Amaj7, Cmaj7 etc.)

These three types of seventh chords are by far the most common but there are others that I’ve also listed at the end of Example 1. For example, a chord with a minor third and a major seventh is called minor with a major seventh (min/maj7).

What notes can you leave out?

When we play extended chords we usually can’t play all the notes within the chord because we only have a finite number of strings on the bass. The more chord extensions we have means the more options we have, but it also means the more decisions we have to make in terms of what notes to leave out. In the case of seventh chords the decision is simple, I’ve already mentioned that the fifth is the same for major and minor chords so the fifth doesn’t fulfill a very important function in the chord (unless we alter it as in diminished and augmented chords). So if we leave out the fifth we have three notes left, the root, third and seventh.

Example 1 demonstrates two different ways of voicing major seventh, dominant seventh, minor seventh and minor with a major seventh chords. The first way is to play the root on the A string, the third on the D string and the seventh on the G string. The second way is to play the root on the E string, leave out the A string and play the seventh on the D string and the third up an octave on the G string.

Video 4 Example 1 Chord extensionsAltering the fifth

Just because the fifth is the same for both major and minor chords doesn’t mean we can’t alter it. You can flatten the fifth (lower by a semi-tone) to give you a diminished chord or sharpen it (raise it by a semi-tone) to give you an augmented chord. In order to play a diminished or augmented chord you need to include the fifth because the fact that it’s been altered makes it a key element in the chord. That is why I have included all four notes in the augmented and diminished examples in Example 1.

Sixths

Another common chord extension that we can use instead of a seventh is a major sixth. We can add a major sixth to a major triad or a minor triad. The chord symbol for a major chord with a major sixth is just the number 6 (eg. G6, A6, C6 etc.) and the chord symbol for a minor chord with a major sixth is m6 (eg. Gm6, Am6, Cm6 etc.) Example 2 demonstrates how to play these two types of chords. Again, I’ve left out the fifth in both cases.

Video 4 Example 2 Chord extensions

Harmonising D major in seventh chords

If we harmonise any major scale into seventh chords we get seven different chords, two major seventh chords (chords I & IV, three minor seventh chords (chords II,III & VI), one dominant seventh chord (chord V) and one half-diminished chord (a chord with a minor third, a minor seventh and a flattened fifth) (chord VII). In example 3 I’ve harmonised a D major scale into seventh chords.

Video 4 Example 3 Chord extensions

Ninths

After the seventh, the next extension we can add to a chord if we keep stacking intervals of a third is a ninth. A full ninth chord has five notes in it, root, third, fifth, seventh and ninth. Example 4, demonstrates how to play a few common ninth chords by adding a ninth to a major seventh chord, a dominant seventh chord, a minor seventh chord and even a major sixth chord. As before I’m leaving out the fifth in each chord.

Video 4 Example 4 Chord extensions

More chord extensions

If we keep up this idea of stacking intervals of a third we end up with an eleventh and then a thirteenth. By the time you reach the thirteenth you have seven notes. Most scales have seven notes. So a seven note chord would effectively be equivalent to playing all the notes from a scale simultaneously. Which is usually a bad idea. Also, you can alter (either sharpen or flatten) the upper extensions (ninth, eleventh and thirteenth). Just like I altered the fifth earlier. This gives you a huge amount of options in terms of extending chords.

So, we have to exercise some judgement over which chord extensions we can add to which chords. And that all comes down to what we think sounds good. For example, you normally wouldn’t want to add an eleventh to a chord with a major third in it (major or dominant). Because the eleventh clashes with the third but you can add a sharpened eleventh. If you want to add an eleventh to a major chord then you would normally leave out the third. That would change the chord to what we call a “sus” chord. A sus chord is a chord that omits the third and usually replaces it with the fourth. The fourth is the same note as the eleventh. Check out my video on “intervals” if you don’t understand why the fourth and the eleventh are the same note.

Example 5 demonstrates some common chord extensions that we can play over major or minor chords on the bass.

Video 4 Example 5 Chord extensions

Chord extensions on 5 and 6 string basses

For Example 6 I’ve had to switch onto my six string bass to play some of these extensions. The ability to play more extended harmony is one of the main reasons I choose to play six string basses. If you don’t have a six string bass, many of these chords can be adapted onto a five string bass.

Video 4 Example 6 Chord extensions