Tag Archives: Kind of Blue

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!



Use Fretless Bass to Play Jazz Solos and Melodies – Bass Practice Diary 12

Jazz Solos and Melodies on Fretless Bass – Bass Practice Diary – 10th July 2018

This week I’m featuring an excerpt from Miles Davis’ solo on the tune So What from the seminal jazz album Kind of Blue. I’m playing it on my Warwick Thumb SC fretless bass.

Why Play Jazz Solos on Bass Guitar

The purpose of this video practice diary is not to copy Miles Davis or any other jazz soloist. Firstly, it’s to try to show how well the fretless bass works as an instrument for playing jazz solos. Especially solos with the type of lyrical phrasing demonstrated by Miles Davis. Secondly, it’s because I believe that anybody that wants to learn how to solo and improvise, should try and work out solos and melodies by as many great musicians and improvisers as they can. Not because you should try to copy other musicians, but simply in order to learn from them.

Jaco Pastorius is the most influential jazz bassist in history and he overwhelmingly favoured playing fretless. He also stated that the first thing he would do when learning any new piece, was learn the melody. He felt that learning melodies was essential to playing bass lines. I strongly agree with him. I’ve stated in a previous post that one of the principle functions of bass lines, is harmony. And in order to really understand a composition and how to harmonise, you must understand the melody.

What is “Lyrical” Soloing

When I use the adjective “lyrical” to describe a solo, it might seem like an odd choice of word. The word seems to imply lyrics which is strange to attach to an instrumental solo.

A dictionary definition of lyrical is “expressing the writer’s emotions in an imaginative and beautiful way”. Which more or less sums up what I mean. But there is a bit more. The word lyrical to me implies being like a human voice. Miles Davis was quite open about this with his soloing, he was trying to use his trumpet to phrase like a singer would. This is what I’m trying to achieve with my fretless bass. And it can work well because you can slide in and out of notes and use vibrato in a way that you can’t on a fretted bass. However, you do have to be careful to not over use any of these things.

Intonation is also a key consideration when playing fretless. Meaning; are the notes in tune? If you put your fingers in even slightly the wrong place on the fret board, the notes will be out of tune. You don’t need to be nearly so accurate on a fretted bass.

Learning How to Play Jazz Solos on Bass

This Bass Practice Diary entry leads on from what I was doing last week, when I was playing Charlie Parker melodies on fretless bass. I believe that the best way to learn how to play jazz solos, is to learn to play as many jazz solos and melodies as you can.

Technical information about chords and scales is useful theory, but it doesn’t teach you how to improvise a jazz solo. Soloing is about creating melody, and melody is about creating musical phrases. The best way to do this is by listening to as much music as you can and working out how to play the melodic phrases.

Preferably, do it by ear. If you find it difficult to work out music by ear, I would recommend starting very simply, by using folk or pop melodies before moving onto jazz. It can be a slow process at first because it takes a lot of trial and error to begin with. So don’t be put off if you’re only starting out. You will get faster with experience.