6-String Fretless Bass Modal Improvisation – Bass Practice Diary – 29th December 2020
This is a modal improvisation on my Warwick Thumb SC 6-string fretless bass. What do I practice in the week between Christmas and New Year? Inevitably I’ve practiced less at Christmas than I usually would. Normally I would have been visiting various family members. But all my plans were cancelled at the last minute due to a COVID lockdown announced by the UK government on December 19th. However, despite that, I still have a wife and son at home, so my usual practice time got devoted to trying to make Christmas special for them despite the restrictions.
So, what should you practice at a time when you haven’t done much practice? For me, the answer is, just play! Play for fun, improvise, play for the love of playing music. Don’t worry about whether it’s good or not. Just get the feeling of the strings back under your fingers. So, with that in mind, here’s a video of me improvising on a short modal chord sequence that I’ve been playing around with this week.
I’ve called this a modal improvisation. But how can it be called modal if I’m improvising over a chord sequence? The reason I’m calling it modal is because the chords are not connected by diatonic harmony. So I’m thinking of each chord as being a different scale or mode to improvise on. There is no key that connects the chords. They are simply connected by a bass note, each chord is played over an E bass note.
The chord progression in the video is very simple. It starts on an Eb major chord over an E natural bass note. That chord resolves upwards onto an Emaj7 chord. Then I raise the 5th and make that chord an Emaj7#5 before dropping back onto the Emaj7. These might sound like really small changes, and they are. But each chord change creates the sound of a new mode.
I think it’s an interesting way to think about chord progressions. Rather than thinking about chord changes. Think about changing just one note in a chord and see how that one note changes the overall sound.
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.
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.
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!
Spanish Phrygian Sounds on Fretless Bass Guitar – Bass Practice Diary – 22nd May 2018
This week I’ve been working on Chick Corea’s wonderful composition Spain with my fretless Warwick Thumb SC. In this video I’m demonstrating a little harmonic trick I discovered for playing over the first two chords, G major and F#7. It creates a beautiful Spanish phrygian sound over the F#7 chord. Read on and I’ll explain what that means and how to play it.
Chick Corea’s Spain
Spain is not only one of Chick Corea’s most popular compositions, it’s one of the most popular pieces in all of modern jazz. It was originally recorded in 1972. The following year Spain appeared on the album Light As a Feather by Chick Corea’s band Return To Forever.
It’s popularity has endured and Chick Corea still loves to play Spain at most of his concerts. That’s an unusual situation for a jazz musician with such a varied repertoire and such a wide variety of projects and collaborations. I make a point of going to Chick Corea’s gigs whenever he’s in London on tour and I’ve now seen him play live more times than I can keep track of. There are very few occasions that he hasn’t played Spain in some guise or another.
So why is this composition so popular, why has it’s appeal endured and grown over nearly half a century? For me, the essence of this piece and the secret to it’s enduring appeal is the beautiful Spanish phrygian harmony. It’s an unusual sound to hear in modern jazz and in some ways it’s quite hard to define. But it’s that Spanish phrygian harmonic influence that I’ve tried to get to the bottom of in this practice diary.
What is Phrygian?
Phrygian is the name given to one of the modes of the major scale. Modes are scales with the same combination of harmonic intervals. If I play a phrygian scale starting on F#, it’s the same notes as a D major scale. As I mentioned in the video, you can think of the key for Spain as being D major. And if you play all the notes from a D major scale over the G and F# chords then it will give you a lydian sound over the G and a phrygian sound over the F#.
So, phrygian is the obvious scale to play over an F# root note in the key of D major. But that’s not actually what I’m doing. As I explained in the video, the scale I’m playing is in fact not specifically a phrygian scale. But it does, to my ears, have a phrygian sound.
How Can You Create a Spanish Sound on the F#7 Chord?
The D major scale contains the notes D, E, F#, G, A, B and C#. In the video I use this notes on the G major chord creating a Lydian sound. An issue arises if you try to continue using those exact same notes over the F#7 chord. An F# phrygian scale implies an F#m7 chord because it contains an A natural which is the minor 3rd of an F# chord. The F#7 chord contains an A# which is the major 3rd. You could play an F# phrygian scale over an F#7 chord on the A natural would function as a #9. However, if you try and play this way you will be leaving out one of the most important defining notes of the F#7 chord, the major 3rd. It will be a weaker sound.
If you play the notes of the D major scale, but change one note, A natural becomes A sharp. D, E, F#, G, A#, B and C#. Then you will retain the phrygian sound but also have a much stronger harmony over the F#7 chord. I would call this scale a phrygian dominant scale and it’s actually a mode of the harmonic minor scale.
What Makes it a Phrygian Dominant Scale?
The character of the phrygian sound comes from the semi-tone interval between the root and the second. In this case, the notes F# and G. It’s dominant because it’s played over a dominant 7th chord and contains all the notes of an F# dominant 7th chord, unlike the standard phrygian scale which is minor in it’s tonality because it contains all the notes of a minor 7th chord.
If anything, this scale has an even more Spanish sound than the standard phrygian because it contains all the notes of two major triads a semi-tone apart. If you analyse the notes of the scale, it contains F#, A# and C# (F# major triad) and G, B and D (G major triad). Play these two triads one after the other or any other two triads a semi-tone apart and the sound takes you straight to Spain (the country, not just the composition). It’s the presence of these two triads that give the phrygian dominant scale it’s Spanish sound. The only other note in the scale is the E natural, which is the dominant 7th of F#, making it a Phrygian dominant scale.