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Spanish Phrygian Sounds – Bass Practice Diary 5

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#.

Check out my Lydian Sounds – Bass Practice Diary here

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.

Johnny Cox and Arun Maheswaran Jazz and Carnatic Music

Arun Maheswaran with Johnny Cox Mixing Jazz and Carnatic Music

In this video, Carnatic musician Arun Maheswaran is playing Mridangam and jazz musician Johnny Cox is playing his fretless Warwick Thumb SC 6-string bass guitar. Carnatic music is South Indian classical music. We’re playing a composition called Chasing Shadows by Anoushka Shankar.

Can You Mix Jazz and Carnatic Music?

Arun Maheswaran thinks you can. Arun studied Mridangam under his guru Shri K Anandandesan from the age of 10. In addition to performing and teaching the Mridangam, Arun also played the Ghatam and Udu Utar.

Recently Arun invited me to join his band Cosmic Rhythms. Which beautifully mixes Carnatic and jazz music. So, we took some time at a rehearsal to shoot this video together.

It’s been quite an education for me learning about Carnatic music. I’ve had to learn Korvai’s. A Korvai is a rhythmic phrase repeated three times in unison, each time the sub-divisions get smaller giving the impression of getting faster. Therefore, the Thalam or rhythmic structure doesn’t change. Also, Korvai’s are usually played at the end of solos or the final end of a piece.

A Koraipu is a call and response section, and as the Koraipu continues the phrases get shorter. Koraipu literally means reducing.

Why a fretless bass

The fretless bass is essential for combining Jazz and Carnatic music. The ability to bend pitches and slide between notes is essential to the phrasing in both jazz and Carnatic music. I’ve posted plenty of times about my fretless Warwick Thumb SC. I honestly believe that there isn’t a better fretless bass on the planet.