Modal jazz

In Chords, Scales, Solfège, Theorie on November 4, 2012 at 9:22 am

Modal jazz is jazz that uses musical modes rather than chord progressions as a harmonic framework. Originating in the late 1950s and 1960s, modal jazz is epitomized by Miles Davis’s “Milestones” (1958), Kind of Blue (1959), and John Coltrane’s classic quartet from 1960–64. Other important performers include Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and McCoy Tyner. Though the term comes from the use of the pitches of particular modes (or scales) in the creation of solos, modal jazz compositions or accompaniments may only or additionally make use of the following techniques.

  1. slow-moving harmonic rhythm, where single chords may last four to sixteen or more measures
  2. pedal points and drones
  3. absent or suppressed standard functional chord progressions
  4. quartal harmonies or melodies


An understanding of modal jazz requires knowledge of musical modes. In bebop as well as in hard bop, musicians use chords to provide the background for solos. A song starts out with a theme that introduces the chords for the solos. These chords repeat throughout the whole song, while the soloists play new, improvised themes over the repeated chord progression. By the 1950s, improvising over chords had become such a dominant part of jazz, that sidemen at recording dates were sometimes given nothing more than a list of chords to play from.

Towards the end of the 1950s, spurred by the experiments of composer and bandleader George Russell, musicians began using a modal approach. They chose not to write their pieces using conventional chord changes, but instead using modal scales. Mercer Ellington has stated that Juan Tizol invented the melody to “Caravan” in 1936 as a result of his days studying music in Puerto Rico; where they couldn’t afford much sheet music so the teacher would turn the music upside down after they had learned to play it right-side up. This technique became known as ‘inverting’, and has been referenced as an inspiration for Modal Jazz.Musicians include Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Bill Evans, Hancock, and Shorter.


It is possible for the bassist and the pianist to move to notes within the mode that are dissonant with the prime (tonic) chord of that mode. For example: within the C ionian mode, the notes of the scale are CDEFGAB, with C being the root note. Other non-diatonic notes, such as the note B♭, are dissonant within the C ionian mode, so that they are less used in non-modal jazz songs when playing the chord C. In a modal song, these other notes may be freely used as long as the overall sound of C ionian is entrenched within the listener’s mind. This allows for greater harmonic flexibility and some very interesting harmonic possibilities.

Among the significant compositions of modal jazz were “So What” by Miles Davis and “Impressions” by John Coltrane.”So What” and “Impressions” follow the same AABA song form and were in D Dorian for the A sections and modulated a half step up to E-flat Dorian for the B section. The Dorian mode is the natural minor scale with a raised sixth. Other compositions include Davis’ “Flamenco Sketches”, Bill Evans’ “Peace Piece”, and Shorter’s “Footprints”

In improvising within a modal context, a musician would start by thinking about playing the notes within that specific mode (e.g., D Dorian: D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D). It is also possible to take several notes from that mode (though not all) to create smaller scales or note choices for improvisation. For example, in D Dorian, one may play the notes of the D minor triad. This is what Miles Davis does at the beginning of his solo in “So What”. The player may even choose any of the triads available in that mode: C major, D minor, E minor etc. One thing to note is that choosing an upper structure triad using the 9th, 11th and 13th of the chord will result in tension.

The bassist, in a modal context, is not required to ‘walk’ from one important chord tone to that of another in order to make each chord change sound, in the same way required in conventional bebop or hard bop compositions; rather, he or she is free to improvise bass lines that may highlight or emphasize particular scale degrees within a specific mode (e.g., a bass line that is constructed to highlight the 6th degree during a Dorian chord). As a result, bass lines found in modal jazz are often constructed in four or eight bar phrases with an emphasis of the root or fifth degree on beat one of such phrases. Similarly, the comping instrument is not confined to play the standard chord voicings of the bop lexicon, but rather can play chord voicings based upon differing pitch combinations from the parent mode.

The way soloists created solos changed dramatically with the advent of modal jazz. In bebop, a soloist typically constructs solos to fit within a particular set of chord changes. In modal jazz, with its lack of conventional bop chord changes, the soloist can create interest by exploring the particular mode in rhythmically and melodically varied ways. Modal jazz is, in a sense, a return to melody.

The player may also use the many different pentatonic scales within the scale such as C minor pentatonic, F major pentatonic and G minor pentatonic. Note that these scales are also relative Eb major, D minor and Bbmajor pentatonic, respectively.


Miles Davis recorded one of the best selling jazz albums of all time in this modal framework. Kind of Blue is an exploration of the possibilities of modal jazz. Included on these sessions was tenor saxophonist John Coltrane who, throughout the 1960s, would explore the possibilities of modal improvisation more deeply than any other jazz artist. The rest of the musicians on the album were alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, pianists Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly (though never on the same piece), bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Jimmy Cobb. (Kelly, Chambers, and Cobb would eventually form the Wynton Kelly Trio.) This record is considered a kind of test album in many conservatories focusing on jazz improvisation. The compositions “So What” and “All Blues” from Kind of Blueare considered contemporary jazz standards. Davis has acknowledged a crucial role for Bill Evans, a former member of George Russell’s ensembles, in his transition from hard bop to modal playing.

While Davis’ explorations of modal jazz were sporadic throughout the 1960s—he would include several of the tunes from Kind of Blue in the repertoire of his “Second Great Quintet”—Coltrane would take the lead in extensively exploring the limits of modal improvisation and composition with his own classic quartet, featuring Elvin Jones (drums), McCoy Tyner (piano), and Reggie Workman and Jimmy Garrison(bass). Several of Coltrane’s albums from the period are recognized as seminal albums in jazz more broadly, but especially modal jazz: Giant Steps,[ Live! at the Village Vanguard (1961), Crescent (1964), A Love Supreme (1964),and Meditations (1965). Compositions from this period such as “India,” “Chasin’ the Trane,” “Crescent,” “Impressions,” as well as standards like Richard Rodger’s “My Favorite Things”, performed by John Coltrane, and “Greensleeves” have entered the jazz repertoire.

Coltrane’s modal explorations gave rise to an entire generation of saxophonists (mostly playing tenor saxophone) that would then go on to further explore modal jazz (often in combination with jazz fusion), such as Michael Brecker, David Liebman, Steve Grossman, and Bob Berg.

Opening chord to “Maiden Voyage”: minor eleventh chord (Am7/D).  Play Using D Dorian.

Another great innovator in the field of modal jazz is pianist Herbie Hancock. He is well known for working in Miles Davis’s “Second Great Quintet”, Herbie Hancock recorded a number of solo albums, beginning with Maiden Voyage (1965), prior to joining Miles’ band. On the title song of this album Hancock has just a few suspended and minor chords that are played throughout the entire piece and played with a very open sound due to Hancock’s use of fourths in voicing the chords. The piece’s haunting repeating vamps in the rhythm section and the searching feeling of the entire piece has made “Maiden Voyage” one of the most famous modal pieces of all times.

A true precursor to modal jazz was found in the hands of virtuoso jazz pianist, composer and trio innovator Ahmad Jamal whose early use of extended vamps (freezing the advance of the song at some point for repetition or interjecting new song fragments) allowed him to solo for long periods infusing that section of the song with fresh ideas and percussive effects over a repetitive drum and bass figuration. Miles Davis was effusive in his praise for Jamal’s influence on him, his playing, and his music: a perfect setup for the modal work that lay in Davis’ future.

From Wikipedia


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