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Thread: Is writing a modal jazz piece easier than it looks?

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    Default Is writing a modal jazz piece easier than it looks?

    I get that there are seven main modes and varying anchors, so quite a lot of possibilities happen - for example, F mixolydian (F–G–A–Bb–C–D–Eb) and then by complete contrast B dorian (B–Db–D–E–F♯–Ab–A). But there's something probably very obvious that I'm not getting - if a composer was to choose a particular group of seven modal notes for a piano part, would there be the creative freedom to use the seven in any order or orders they wished, or would it just have to be the original ascent up to the highest note in the group over and over? I know that Miles Davis developed modal jazz because he thought bebop was hampering the creative drive of the genre, but from where I'm standing, modes seem quite limited and restrictive. I'm also trying to get my head around whether a bassline would stay the same or shift along with the piano. I guess this comes from me not being the best theorist in the world. Therefore I haven't gotten around to writing the fully-fleshed chords yet. To give some context, the 4-bar piano melody I have written that is ideally the basis of my piece uses every note from C to F♯ in different varying places.

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    Senior Member Larkenfield's Avatar
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    Miles went to model compositions because he felt that it gave greater freedom from having to repeat the same cycle of chord changes over and over. His great example of model compositions is Kind of Blue:

    "In 1953, the pianist George Russell published his Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, which offered an alternative to the practice of improvisation based on chords and chord changes. Abandoning the traditional major and minor key relationships, the Lydian Chromatic Concept introduced the idea of chord/scale unity and was the first theory to explore the vertical relationship between chords and scales, as well as the only original theory to come from jazz. These insights helped lead the way to the "modal" approach in jazz. Influenced by Russell's ideas, Davis implemented his first modal composition with the title track of his studio album Milestones (1958). Satisfied with the results, Davis prepared an entire album based on modality. Pianist Evans, who had studied with Russell but had departed from the Davis group to pursue his own career, was drafted back into the new recording project, the sessions that would become Kind of Blue."
    Last edited by Larkenfield; Nov-22-2019 at 11:28.
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    if a composer was to choose a particular group of seven modal notes for a piano part, would there be the creative freedom to use the seven in any order or orders they wished, or would it just have to be the original ascent up to the highest note in the group over and over?
    It’s free and restrictive at the same time. It’s free in that you have the creative freedom to use the seven notes in any order or orders you wish, but you have to make sure you exploit the characteristic notes of the mode so the listener can follow which mode is being played. Otherwise, they will all sound like the same diatonic scale no matter which mode you’re playing.

    Do you know what the characteristic notes are? Take Phrygian. Phrygian is considered a “minor” mode because it is exactly like a natural minor scale. The only difference is that it has a lowered second degree (flat two). Therefore, that is considered the “characteristic” note. This note must therefore be exploited melodically and harmonically in order for the mode to maintain its characteristic flavor.

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    Here is a good video on the theory. It is easier than it may sound from a functional harmony perspective in that you can play white notes over 90% of the time on the keyboard. I saw Bill Evans and Herbie do that in videos. You can maintain the same physical spacing between notes in chords on the keyboard without transposing.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mb0EFwzXIEo
    Last edited by Phil loves classical; Nov-24-2019 at 05:55.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ulterior Motif View Post
    I get that there are seven main modes and varying anchors, so quite a lot of possibilities happen - for example, F mixolydian (F–G–A–Bb–C–D–Eb) and then by complete contrast B dorian (B–Db–D–E–F♯–Ab–A). But there's something probably very obvious that I'm not getting - if a composer was to choose a particular group of seven modal notes for a piano part, would there be the creative freedom to use the seven in any order or orders they wished, or would it just have to be the original ascent up to the highest note in the group over and over?
    A scale is an unordered set of notes. It is conventionally presented from lowest to highest note, but is only an index of notes which can be used in any order.

    I know that Miles Davis developed modal jazz because he thought bebop was hampering the creative drive of the genre, but from where I'm standing, modes seem quite limited and restrictive.
    Miles Davis wanted to create a moodier, more relaxing form of jazz.
    Bebop was too manic, nervous, and made players feel like "rats running in a harmonic maze."
    The era of grass-smoking hippies was quickly approaching, and since night-club "chamber jazz" was dying, he wanted a new audience, so he could make good money and play his horn. Do you blame him?

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    Instead of thinking strictly in scales, consider that jazz is a performer's improvising kind of music, and there will probably be some chromaticism, so accommodate for that if you are writing melodies or considering chords and scales.

    Jazz is an "ear" music
    as well, so there may be some unforseen factors which crop up which are out of the "theoretical" scope of assumed knowledge.

    For example, I am working on the tune "Ju Ju" by Wayne Shorter, and while it uses augmented seventh chords, which are supposed to work with the whole-tone scale, I found that a whole-half diminished scale also works, and sounds even better than the WT scale.
    Why is this, if the diminished scale is supposed to be for diminished seventh chords?

    That's what jazz is all about, listening and playing in order to play what sounds "pretty" as Charlie Parker said.
    In fact, I'm not so concerned about scale/chord answers as a player, but more as a theorist.

    The answer might help me in some way, but as long as the scale sounds good against the chord, I'm not pressed for the "whys" but only the "hows" of constructing my solos on the fly.
    Last edited by millionrainbows; Nov-25-2019 at 15:35.

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    Here is a good video on the theory. It is easier than it may sound from a functional harmony perspective in that you can play white notes over 90% of the time on the keyboard. I saw Bill Evans and Herbie do that in videos. You can maintain the same physical spacing between notes in chords on the keyboard without transposing.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mb0EFwzXIEo
    It needs to be pointed out that there are TWO kinds of modal pieces in jazz, and they are being confused in the thread. They are:

    1. Free, improvisational forms – a modal melody might be written out as a “head” but many times the only thing given is just a form and mode (“let’s play 8 and 8 of D and Eb dorian”) and you count off and go. No sheet music needed. So everyone will play 8 bars of D dorian followed by 8 bars or Eb dorian over and over. The lead player will improvise the modal melody, the bass player improvises the walking bass line using the mode, and the piano player improvises chords in the mode and it all fits together. It’s kind of like “pandiatonicism” in classical music. Songs like Davis’ “So What” and Coltrane’s “Impressions” fit into this category. This is what the video in the quoted post above is talking about. You still want to utilize characteristic notes of the mode in soloing and melodies (as Davis does in “So What”). The chart for “So What” and “Impressions” has Dmin7 and Ebmin7 as the chords for the D and Eb Dorian sections, BTW. Those are used very loosely though, it’s basically all white notes/all black notes (and C).

    2. Organized Form – this is the opposite of everything that was said in the posted video. It was not talking about this, yet this is a legitimate category. These are like standard songs. The chords are not sparse, rather they have a normal harmonic rhythm. There are indeed strict, written chord progressions. Triads and seventh chords are standard, not quartal harmony. Chords can have functions (cadential functions, for example). And chords do, in fact, move toward a tonic as well, just as in tonal harmony. Songs like Santana’s “Evil Ways”, Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair”, Van Morrison’s “Moondance”, and pieces like Goldsmith’s Main Theme to Star Trek TMP fit into this category. It is important to utilize the characteristic notes of the mode in soloing, melody-writing, and chord progressions.

    Note how Goldsmith’s theme is unmistakably C Mixolydian because of the repeated use of Bb in the melody and harmony. Harmony: C Maj, Bb Major, C Maj, G minor, etc. Melody: G – C – E – D - Bb – A - G – Bb – D – G - A – F etc.

    For further and complete examples of Organized Forms (#2 above) in jazz using modes, I’ve attached my own compositions I often post here for reference on this subject. Note how the distinctive flavor of each mode is maintained in each one.
    1. Aeolian. All chords, melody and soloing are strict. Also note the motion of the chords towards tonic:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MDDHefge2A4
    2. Dorian. Except for the obvious chromatic line and chords right before the tail of the head, the chords and melody are strictly Dorian:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MZWE3AFdorQ
    3. Mixolydian. Only in part of the piano solo and bars 9-10 of each head is the music outside of the mode:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e4rays5JMDo
    4. Lydian. Melody, harmony, soloing is all strict:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jV6CO1QFd8s

    It is easier than it may sound from a functional harmony perspective in that you can play white notes over 90% of the time on the keyboard. I saw Bill Evans and Herbie do that in videos.
    They both played “So What” with their respective quintets with Miles so that may be it. And you’re playing 100% white notes on the D Dorian sections (the “A” sections) D-7. You’re playing 100% all black notes on the Eb Dorian sections (the “B” sections) Eb-7. That’s all the song is. 16 of A, 8 of B, 8 of A. Repeat.

    You can maintain the same physical spacing between notes in chords on the keyboard without transposing.
    You can literally play anything you want. And I mean anything. I play piano in a quartet/sometimes quintet every Friday night at a restaurant (for the past 13 years) and if we play “So What” or “Impressions” or our own free-modal pieces, sometimes towards the end we get loud and I am literally playing a two-handed cluster of all white notes with the palms of my hands up and down the keyboard on D Dorian and then playing two-handed clusters of all black notes with the palms of my hands up and down the keyboard on Eb Dorian, etc. Still works.
    Last edited by Torkelburger; Nov-25-2019 at 21:34.

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    I'm enjoying 'Autumnal' right now.

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    Rewriting my 4-bar melody in modal fashion, I have: Db-Eb-Eb-Eb, F#-F#-Eb-Db, E-Eb-E-Eb, E-F#-Eb-Db. The characteristic note seems to be F#, which may have something to do with it being the fifth note in the pattern - an online software says it's in F#. Going by the modal group charts I drew up, that means it's either F# Mixolydian or F# Dorian. However going by characteristic notes, since it started on Db, a perfect fourth down, F# Ionian be a possibility. Yet apparently according to some other theory, that's impossible. What would be a clever cheating formula for modal checks when establishing my patterns? Looking at the relationship between the characteristics (a.k.a. fifth note along in a piece) and the starting note?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ulterior Motif View Post
    Rewriting my 4-bar melody in modal fashion, I have: Db-Eb-Eb-Eb, F#-F#-Eb-Db, E-Eb-E-Eb, E-F#-Eb-Db. The characteristic note seems to be F#, which may have something to do with it being the fifth note in the pattern - an online software says it's in F#. Going by the modal group charts I drew up, that means it's either F# Mixolydian or F# Dorian. However going by characteristic notes, since it started on Db, a perfect fourth down, F# Ionian be a possibility. Yet apparently according to some other theory, that's impossible. What would be a clever cheating formula for modal checks when establishing my patterns? Looking at the relationship between the characteristics (a.k.a. fifth note along in a piece) and the starting note?
    From the notes you've given, you don't really have a mode. You only have 4 notes total. Spelling enharmonically (so as to get a scale), you have Db, Eb, Fb, and Gb. That's just a minor tetrachord starting on Db. That could be the beginning (first 4 notes) of a minor scale (natural, harmonic, or melodic), or the first 4 notes of Dorian, or the first 4 notes of Aeolian.

    I don't think you understand what is meant by "characteristic note". Characteristic notes are the one(s) that are different when comparing two different modes or scales. The example given was comparing the natural minor scale to the Phrygian mode, which are the same except Phrygian has a lowered second scale degree (so that is it's characteristic note).

    What would be a clever cheating formula for modal checks when establishing my patterns?
    I have no idea what you mean by this. This makes no sense in a modal composition context. When composing modal music, select the mode first and play around with various melodies (and chords) of that mode either on pencil and paper, computer, or piano. It's extremely simple. Sounds like you are trying to work backwards.

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