Modus Operandi

There’s a certain type of semi-modal tune that comprises slabs – 4, 2 or even 1 bar long – of different modes chosen seemingly at random (seemingly). These tunes stubbornly resist traditional harmonic analysis. (I say semi-modal. I’ll leave the strict categorisation to the academics – they love a good row.)

I’m thinking of tunes such as Herbie’s The Sorceror, Chick’s Humpy Dumpty and many by Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson.

With a more traditional tune you generally tend to think in terms of outlining the harmony by focusing your solo on the aristocratic tones – the 1, 3, 5 and 6/7. They get special treatment and the peasant tones fill in the gaps.

With slabby modal tunes (notably Milestones #2, So What, Impressions) the situation is more egalitarian. While there are strong defining tones within modes (see Are Modes All Greek to You?), the idea is to explore the whole of the mode at length with no particular prejudice. There are no “avoid notes” in modal playing. It’s freedom with a catch – you have eight bars (or more) to do anything you want with a given seven notes. The seven notes bit may seem like a limitation, but in fact it’s more freedom than most beginners can handle because there are no crutches – “Play anything you like.” “yeah, but what?” “Anything, long as you like it.” “Yeah, but what?!”

The kind of tunes we’re looking at here can be approached both ways. We can think in terms of vertical and horizontal soloing – that is, you can take the chord-tone approach to each chord as it comes or you can play anything that happens to be in the mode at the time. The first approach can work, but has a drawback, since it can lead to jumping about and missing the spirit of the tune. The second approach can also sound disjointed if you’re orientated towards the root of each new chord/mode. Let’s free that up.

To a certain extent, playing in a linear fashion on a modal tune involves unlearning the lesson hard-won on traditional harmony that you can’t just play any note anywhere you like. Well, you can but it ain’t going to sound right.

One way of getting inside this kind of tune is to consider why they were written like that. What seems at first sight like a random stream of unrelated chords usually has hidden structure to it, and we can’t play any tune well without understanding the structure, right?

Teeeeen-shun! You, F#7b5, get your 'air cut. This is a modal platoon not a ****ing catwalk!

“Teeeeen-shun! You, A7alt, get your ‘air cut. This is a modal platoon not a ****ing catwalk!”

Let’s take Chick Corea’s Humpty Dumpty as an example. Great tune, but what on earth is going on with the chords?

Here’s a little exercise. Let’s write out all the chord-scales and line them up so they all start from the same tone (or as near as possible):

EbM             Eb F G Ab Bb C D
DM               E F# G A B C# D
F#M             D# F F# G# A# B C#
FM                E F G A Bb C D
A7alt            Eb F G A Bb C Db
BbM             Eb F G A Bb C D
Bbm7           Eb F G Ab Bb C Db
Dm7             E F G A B C D
Bm7             E F# G# A B C# D
Abm7          Eb F Gb Ab Bb B Db
Fm7             Eb F G Ab Bb C D
Abm7          Eb F Gb Ab Bb B Db
F#M             D# F F# G# A# B C#
Fm7 Bb7     Eb F G Ab Bb C D


  • The chord symbols are (with the exception of the final turnaround) shorthand descriptions of modes. Don’t be shy of the 4ths on the major chords – remember, there are no “avoid notes” in modal jazz.
  • There are bits of structure here – eg the movement by diminished thirds, particularly on the minor 7th chords. But it’s not structure as we know it, Jim.
  • There are a few enharmonic spellings used – ie F instead of E#.
  • We don’t have to start at Eb. But insofar as the tune starts on it and turns back to it, that seemed like a reasonable place.

About structure. It all depends on how you think about things. And even when things are written totally randomly, you can choose to impose structure. When you’re trying to understand a new tune, exhaust the basics first. Can you see basic cadences, tritone subs of them or even Coltrane versions? Does it modulate in any of the ways you’re used to seeing? Does it plane the same structure up or down?

Once you’ve done that, if bits of the tune still resist your thinking try treating the chords as spellings of modes, line them up on the parade ground and consider which notes are changing between each one.

Developing fluidity when soloing on this kind of tune is all about focusing on what changes and what stays the same between scales. Even when the chords are “planing” by semitones, there are common tones between them. You can play melodic phrases and then repeat them but with alterations to fit the next bit. It creates cohesion. Lose the root bias and think “through” the chords, rather than “on” them.

It’s a bit like one of those newspaper puzzles where you start with PIANO and make a new word by changing one letter at a time, eventually winding up with SKINT – but of course, in this case, we have the option to change more than one letter at a time.

You should still be mindful of the strong tones on each chord, but awareness of and focus on the tones that change between chords can really help you to get under the skin of this type of tune. It’ll get you into playing flowing lines over what seems, at first glance, like a load of nonsense chords. I think Lewis Carroll (the inventor of doublet or word ladder puzzles) would have approved.

Incidentally, you can get from PIANO to SKINT in nine steps, but it does involve an unpleasant exotic disease…

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Posted in a) Soloing Scales & Modes

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