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Modal Tunes

By Cliff Engel

Throughout a career that extended five decades, Miles Davis released a collection of landmark projects spanning bebop, cool jazz, modal jazz, and fusion music. He also discovered some of the most important figures in jazz music such as John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Ron Carter, Dave Holland, and many others.

In 1959, Davis released Kind Of Blue, a recording that influenced jazz of the 1960's more profoundly than any other single work and is often cited as the best in jazz history. Featuring one of the greatest small jazz groups ever assembled with legendary musicians including John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Cannonball Adderley, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb, Kind Of Blue is recognized as the best-selling jazz recording ever issued and has become one of the most consistent selling recordings in the history of recorded music, regardless of genre.

"So What" is a modal composition that is characterized by a form which contains few chord changes and plenty of space. The result of this form is a tonality which continues for an extended period of time. Davis thought the jazz music of the 1940's and '50's was becoming too constrained and overcrowded with chords. When compared to jazz compositions from the bebop era, modal songs offered much more freedom for improvising on each individual chord change. Improvisers could focus their attention on the entire scale or mode which was related to the particular chord type rather than using the chordal approach of improvisation that was employed during the swing and bebop periods. Instead of thinking vertically through chords, jazz musicians started to take a more horizontal or scale-based approach to improvisation. This was a radical departure from the bebop era where vertical harmonies or chords were utilized extensively and the tonality of a composition often moved through many key centers.

Not only is "So What" historic from an improvisational perspective in moving from a chordal to a scalar approach of improvisation, but it is also considered a bass anthem and one of the few jazz compositions which features the theme played on bass. Over 50 years ago, Paul Chambers recorded bass lines during the Kind Of Blue sessions that are now a part of the bass tradition. Having contributed to many classic recordings during the 1950's and '60's which have since inspired generations of bass players, Chambers is acknowledged as one of the most influential bassists in the history of jazz music.

The harmonic concept behind "So What" is very simple. It is a 32-bar A-A-B-A song form composed of only two chord changes, Dm7 and Ebm7. The harmonic formula consists of eight measures of Dm7, followed by another eight bars of Dm7, then eight measures of Ebm7, and finally eight bars of Dm7. Rather than using a chordal approach to improvising over Dm7 and Ebm7, musicians approach it modally by playing D Dorian and Eb Dorian over the two respective chord changes. Other scales such as natural minor, melodic minor, and even harmonic minor are often utilized in the construction of walking bass lines to add more flavor to the sound generated by Dorian when played over a prolonged period of time.

Although the song form of a modal tune such as "So What" is easy to analyze theoretically, modal compositions present bassists with a number of formidable challenges. Since "So What" is comprised of 16 measures of Dm7 (A-A), followed by eight bars of Ebm7 (B), and then another eight measures of Dm7 (A), bassists are faced with the task of sustaining musical interest over an expanded time frame using only two chord changes. When you combine the last eight measures of "So What" with the first 16 bars, you will be playing 24 continuous measures of Dm7.

If you experience problems in losing your place within the form of modal compositions, there are a couple things you can do to help eliminate that issue. First, divide the form of a 32-bar A-A-B-A modal song into four sections of eight measures. When you are playing, position your left foot forward for the first eight measures (A). To indicate the second set of eight bars (A), place your right foot in front of your left. For the next eight measures (B), put your left foot in front of your right, and then again for the final set of eight measures (A), move your right foot in front of your left. This technique will help keep your place in the form and will remain completely undetected by the audience. Another technique to help ensure that you don't get lost in the song form involves picking four permanent spots in the room, and then move from point to point as the song progresses. Don't use moveable objects like people for your markers because they can relocate. Not only do both of these techniques work great on 32-bar A-A-B-A modal compositions, but you can apply them to other song forms in different styles as well. You can also play a simple repetitive figure such as an ostinato or pedal point similar to the ones recorded by Chambers as a signal to the other members of the group when a particular section or chord change is being played.

Modal tunes such as "So What" provide an excellent opportunity to experiment with playing "outside" the changes because they supply plenty of space to establish the tonality on a single chord type. Plus, by going outside the key center of a modal composition, you can create more interest over the inherently static harmony through tension and resolution.

Because "So What" features 24 consecutive measures of Dm7 when the last eight measures of the song form are combined with the first 16 bars, we need to figure out different methods of generating bass lines that will maintain the listener's interest without sounding too repetitive. Even though a bassist might be somewhat limited by the number of diatonic notes which are available to play over a single chord change, rhythmic embellishments such as eighth-note triplets, skips, ghost skips, syncopated rhythms, hammer-on skips, pull-off skips, and slurred skips can be incorporated to further enhance your walking bass lines. Rhythmic embellishments help break the often monotonous flow of a straight-ahead bass line that is improvised through a steady stream of quarter notes and played continuously over an extended period of time. In addition to accentuating the overall feel of the music, rhythmic embellishments add a rhythmic dimension and create the feeling of forward motion which will make your walking bass lines sound like they have a continual sense of direction. In terms of their application, rhythmic embellishments should generate a feeling of anticipation or tension which is then resolved or released on the subsequent quarter note pulse. Rhythmic embellishments are extremely versatile since they can be placed on any beat within the measure. To capture the listener's attention, reinforce the quarter note pulse, and enhance the overall forward flow of the music, it is important that bass lines contain the sense of tension and release created through rhythmic embellishments. By combining chord tones, scale tones, and non-diatonic tones as chromatic approach notes with the various rhythmic embellishments, you can improvise more advanced sounding walking bass lines by increasing that underlying sense of harmonic and rhythmic tension and release.

With this lesson, you will find a chord chart and sample bass lines for "So What." You can use the chord chart to notate bass lines. If you aren't proficient at writing standard notation, you can still print the chord chart and place it in front of you for reference as you improvise. To demonstrate some of the possibilities you have available to construct walking bass lines over modal tunes, I have composed many sample bass lines using intervals, triads, seventh chords, scales, and non-diatonic notes on "So What." First, play the bass lines as notated, and commit your favorite lines to memory. Next, print these sample bass lines, and then beneath each note in every measure, write the relationship of the notes to each applicable chord type. As you study these walking bass lines, you will discover all of the fundamental components of walking bass line construction including chord tones, scale tones, and non-diatonic notes. Finally, improvise your own walking bass lines featuring all of the techniques we have discussed on "So What" and other modal tunes.

This lesson has been excerpted from Jazz Bass Lines - Contemporary Concepts For Bass Guitar & Acoustic Bass. If you would like to learn more about jazz bass lines, ENROLL TODAY!

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© 2014 Cliff Engel