Modal playing and crafting solos is a place where I feel art and science converge and because of this I feel that it’s fertile ground for discussion. Before we get into it, I should say that I’ve tried to strike a middle ground with the amount of background and theory provided. Some of it you may already be pretty familiar with, but for those reading who are less acquainted with this stuff I’ve tried to keep it somewhat understandable. If anyone reading this would be interested in a more complete explanation of some of the concepts presented, send me an email and I’d be happy to write a follow up post that digs a little deeper into the theory behind these ideas. Lastly, I tend to use the terms “mode” and “scale” fairly interchangeably and it’s worth keeping that in mind.
While playing tunes that are built on a modal framework allows for a lot of freedom for both the soloist and the rest of the group it does come with some challenges. Not having to think about all those chords going by does encourage more experimentation and opportunity to develop a solo more organically, but it also means that an improvisor has a responsibility to keep it interesting by giving the listener something to latch onto. Since modal tunes lack the predictable tension and release of a written harmonic progression it’s up to the player to figure out a way to create the necessary suspense and resolution on the fly.
To get to specifics regarding playing modal leads vs traditional scales, there are a couple of things that come to mind. One thing that I’ve found valuable is to identify which notes in the mode you’re playing define the sound of that harmony. This is partially subjective, but there’s also a bit of science to it. For instance, in the dorian mode the 6th degree of that scale (A in C dorian) really defines that scale when played against a minor chord. In the phrygian mode it’s the 2nd degree of the scale (Db in C phrygian). The science to it is this: those are the notes of the mode that make it distinct from it’s parent scale (and that scale’s relative minor).* The point is, each mode has a certain sound to it, but you have to figure out how to coax that sound out of it. Running up and down D dorian over a Dm7 chord will probably not sound too interesting on it’s own, but if you can craft some phrases that emphasize those color tones in the right places you can really bring out the flavor of that harmony.
All this theory stuff is interesting of course, but how can it be applied to our playing? Here’s a few practical methods that I find useful for integrating these abstract ideas into what we’re playing. First is to simply get the sound of a scale/mode in our ears. Being a keyboard player makes this pretty easy since we can comp a chord or root note in our left hand and play the scale in our right hand. Non keyboard/string players can set up a drone in garage band, a loop pedal, a friend, etc. Since the dorian mode comes up so much, especially in jazz, that may be a good place to start. Improvise a bit and see if any notes or intervals stand out in a way that you like. Pay extra attention to the sound of the notes that make that mode unique to it’s parent scale. Once you’ve identified some sounds that you like I suggest coming up with a simple lick that emphasizes that sound.
I’m a big believer in having a bag of licks to draw from. Like a master chess player studies opening moves, I feel that musicians use licks and phrases as jumping off points for our creative voice. Take the phrases you come up with and practice them in all the keys. I know that this is recommended very often, but it’s worth emphasizing that practicing anything in all keys really does allow you develop a much better understanding of what you’re playing. Of course, learn licks from records. An obvious, but no less excellent example of a phrase that really brings out the sound of the dorian mode is the bass melody to Miles’ So What. Try transposing that melody into a natural minor scale – it sounds noticeably different.
In an article about modal jazz, Peter Spitzer writes, “By de-emphasizing the role of chords, a modal approach forces the improviser to create interest by other means: melody, rhythm, timbre, and emotion.” To craft an effective solo in a modal context means using a variety of tools. As for personal advice in that area; when I’m soloing the primary thing I’m trying to be aware of is to create a dynamic arc to lead the listener along. Volume and intensity is just one factor in achieving this. Another idea is to use contrasting elements to create surprise and interest. I sometimes like to play long, meandering lines that leads into a lyrical, blues lick. Or to set up a three or four note repeating sequence and then evolve it into punctuating staccato chord hits. Set some boundaries for part of your solo. Maybe you’re only go to allow yourself four or five notes to work with. Now you’re forced to come up with dynamic and rhythmic variations on a small pool of notes.
There’s plenty to talk about on the subject. Musicians have been using a modal approach long before Kind of Blue and Speak No Evil were ever conceived and even still the term modal jazz is almost old enough to qualify to collect social security benefits. But even though theses ideas are no longer new, the sound is still fresh to my ears and as a musician there is much to learn through understanding and applying modal concepts. Hopefully you’ll find a nugget or two in this article that will be of value to your playing.
*By parent scale I mean the related major scale. (i.e. E phrygian’s parent scale is C major of which A minor is the relative minor)