Improvisation, Part 1-2

Peter Madsen By

Sign in to view read count
Happy New Year everyone. Hope 2000 was as great a year for you as it was for me and I hope 2001 is even better.

The following is a letter from an AAJ fan with some questions about scales and improvisation. I was asked to try and wrestle these questions to the ground and turn the answers into an article (or two). Check out the letter:

I have a question, which might make a good topic for an article - maybe. In an old interview with Frank Zappa I read a while back, he talks a bit about his guitar playing and some of the nuts and bolts of his group's improvisations. He makes an interesting remark about how in an improv; the soloist (i.e. Frank himself) might think, "let's play a mixolydian scale here" at the exact moment that his bassist might think, "oh, let's play a diminished scale here". Basically he's saying that this would not be a desirable effect in his guitar solo pieces and that coordinating the harmonic setting/events of the improvisation is an important part of his performances.

Now, I fully realize that 'way out' kind of jazz would be full of clashing harmonies as Frank is describing...in fact, consonance may even be something freer players would want to avoid. My question is at what point in jazz do we start to hear players no longer playing in complete 'scalar agreement' with one another? I'm not talking necessarily about total dissonance or atonality or bitonality...I'm talking about one guy playing mixolydian and another guy playing dorian with the same root, possibly by 'mistake' during an improv. (Also, let's exclude from discussion any incidental use of chromatic scales...)

Did this kind of thing happen in pre-free jazz? Or did it happen later? When a hard bop group saw Cmaj7 on the lead sheet, did that mean they could only play one set of notes at that chord change? Or did Cmaj7 imply a number of possible scales (with a C root) from which each player could play from, regardless of what the rest of the band is doing?

Michael, a rock guy trying to expand his horizons

Well Michael, where to begin?

First I want to say it's great that you're trying to expand your horizons (always a commendable endeavor) and I hope I can shed a little light on your new path.

First lets back up a moment and look at how musicians learn to improvise. I myself see two main ways. Let's call the first way the Charlie Parker method of learning to improvise. I'm sure Mr. Parker practiced, especially when he was younger, but his main way of learning was simply through experience, by listening to other great musicians around him. Through his incredible ears and gifted depth of creativity he picked out the hip ideas that other musicians were playing and then added his own to make those incredible new lines of his. He wasn't thinking a lot about scales or harmony, though of course he knew about harmony. He was mostly using his ears! The second way that a musician can learn to improvise let's call the John Coltrane method of learning to improvise. Trane was the opposite of Bird. He didn't stop practicing and studying. He slept with his horn so that he could start practicing the moment he got out of bed. He practiced on the breaks at gigs and every other free moment he could find. He was a searcher. He searched for new scales and modes from all over the world. He studied out of violin books and harp books. He used the Slonimsky book of scale patterns. Trane learned by studying as well as using his own incredible ears!

So we have two very different ways of learning the mechanics of improvisation but, and here's the big but, when Bird or Trane got on the bandstand to perform neither of them spent much time "thinking"! In performance they were both in the same state of incredible self-awareness. The mechanics became unimportant on the bandstand and the emotional side of their improvisations took precedence. They played from their heart and soul. This is the key to their greatness. They both had an incredible natural gift for being able to open themselves up to their inner creativity and let out their amazing ideas with wonderful ease, excitement and wonder.

Ok Michael I hear you. You still want to know the answers to your questions. Now I love Frank Zappa but I didn't read the article so I don't know the exact context he was talking about, but most musicians don't usually think Ok now I'm going to use a mixolydian scale here for this section and a diminished scale there for another. This has been done of course (Miles Davis - Kind of Blue for example and it sounds like Zappa also) but this isn't a very common way of setting up an improvisation section today. Also this isn't the only way to set up an improvisation section. In fact of all the hundreds of bands I've played in not one has ever said to me, "play a mixolydian scale here" or lets only play a diminished scale there. Never! Not in a straight-ahead band or a free band or a funk group. I'm either taught a piece by ear or I'm given music with written notes and chord symbols and I can make my note choices using any of the many tools at my disposal. Scales are merely one choice. Other choices include playing: arpeggios in thirds all the way up to the thirteenth of the chord, ideas based on the melody, alteration notes of dominant chords (flat 5, flat 9, sharp 5 and sharp 9), arpeggios in fourths, leading tones, intervals, trills, multiphonics (horn players), clusters (piano players) and various other devices depending on the style of the piece, the dissonance wanted, the tempo, etc.

OK so you still want to know if a bassist can play a diminished scale and a soloist play a mixolydian scale and still sound good together. The answer is absolutely. But I don't know many bass players who only make their lines out of just one scale. For a moment he might play a part of a diminished scale and then the next he might play an arpeggio of the chord in thirds starting on the root and walk up to the 7th or whatever. If Zappa played a G mixolydian scale on a G7 chord and his bassist used a G diminished scale (both which work for a G7 chord) it wouldn't be a major clash. But actually the example that you gave wouldn't usually come about as most of the time it's the soloist that tends to play the more colorful or complicated or unusual scales (the diminished scale is much more colorful than the mixolydian mode as it has the flat 9, the sharp 9 and the flat five in it) and not the bassist unless it's the bassist that is soloing. The most common function of the bassist is to play the foundations of the chords, keying on the roots so the tonality can be heard. They should support the soloist and not play too many complicated ideas so the soloist can go where he or she wants. They try to keep an ear out to where the soloist is going and help if possible. This doesn't mean he has to play the same scale at the same time as the soloist. As a pianist I'm often playing very different scales than the bassist when I'm soloing. You see jazz is often built in melodic and harmonic layers. The bassist tends to play the lower notes (both in pitch and of the chord), the harmony instrument(s) tend to play around with the changes (altering those 5th s and 9ths - often in the middle range) and the soloist is on top of that. So you will hear different instruments playing different scales at the same time a lot and sound quite good together.

Come back next month and check out the rest of my answers! See you then and keep in touch by sending me an e-mail at [email protected]

Post a comment



All About Jazz needs your support

All About Jazz & Jazz Near You were built to promote jazz music: both recorded and live events. We rely primarily on venues, festivals and musicians to promote their events through our platform. With club closures, shelter in place and an uncertain future, we've pivoted our platform to collect, promote and broadcast livestream concerts to support our jazz musician friends. This is a significant but neccesary effort that will help musicians now, and in the future. You can help offset the cost of this essential undertaking by making a donation today. In return, we'll deliver an ad-free experience (which includes hiding the bottom right video ad). Thank you.

Get more of a good thing

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories and includes your local jazz events calendar.