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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 8, No. 3

What is Modal Jazz? A Layman's Guide

by Paul Serralheiro / November 2, 2002

Version française...

Musical genres delight and develop the ear as varieties of flowers do a botanist's eye or spices a gourmet's palate. Rhythmic, melodic, harmonic, and architectural shifts of emphasis that characterize different styles within musical genres go further to provide esthetic refinement and broaden our feeling for the art and universality of music.

One such musical style is modal jazz. A phoenix that arose from the ashes of bebop in the late 1950s, the style is commonly associated with Miles Davis and his landmark Kind of Blue, whose relaxed tempi and whimsical, light-footed melodies have lured a myriad of listeners since its release in 1959, making the album the best-selling jazz record of all time.

What is distinct about modal jazz? While the musical effect of modes may be described as "simple" and organic, modality is a complex concept to define. Modes have a long history, reaching back in western culture to ancient Greece and in some other cultures to periods of even greater antiquity.

A "mode" in a musical context is defined by Webster's dictionary as "an arrangement of the eight diatonic notes or tones of an octave according to one of several fixed schemes of their intervals." That is the simple answer. A closer look reveals more complexity. Theoretical attempts to describe the modes reach back to Aristoxenus (c. 350 B.C.) and were carried on through the medieval period in the work of scholars like Boethius, Saint Ambrose, and Hucbald. In the Italian Renaissance they were the concern of Guido of Arezzo, Hermannus Contractus, Tinctoris, and other writers up to Glearan in the 16th century. Thereafter the subject dropped from view until musicological interest in folk melodies arose in the late 19th century.

With the emergence of "tonal" music based on the major-minor system, pitch texture and architectural concerns were focused on the Ionian and Aeolian scales and on chromatic alterations, especially the latter. A very rational system evolved: 12 chromatic scales, 12 possible major keys and 12 possible minor keys, evincing a "happy" vs. "sad" dichotomy that paralleled the development of dialectic thought in Western philosophy. (Similar concepts were the rigid theological notions of good and evil, Descartes' polarity of body and mind, and ultimately the Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis paradigm). This binary system is dramatically reflected in the white key/black key dichotomy found on the piano--the dominant instrument in the teaching and performance of western music from the Age of Enlightenment onwards.

"There will be fewer chords"

In contrast to tonality, modality implies not only a linear approach, a melodic imperative, but also a different way of thinking about harmony. The main difference between a "mode" and a "scale" is a matter of connotation rather than of denotation. A mode is, like a scale, a series of transposable interval relationships. The difference is that a scale (usually categorized as major, minor, diminished, or augmented) implies harmonies built up in intervals of a third of that and related scales, for example the notes C-E-G, D-F-A, E-G-B, and so on in the key of C major. Musical ideas are developed though movement away from and back to the home key, or tonic, which may be either major or minor.

A mode, on the other hand, implies a series of transposable interval relationships in which harmonies emphasize intervals other than thirds. Seconds and fourths are a preferred pattern. Musical ideas created from a mode are developed via changes in the character of the mode (e.g. from C Dorian to C Mixolydian) or in modulation to other modes related in some way, or even to completely unrelated modes. The structural notion of tension and release--found in the major-minor system from Bach through Brahms and into early 20th-century popular music and pre-Kind of Blue jazz--still applies, but the musician's palette of melodic colours is considerably wider. The harmonic language is enriched, since modes bring new harmonic structures into the aural mix. The number of chords, however, is cut down, so that the music resembles those non-Western genres that develop thematic material not through chord progression but via rhythm and melody over a fairly stable harmony.

Birth of a serene cool

Although modal jazz as an entity arose in the 1950s, there were some notable foreshadowing works, such as George Russell's "Cubana Be Cubana Bop" from 1947. As a movement or phenomenon, however, modal jazz was originally centered in the work of a handful of musicians that included Miles Davis and George Russell, arranger Gil Evans, pianist/composer Bill Evans, saxophonist/composer Oliver Nelson, and later Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and John Coltrane. The modal approach eventually permeated all of jazz. One can hear modal features in most of the jazz styles since the 1960s. Modality also pervades many recent styles of popular music, in large part due to the evocative sensibility of modal jazz.

Modal jazz's seminal works are the recordings Milestones and Kind of Blue by Davis' ensemble and the theoretical formulations published in George Russell's Lydian Chromatic Concept. "There will be fewer chords," Davis explained to his band at the time, "but infinite possibilities as to what to do with them." Notable achievements that followed in the wake of the relatively low-key modal jazz revolution included Coltrane's A Love Supreme, Herbie Hancock's Maiden Voyage, and the work of Freddie Hubbard, Weather Report, and Chick Corea. The approach arguably influenced some aspects of Free Jazz, such as its non-adherence to harmonic restrictions, and modal features also appear in the neoclassicism of artists like Wynton Marsalis.

Any consideration of the "meaning" of modal jazz must include a look at its social, cultural, and historical contexts, since music is, after all, a cultural expression that does not exist in a vacuum. Musical gestures say something universal and at the same time something specific and relevant to the musicians' lifetimes. The social relevance of the modal approach to jazz lies in its reflection on the issues and Zeitgeist of the late 1950s and 1960s--such as the questioning of received Eurocentric perspectives and the emerging of a post-colonial political landscape which, along with the evolving global village, led to a widespread interest in world culture and world music.

One of the essential features of jazz as an art form is its reinvention of itself, the attempt of musicians to find their own voice, their own sound. For the second half of the first century of jazz, explorations in modality served that purpose. It brought new blood to jazz, stirred the imagination, and succeeded in "keeping it new."


On Stage

In spite of November's grey days and dark nights, stage lights shine brighter than ever at this time of year. On the jazz front shows won`t be in short supply either, and the following are but a mere selection of those slated for this month:

  1. Thursday 7, 8 P.M.: Hugh Fraser Quintet with Slide Hampton (Club Soda, 1225 St-Laurent)
  2. Thursday 7, Friday 8, 10P.M.: Tom Walsh & Noma (Sala Rossa, 4848, St-Laurent)
  3. Saturday 9, 8P.M.: Thom Gossage (drs) and his band Other Voices (Théâtre de la Chapelle, 3700, St-Dominique)
  4. Tuesday 12, 9:30P.M.: Joe & Mat Maneri, M. Formanek, R, Peterson (Casa del Popolo, 4873, boul. St-Laurent)
  5. Thursday 14, Friday 15, 8P.M.: Rémi Bolduc Quartet (Métropolis, 59 rue Ste-Catherine W.)
  6. Tuesday 19, 9:30 P.M.: F. Gratkowski (S. Shalabi, A. St-Onge, A. MacSween) (Casa del Popolo)
  7. Tuesday 19-Sunday 24, 9 P.M.: Effendi en Rafale (Le Va-et-Vient, 3706, Notre-Dame W.)
    Groups featured: Thom Gossage Other Voices (new program of music), Michel Côté New Project, Yannick Rieu Non Acoustic Project, Andrée Boudreau Quartet, Jean-Christophe Béney (from France), Jean-Pierre Zanella.
  8. Friday 29, 10 P.M.: Ken Vandermark & guests (Casa del Popolo)

- compiled by Marc Chénard

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