Unlike traditional jazz styles such as bebop and hard bop where melodic improvisation was limited and structured within certain scales or chord progressions, modal Jazz uses musical ‘modes’ as a harmonic framework. Modal Jazz is a texture of elements that has more liberating and colourful sounds. The appeal of modal jazz was also to “escape from the traditional jazz style of playing constant chords changes, which were felt to hamstring the soloist, and provide a sparse, less cluttered background solos, providing maximum flexibility and expressiveness” (Driscoll 2002) Therefore it allows performers to improvise over static chords and harmonies with broader and freer melodic possibilities, expanding their creativity.
The early twentieth-century impressionist composers such as Erik Satie and Debussy heavily influenced Davis’ modal jazz concept. Especially, Bill Evans, the pianist of Davis’ band was strongly influenced by Raven and Debussy. Evans’ piano style was a fundamental part in the creation of the modal concept in Kind of Blue. He successfully “modified the jazz piano role by playing chords without the root and experimenting with voicings to create new colours and sonorities influenced by Impressionist music” (Bernal 2007)
Kind of Blue (1959) is known as one of bestselling jazz albums of all time as well as Miles Davis’s first album based on modal scale. It is an exploration of the potentials of modal jazz in relation to improvisation, innovation and expressivity. The album successfully indicated a clear break from the conventional bebop style where the melodic improvisation was limited and structured within simple chord progressions and scales. Two tracks that are regarded as most quintessential examples of modal jazz on Kind of Blue are ‘So What’ and ‘Flamenco Sketches’. ‘So What’ is based on two Dorian scales arranged in a 32-bar AABA form and‘ Flamenco Sketches’ is an extended improvisation based on a series of five modes.
'So What' by Miles Davis from his album Kind of Blue (1959)
"So What" is the first of the album where Davis' new modal concept is evident. The introduction is played, in rubato style, by the pianist and the bassist, over which Evans play mainly second inversion triads supported by Chambers, who most the time is doubling the lower voice of the piano. The resulting sound brings immediately to mind the impressionist colours as heard in Satie's "Première Gymnopédie" which is the signature of the traditional modal style. 'The melody is often a call-and-response pattern wherein the bass plays a phrase emphasizing the notes and the mode, and a response, trumpet, alto saxophone, and tenor saxophone play two oscilliating chords as a riff' (Bernal 2007)
Modal Jazz continues to influence many aspects of of contemporary music. Miles Davis successfully transformed traditional jazz styles such as bebop towards more innovative and expressive new form of music; modal jazz, enriching the capabilities for sound, articulation, phrasing, language and techniques of contemporary music.
By Minji Hur
- Barrett, S. 2006, ‘Kind of Blue and the economy of Modal Jazz’, Popular Music, vol. 25, no. 2, pp.185-200.
- Bernal,L.C. 2007, Miles Davis: The Road to Modal Jazz, University of North Texas, Texas, viewed 25 April 2011 http://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc3693/m1/1/high_res_d/thesis.pdf
- Driscoll, E. 2002, Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece, Blog Critics, viewed 25 April 2011, http://blogcritics.org/books/article/kind-of-blue-the-making-of/
- Williams, R. 2009, The Blue Moment: Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and the Remaking of Modern Music, Faber and Faber, London.
By Minji Hur