Modal Jazz

Whereas Jazz had always been based on the concept of improvising over a chord sequence that was clearly in a major or minor, or blues-style key, musicians — in their constant search for new sounds — started experimenting with modes. Put simply, modes can be described as the scales you get if you start a major scale on a note other than the traditional starting note. So, in the key of C major, if you start your scale on the second note — D — you get a progression of notes that has a different sound from the one that starts on C. It has a minor feel, and is called the Dorian mode.

A great example of modal jazz is Miles Davis’ classic 'So What', which uses the dorian mode based on D, then another version of the same mode (Dorian), but moved up a half step to E flat.

Miles loved the freedom of being able to run free over one mode for several bars rather than, say, the harmonic discipline of following a strict chord sequence that outlines very definite key centres. And so did other musicians. Modal jazz caught on in a big way and was championed by many other musicians.

But how did it start? Well, in 1953 the composer, arranger and band leader George Russell published a book called the 'Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization'. He outlined how it might be possible for musicians to improvise over a long period — say 8 bars — over a single scale, and for that scale to be based on a mode (Lydian is the name of a mode).

By the mid-60s modal jazz became the mainstream method through which modern jazz musicians expressed their ideas. Musicians such as Miles Davis, with his landmark composition 'Milestones' in 1958 and the 1959 album 'Kind of Blue', John Coltrane, McCoy Tyler, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock and — especially — the arranger Gil Evans led the way where others soon followed. Coltrane’s work with pianist McCoy Tyler in the 1960 brought great intensity and inventiveness to modal jazz and in the albums 'My Favourite Things' (1961), 'Impressions' (1963) and 'A Love Supreme' (1964).

Key Artists

George Russell

Miles Davis

Gil Evans

Bill Evans

John Coltrane

Freddie Hubbard

Herbie Hancock

McCoy Tyner

Wayne Shorter