Modal jazz was created by a handful of musicians in the late 1950’s that included Miles Davis, Gil Evans, Bill Evans, Oliver Nelson, and sustained by others such as Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and John Coltrane. As with all art forms, there are some works pointing the way such as George Russell’s “Cubana Be Cubana Bop”, released in 1947.
Eventually, by the mid 60’s, the modal approach became accepted and permeated many of the post 1960 jazz albums. The defining works for Modal jazz came from Miles Davis albums titled Milestones and Kind of Blue. Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage helped to define the concept. Documents published by George Russell titled Lydian Chromatic Concept added the needed theory to explain the ideas.
Western music from the 19th and 20th century focused on Ionian scales. This included the “happy” vs. “sad” dichotomy present in the dialectic thought of western philosophy such as the theological notions of good and evil or Descartes’ polarity of body and mind. Musical ideas and harmonies were developed though movement away (tension) from and back to (release) the home key, or tonic. The structural notion of tension and release–found in the major-minor interval system of thirds from Bach into early 20th-century popular music and pre-Kind of Blue jazz defined nature of most popular and classic music. This common interval association is easily recognizable and has become the accepted practice to add richness to melodies and counter melodies. For the most part, in western music, the third interval is the basis used to develop chords and harmonies.
Modality suggests a different way of thinking about harmonic relationships. A mode implies a series of transportable intervals in which harmonies emphasize intervals other than thirds. I prefer to use fourths and fifths as a harmonic tool. I like the sound of chords that do not have a third represented. For me, the harmonic language is enriched, since modes bring new harmonic structures into the aural mix. I like the notion that ‘less is more’ when it comes to the number of chords in a pattern, the sparse arrangements allow me to develop thematic material not specifically related to the chord progression but via rhythm and mode used with fairly stable harmonies set forth by the chord pattern.
My interest with music built from these principles is derived from my spiritual. social, cultural, and historical experience. I think that musical gestures say something universal about our belief system and at the same time something specific and relevant about life. One of the essential features of jazz as an art form is the constant attempt of musicians to find their own voice, their own sound, to discover who they are, and express where they fit into the world. For this period of my life, explorations in modality serve that purpose. These ideas have brought new blood to my jazz, stirred my sonic imagination, and helped me to keep it fresh.
“Idealism detached from action is just a dream. But idealism allied with pragmatism, with rolling up your sleeves and making the world bend a bit, is very exciting. It’s very real. It’s very strong.” – Bono