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Modal jazz

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Title: Modal jazz  
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Subject: John Coltrane, Modal jazz, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Maiden Voyage (composition)
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Modal jazz

Modal jazz is jazz that uses musical modes rather than chord progressions as a harmonic framework. Originating in the late 1950s and 1960s, modal jazz is epitomized by Miles Davis's "Milestones" (1958), Kind of Blue (1959), and John Coltrane's classic quartet from 1960–64.[2] Other important performers include Woody Shaw, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, Larry Young, Pharoah Sanders, Joe Henderson, Chick Corea and Bobby Hutcherson.[2] Though the term comes from the use of the pitches of particular modes (or scales) in the creation of solos, modal jazz compositions or accompaniments may only or additionally make use of the following techniques:[2]

  1. slow-moving harmonic rhythm, where single chords may last four to sixteen or more measures
  2. pedal points[3] and drones
  3. absent or suppressed standard functional chord progressions
  4. quartal harmonies or melodies
  5. polytonality


An understanding of modal jazz requires knowledge of musical modes. In bebop as well as in hard bop, musicians use chords to provide the background for solos. A song starts out with a theme that introduces the chords for the solos. These chords repeat throughout the whole song, while the soloists play new, improvised themes over the repeated chord progression. By the 1950s, improvising over chords had become such a dominant part of jazz, that sidemen at recording dates were sometimes given nothing more than a list of chords to play from.

Freddie Hubbard, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, and Wayne Shorter.


It is possible for the bassist and the pianist to move to notes within the mode that are dissonant with the prime (tonic) chord of that mode. For example: within the C Ionian mode, the notes of the scale are CDEFGAB, with C being the root note. Other non-diatonic notes, such as the note B♭, are dissonant within the C ionian mode, so that they are less used in non-modal jazz songs when playing the chord C. In a modal song, these other notes may be freely used as long as the overall sound of C ionian is entrenched within the listener's mind. This allows for greater harmonic flexibility and varied harmonic possibilities.

Among the significant compositions of modal jazz were "So What" by Miles Davis and "Impressions" by John Coltrane.[3] "So What" and "Impressions" follow the same AABA song form and were in D Dorian for the A sections and modulated a half step up to E-flat Dorian for the B section. The Dorian mode is the natural minor scale with a raised sixth. Other compositions include Davis' "Flamenco Sketches", Bill Evans' "Peace Piece", and Shorter's "Footprints".[3]

The comping instrument is not confined to play the standard chord voicings of the bop lexicon, but rather can play chord voicings based upon differing pitch combinations from the parent mode.

A player may also use the many different pentatonic scales within the scale such as (within the C-major scale): C-major pentatonic, F-major pentatonic, and G-major pentatonic, and their pentatonic relative minors, A, D, and E.


Miles Davis recorded one of the best selling jazz albums of all time in this modal framework. Elvin Jones (drums), McCoy Tyner (piano), and Reggie Workman and Jimmy Garrison (bass). Several of Coltrane's albums from the period are recognized as seminal albums in jazz more broadly, but especially modal jazz: Giant Steps,[3] Live! at the Village Vanguard (1961), Crescent (1964), A Love Supreme (1964),[3] and Meditations (1965). Compositions from this period such as "India," "Chasin' the Trane," "Crescent," "Impressions," as well as standards like Richard Rodger's "My Favorite Things", performed by John Coltrane,[3] and "Greensleeves" have entered the jazz repertoire.

Coltrane's modal explorations gave rise to an entire generation of saxophonists (mostly playing tenor saxophone) that would then go on to further explore modal jazz (often in combination with jazz fusion), such as Michael Brecker, David Liebman, Steve Grossman, and Bob Berg.

Opening chord to "Maiden Voyage": minor eleventh chord (Am7/D).[5] About this sound    Using D Dorian.[6]

Another great innovator in the field of modal jazz is pianist Herbie Hancock. He is well known for working in Miles Davis's "Second Great Quintet", Herbie Hancock recorded a number of solo albums, beginning with Maiden Voyage (1965),[1] prior to joining Miles' band. On the title song of this album Hancock has just a few suspended and minor chords that are played throughout the entire piece and played with a very open sound due to Hancock's use of fourths in voicing the chords. The piece's haunting repeating vamps in the rhythm section and the searching feeling of the entire piece has made "Maiden Voyage" one of the most famous modal pieces.

A true precursor to modal jazz was found in the hands of virtuoso jazz pianist, composer and trio innovator Ahmad Jamal whose early use of extended vamps (freezing the advance of the song at some point for repetition or interjecting new song fragments) allowed him to solo for long periods infusing that section of the song with fresh ideas and percussive effects over a repetitive drum and bass figuration. Miles Davis was effusive in his praise for Jamal's influence on him, his playing, and his music: a perfect setup for the modal work that lay in Davis' future.


  1. ^ a b c Miller, Michael (2008). The Complete Idiot's Guide to Music History, . ISBN 978-1-59257-751-4.
  2. ^ a b c Henry Martin, Keith Waters (2008). Essential Jazz: The First 100 Years, p.178-79. ISBN 978-0-495-50525-9.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Sutro, Dirk (2011). Jazz For Dummies, . ISBN 978-1-118-06852-6.
  4. ^ a b  
  5. ^ Kernfeld, Barry (1997). What to Listen for in Jazz, p.68. ISBN 978-0-300-07259-4.
  6. ^ Herder, Ronald (1987). 1000 Keyboard Ideas, p.75. ISBN 978-0-943748-48-1.

Further reading

  • Kernfeld, Barry. "Adderley, Coltrane, and Davis at the Twilight of Bebop: The Search for Melodic Coherence". Ph.D. diss., Cornell University, 1981.
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