I’ve been listening to the duo albums Keith Jarrett recorded with the late great Charlie Haden, Jasmine and Last Dance. These two albums contain some of the most beautiful ballad playing in a duo setting I’ve ever heard. You’ll want to turn up the volume or grab a good pair of headphones to hear all the wonderful subtleties going on in Haden’s solos, particularly to hear how Jarret responds with his artful comping. What also strikes me about these ballads is how Jarret makes use of the first or fifth scale degree as a kind of pulse, tapping a single note with his left thumb, to create some wonderful contrapuntal movement, using the pulse as a measure around which the two soloists can slide in and out of the time signature. It goes without saying that these albums showcase two soloists; this is not Haden on the bass “backing” Jarrett on the piano; these two improvisors equally create melodic lines.
Jarret has an unusual left thumb; it looks double-jointed. I’ve heard he “trained” his thumb to bend at the knuckle to make up for the fact that his hands were small and he had trouble playing tenths. Regardless, the “thumb hitting the fifth” can be a wonderful tool for a pianist in the practice room. It’s more than a metronome. It’s a way to test your ability to move in and out of different time signatures; you can solo behind or ahead of the pulse. It’s also a good way to test out your voicings, to hear how dissonant or consonant your voicings sound against the fifth, to see how well you can play your voicings without effort. It’s no coincidence that the fifth note happens to be the Mixolydian, the root of the “magic” dominant chord I discussed in last week’s post. The fifth can take you through the entire chorus of a tune. I’ve tried this with the F on “Someday My Prince Will Come,” the fifth of the B-flat major scale.
But the pulse note doesn’t have to be the fifth; you could use the root of that tune’s key, and you can of course switch the pulse note if, for example, the tune changes keys in the bridge. If you have trouble reaching tenths, if you can’t bend your thumb like Jarrett (I can’t), you can always “ghost” the note, leave a little space for it; if it’s been played for a few measures, the listener will hear it even though it isn’t actually played. The fifth note played in this way, as the pulse of your tune, is more than a metronome. It’s an opportunity to add beauty to your repertoire of ballads, a way to find unusual voicings you might not normally play, a way to create contrapuntal movement in your solos and comping, a way to stretch the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic possibilities within a single tune.
Much has been written about the concept of tritone substitution by theorists and musicians far more knowledgeable and talented than myself, so I won’t delve too deeply into it, but since it’s part of this idea behind letting my left hand “teach” my right (unpacking the nice left-hand voicings I’ve memorized, practiced ad nauseam, etc.) and actually doing something with them in the right hand, transferring that information into meaningful improvised lines, I’ll start with the basics of tritone substitution:
The dominant chord is the magic chord in jazz. It’s the chord with the most tension, the most possibilities, the one that often screams for resolution. I can do almost anything with the dominant chord. I can delay the resolution, or play “around” the resolution (a la Bill Evans) with a series of altered dominant chords to introduce a standard tune. It’s the chord that allows the most alterations. And beneath all those alterations are the major third and the minor seventh, which define the quality of the chord. Beneath all the possible alterations (i.e., flat nine, sharp nine, sharp eleven, thirteen, etc.), these two notes, the third and the seventh, still define it as a dominant chord. They also happen to form a tritone, or a flatted fifth. Flip them around, make the third a seventh, and the seventh a third, and I’ve got a different dominant chord: the G7th becomes Db7th, the C7th a Gb7th, and so on.
So I have a lot of options when I’m improvising over a ii-V-I. I can still play in the Dorian mode with the minor ii chord, or I can ditch the Dorian and start using that Mixolydian mode derived from the new tritone sub; for example, I can improvise in Db Mixolydian in my right hand while still playing the D minor to G dominant in my left hand. Two interesting aspects of improvising this way: 1) I’m playing further and further “outside” the changes, I sound more like the pros, by creating more tension, more suspense to my lines, and because the Db is only a half-step up from C, 2) I’m introducing more chromaticism to my lines. Resolving from the very tense Db Mixolydian to the very relaxed C Ionian will sound good (ah, relief!) when I land on any note in the C major scale with the exception of the fourth, the F natural, which I can either avoid or raise a half-step to make it a sharp eleven.
The smooth chromaticism I get from improvising with tritone subs in the right hand exists in the left hand as well because of the inherent chord-scale relationships. The funny thing is that I was playing tritone subs in my left hand for years before I realized how to “unpack” that information and apply it to my right hand while improvising. For example, I learned the A and B rootless voicings for the ii-V-I progression in every key, but I never stopped to wonder why the V chords were interchangeable.
For the B voicings (7, 9, 3, 5) on any minor ii, I can let the seventh and ninth notes descend a half-step, keep the minor third the same, let the fifth ascend a half-step, and I arrive at the tritone sub, only now I’m playing the subbed V chord in A form. It works in reverse as well: if I play an A voicing (3, 5, 7, 9) for any ii chord, I keep the minor third in place, descend the seventh and ninth notes a half-step, ascend the fifth a half-step, and I end up on the tritone-sub dominant chord in B form.
Transfer the new voicing back to the right hand, play the chord/scale up and down a few octaves, start on different notes of the chord/scale, see how long you can keep the tension going before you resolve to the I chord, and you will hear many new melodic possibilities. Not only the Mixolydian, but the diminished scale (starting with the half-step) works beautifully over these “magic” chords.
We get stuck in routines, stuck practicing certain progressions, not realizing what we’re doing, not taking the time to question why we’ve been taught to practice a certain way. The good news is it’s never too late to re-examine some old aspect of our playing. We may not sound better overnight, but gradually we will acquire a more profound understanding of what we’re doing and why.
I've always been curious about how jazz musicians learn to improvise, how they create genuine, spontaneous responses to a composer's original melody or (in a combo setting) to what's been going on in the previous solo (or solos).
Some improvisors say they stick to four-bar and eight-bar phrases, picking out chord tones as end points along the way. Others only get "serious" (start thinking about where they're headed melodically) on beats three or four of a single measure, knowing the chord tone they want to land on (the resolution to whatever tension they've created) in beat one of the next measure; still, others don’t think of chord tones or targets at all but improvise freely, fingers flying like a Rolodex over the applicable modes on any given chord progression. These strategies are simply a means to an end; what works beautifully in the hands of an expert could, in the hands of a novice, be a complete mess.
I never had given much thought to improvising in modes other than Dorian, Mixolydian, and Ionian for the ubiquitous ii-V-I pattern, maybe Locrian for the ii of a minor ii-V-i. I always had assumed it would be way too difficult and time-consuming to memorize all those "other modes," and how would I use them, how would I know when to play them, and in what context? Until I remembered something, a simple truth I'd learned a long time ago, the value of which I either ignored or glossed over in my hunger to consume all things Jazz: modes are scale degrees; "thinking in modes" means thinking in scale degrees. This may sound simple, obvious, and redundant, but for the aspiring improviser I think it can open many doors.
For example, let's say I'm improvising over an E-flat major seventh chord. I not only have many scale choices; I have many ways of thinking about my scale choices. I could improvise in E-flat Pentatonic, or in E-flat Lydian, thinking "okay, Lydian: raise the fourth note of an E-flat major scale a half-step," or I could think, "okay, Lydian: the fourth scale degree of B-flat major; improvise over the E-flat chord as if I were playing in B-flat major." Which is of course what I am doing anyway.
Granted, when starting out this way as a pianist, I'm going to want to look down the keyboard to mentally recalibrate, so that I'm "seeing" E-flat as the fourth note of the B-flat major scale, and that's going to take some time, but if the goal is to learn these modes so well you don’t have to hesitate for an instant, then I believe, especially for classically trained pianists, the "thinking in modes/thinking in scale degrees" method of improvising is a viable option for the practice room, especially when you're working in the so-called "difficult" keys of D-flat, F-sharp, B, and E, or when you're playing not in the major modes but in say, the modes of the harmonic or melodic minor scales.
The idea here is that your fingers, after playing in and out of these various modes (thought of in the practice room as simple scale degrees: root, second, third, fourth for Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, etc.), that this mode/scale thinking will expose your ears to more and more "flavors" for you to use over any given 1) chord, 2) chord progression, 3) formula [i.e., the B section of an AABA tune] or 4) song form… Each "dish" gets bigger and more complex until finally you don’t worry about reaching for some cliché lick or prelearned pattern; you've broadened your palette (to abuse the food analogy one last time); you're choosing the exact notes your inner ear wants your fingers to execute. And at this point (hopefully) you're no longer thinking in modes; you’re not thinking at all. You're improvising!