Modal Jazz


Starting in the late 1950s, trumpeter Miles Davis and tenor saxophonist John Coltrane experimented with modes, an approach to melody and improvisation borrowed directly from classical music. These players used a small number of modes, or specific scales, instead of chords to form the backbone of tunes.

The result was a harmonically static, almost purely melodic form of jazz. Soloists sometimes ventured outside of the preset modes and back again to create a sense of tension and release. Tempos ranged from slow to fast, but overall, the music had a wandering, unrushed feel to it. For a more exotic effect, players sometimes used non-European scales (e.g., Indian, Arab, African) as a “modal” basis for their music. The vague tonal center of modal jazz would serve as a launching pad for free-jazz experimenters who followed, including tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders.

Some classic examples of Modal Jazz include Davis’ “Milestones,” “So What” and “Flamenco Sketches,” and Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” and “Impressions.”

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October 2017
Cécile McLorin Salvant
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