“Ask O.P.!”

How can a tune with only chords be so difficult to play? (An introduction to modal jazz)

As John Coltrane was preparing to unleash a new harmonic concept on the jazz world that would challenge improvisers for generations to come, another album featuring the tenor saxophonist as a sideman was released. “Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis similarly changed the landscape of jazz composition and improvisation, not by doing more, as “Giant Steps” did, but by doing less. 

Like most musical genres and subgenres, the definition of “modal jazz” is somewhat open to interpretation. As defined by Peter Spitzer on the Jazz Standards website, modal jazz is “organized in a scalar (horizontal) way rather than in a chordal (vertical) manner.” According to the Jazz Piano Site, characteristics of modal jazz include “sparse chord changes where a single chord can last many bars” – contrasting both the harmonically dense chord progressions of the Great American Songbook era and the be-bop era, as well as the new direction represented by “Giant Steps.” This gives “the soloist greater freedom and choice while improvising.” 

However, with freedom comes responsibility, and while not having to navigate the hurdles of an intricate be-bop progression might seem like a relief after spending time with the Charlie Parker Omnibook, modal jazz is proof positive of the idea that simple and easy aren’t the same thing. In this post, we will talk about the challenges that modal jazz presents to improvisers and rhythm section players alike. We will look specifically at the progression of “So What”, the tune from “Kind of Blue” that perhaps more than any other embodies modal jazz.


The progression is a 32-bar A-A-B-A form in which each A is 8 bars of Dm7 and the B is 8 bars of Ebm7. Thus, playing through one chorus would produce sixteen bars of Dm7, eight bars of Ebm7 and eight bars of Dm7. Without signposts such as ii-V-I turnarounds that are common in jazz, the improviser doesn’t have much to get their bearings.

It’s a challenge for the rhythm section as well. As Outside Pedestrian bassist David Lockeretz recalls, “I first started playing this tune when I was still studying jazz guitar. When I got lost, which was often, I’d listen to the bass player to try to figure out where I was. Later on, after I started playing bass, I got lost playing this tune and out of habit started listening to the bass player. For some reason, that no longer worked.”

Indeed, even as the improviser needs to keep their place, the rhythm section, including the drums, can help by framing each 8-bar phrase, especially the transition to the Ebm7 chord and the top of each chorus. At the risk of stating the obvious, the rhythm section must be sure of where they are in the progression as well. Lockeretz: “One thing that’s helped me be more solid on modal progressions is to think in 2- and 4-bar phrases with my walking. Typically, as a bassist, you usually play the root at the beginning of each measure, because in many jazz standards, most harmonies aren’t held for more than a measure, so there’s a new chord on each downbeat. However, in modal jazz, if I played D on the downbeat for sixteen bars in a row, it would get monotonous. It’s easier to think of four four-bar phrases or even eight two-bar phrases than it is to think of sixteen one-bar phrases. I might play a 2-bar phrase such as D-E-F-G | A-C-B-E or a 4-bar phrase such as D-E-F-B | C-E-D-B | A-Ab-G-F | G-G#-A-Eb. Using non-diatonic notes sparingly, especially as approach notes, can make the part more interesting while still staying within the modal sound. Also the example that I gave above assumes you’re playing straight quarter notes – a few well-timed kicks and fills can make the part more interesting while continuing to support the soloist.”

For ideas on comping behind a modal jazz soloist, check out this article.

More with less

Another challenge of modal jazz is creating a solo with less raw harmonic material. Improvisers soloing over a standard chord progression may have the benefit of modulations or other compositional devices that can create tension and release. Modal jazz improvisers won’t get much help from the composer. As Spitzer notes, “By de-emphasizing the role of chords, a modal approach forces the improviser to create interest by other means: melody, rhythm, timbre and emotion.” 

How to tackle this challenge? In an article on the Learn Jazz Standards website, author Josiah Boorzanian suggests, “Try to come up with melodic patterns that aren’t so symmetrical…for example, leap up a 7th, then down a 3rd, then up a 2nd, then down a 5th…prioritizing asymmetry can lead to the discovery of new and exciting ideas.” 

Borrowing from outside the parent scale (such as d dorian on “So What”) is another tool for the improviser. This article suggests: “Try playing lines based on the D-flat or E-flat scales for a measure or two. This dissonance creates tension, which you can release by returning to the original scale.” 

It’s been done…or has it?

Though the techniques required to play “Giant Steps” and “So What” may be different, they present a common challenge to today’s improvisers: how to say something new with a standard that has been part of the literature for over 60 years. One of the first standards to emulate “So What’s” modal progression, Coltrane’s “Impressions” – considered by many to be the 1b of modal jazz to “So What”’s 1a – solved the problem by playing the progression much faster. Since then, many artists have interpreted “So What” in a variety of genres, including acoustic/Americana, funk, vocal and more. “Impressions” has also seen its share of contemporary interpretations, including this one in the funk/fusion vein, and this synth-oriented version

Other modal jazz progressions

In the 60s, standards such as “Maiden Voyage” by Herbie Hancock and “Little Sunflower” by Freddie Hubbard used the sparseness of modal jazz while expanding upon the “So What” progression; notably in the quartal harmonies of “Maiden Voyage.” The Doors used the influence of modal jazz in “Light My Fire” as described by keyboardist Ray Manzarek: “It’s John Coltrane’s ‘My Favorite Things’ and Coltrane’s ‘Ole Coltrane’…it’s basically a jazz structure…state the theme, take a long solo, come back to stating the theme again.” This article highlights a few lesser-known modal jazz gems from the last few decades. One last example of a more contemporary modal tune is this one, which just so happens to be written and performed by some pretty good friends of ours. 

So what?

As with the Coltrane changes, one might ask why bother learning a 60-year old progression and genre. Even if one doesn’t play modal jazz, or play jazz at all, tackling the musical challenges of the genre will make them a more well-rounded musician. “Less is more” is not a one size fits all solution and for some musicians, it’s just not their sound. However, all musicians can benefit from awareness of the idea, as expressed by Miles Davis himself, that “it’s not the notes you play. It’s the notes you don’t play.”

Recognizing, understanding and creating jazz contrafacts

In response to some questions and comments from our last post about contrafacts in music, jazz in particular, we have decided to address the subject further in this “Ask O.P.” post.

The term “contrafact” is defined by Wikipedia as “a musical work based on a prior work.” In jazz, the word is often used to describe a tune that uses an existing composition’s chord progression. A songwriter or composer can use an existing chord progression as a starting point for a new piece, while musicians learning a tune that is a contrafact can gain additional insight by comparing it to its source. Note that from a copyright standpoint, chord progressions are not considered specific enough to qualify as intellectual property, so as long as the composer creates an original melody, they are exempt from charges of plagiarism.

In this post, we will discuss two common chord progressions: the 12-bar blues and the “I Got Rhythm” changes, then explore some specific examples of contrafacts.

Blues progressions

Blues music, in particular the 12-bar progression, has served as the foundation of many songs throughout jazz, country, bluegrass, rock and other genres. Works that are based on this progression usually have three things in common: starting on the I chord (the home key), moving to the IV chord in the fifth bar and a turnaround starting in the 9th bar: a phrase that “answers” the statements if the previous two phrases and sets up a return to the top of the form.

Following are three examples of the 12-bar blues progression in the key of F. The first is a basic example. The second is Charlie Parker’s tune “Au Privave” which shares the same outline as the first example but has more active harmonic movement. The third, “Blues for Alice” is another Parker head with the same framework, but still more movement.

Comparing “Au Privave” (a typical example of “be-bop” blues) to the simpler blues progression, we see differences, but also some similarities. Both of these progressions:

  • Start on the I chord (F)
  • Go to the IV chord (Bb) in the 5th measure
  • Return to the I chord in the 7th measure
  • Start the turnaround phrase in the 9th measure

The first progression uses a V – IV – I turnaround (the 9th measure has a C7, or V7 chord; the 10th measure has Bb7, the IV chord and the 11th measure returns to the I chord) while “Au Privave” uses a ii – V7 – I turnaround (starting on the Gm7, or ii chord, then going to the C7, or V7 chord, then resolving to the F7, or I chord.)

Comparing “Au Privave” to “Blues for Alice” we again notice similarities and differences. The progression starts on the I chord as the other two do, but it quickly moves through several harmonies before resolving on the IV chord in measure 5. Instead of returning to the I chord in measure 7 as the previous progressions do, it continues to explore new harmonic terrain before arriving at the ii chord in measure 9 as “Au Privave” does. From that point on out, it follows the same progression as “Au Privave.”

As a performer, understanding how a simple blues progression can evolve into a more elaborate one such as “Blues for Alice” can help you see the progression as a whole, enabling you to not worry too much about each individual chord. As a composer, seeing how far you can go from the original blues progression and still have the basic framework intact can give you ideas about how to stretch your raw materials farther.

“I Got Rhythm”

Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” has a chord progression that has been used by many jazz musicians as the basis for their own compositions. The theme from “The Flintstones” is a commonly cited example of “Rhythm Changes.” Other famous be-bop standards that use Rhythm Changes include “Oleo” by Sonny Rollins and “Anthropology” by Charlie Parker. A more recent example is saxophonist Alison Young’s “One Night Stan.” The progression also made its way into rock’n’roll with the Four Seasons’ “Sherry.” 

Comparing “I Got Rhythm” to “Flintstones” and “Anthropology” we see several parallels. All three follow a 32-bar “A-A-B-A” form. The “A” sections consist of a repeated two bar I-vi-ii-V7 progression (Bb6 – G7 or Gm7 – Cm7 – F7). In “I Got Rhythm” and “Anthropology” there’s the slight variation (circled in blue) of going to the Eb7 and Ab7 chords in the 6th measure. These tunes all have bridges that follow a III7-VI7-II7-V7 progression (D7 – G7 – C7 – F7) with each chord being held for two bars. Changing up the harmonic rhythm from one section to another (note how the chords in the “A” section move quickly while the chords in the “B” section last for longer) is a useful compositional tool to keep in mind should you feel stuck. 

Other be-bop era examples

Several Great American Songbook era standards were used by the first generation of be-bop musicians (Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis et. al) as the basis for new compositions. A famous example is Parker’s tune “Ornithology”, based on “How High The Moon.” Comparing the two, we see some similarities. Both use 32-bar A-B-A-C (or A-B-A-B’) forms. Both start in the key of G, then switch from major to minor in the 3rd bar, setting up a move to F in the 5th bar. Another major to minor move in bar 7 brings us to E-flat in the 9th bar. The melody of “Ornithology” echoes “How High the Moon”’s D-G-A-B figure (circled in blue) in the first bar and the D-G-A-Bb figure in the third bar when the harmony shifts to minor.

The roots of a contrafact can be a little harder to trace when the new composition is in a different key than the original. However, by looking at relationships between the chords, we can still see parallels. An example of this is Parker’s “Donna Lee”, composed and usually played in the key of A-flat and based on “(Back Home Again in) Indiana”, usually played in the key of F. Though they look different, closer examination reveals that they follow the same blueprint. Like the pair discussed above, both are 32-bar A-B-A-C tunes. Both start with a I-VI7-II7 cadence (F – D7 – G7 or Abmaj7 – F7 – Bb7), then return to the I chord in bar 7. Both arrive at the IV chord in bar 9, use either the #iv diminished or the iv minor chord in bar 10 and return to the I chord in bar 11 before an extended turnaround sets up the next A section. At bar 23, both tunes have modulated into the relative minor (d for “Indiana” and f for “Donna Lee.”) Both tunes use a diminished chord in bar 28 as a pivot to return to the home key at the end of the form.

As a composer, comparing “Donna Lee” and “Indiana” can provide valuable insight into how one piece of music can be elaborated upon and transformed into something else. As an improvisation-oriented performer, understanding the roots of “Donna Lee” – a tune that has something of an intimidating reputation in jazz circles – can help give the musician a place to start learning it.

“Jake’s Shuffle”

Composer David Lockeretz on “Jake’s Shuffle”

I had a young student named Jake who was a fan of classic rock and blues. One day I came up with a riff that I thought he’d have fun playing. The riff sounded like it belonged on the turnaround of a Delta-style blues progression, but I decided to make it the main riff of the tune rather than using it as the turnaround. When I was messing with it, I decided to stay in the I chord instead of going to the IV chord in the fifth bar, as would be typical for a blues progression. I was in the key of D, with drop-D tuning, which Jake enjoyed, and that got me thinking about “So What” and “Impressions” – the two seminal modal jazz tunes, both of which are in that key. I decided to take that modal progression – 16 bars of D, 8 bars of Eb, 8 bars of D – and play it with the blues feel. I did some things to change it up a little – I started off with a vamp, brought in an element of orchestration by having the bass double the guitar on the turnaround line and I also wrote a new melody on the bridge, whereas “So What” and “Impressions” play the melody up a half step on the bridge. Long story short: “Jake’s Shuffle” didn’t start out as a contrafact, per se, but as I was developing it I realized that it might work with the modal progression. Once I saw that, it gave the tune a ready-made outline.

Additional resources

Articled with examples and analysis here and here

Article about baritone saxophonist and prolific contrafact composer Gary Smulyan here

Partial list of notable jazz contrafacts here

One last example

“Tide” by Antonio Carlos Jobim is a Latin jazz contrafact. Listen to it and see if you can identify the original progression and its composer.

Why is music written in a particular key?

Image courtesy of Ethan Hein

Why do composers and songwriters write their music in a particular key?

As a composer, instrumentalist or even as a listener, understanding key centers and why they are chosen can be useful. Certain key centers have been historically associated with particular concepts or moods; for example, A and G have been considered “military” keys while E-flat (key of Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony and “Emperor” concerto) is considered royal or heroic. The characteristics of particular keys even works its way into the rock’n’roll parody film “This Is Spinal Tap” in which Christopher Guest’s character describes d minor as “the saddest of all keys.” 

There can be any number of reasons why a musician can elect to choose a particular key center for writing or performing. For many singer-songwriters, the key is often chosen to fit their own vocal range. Instrumentalists who write their own music might similarly be influenced by the strengths or limitations of their instrument. On the piano, the keys of C major and a minor are the most accessible, as their diatonic scales consist of all natural notes. On the other hand, stringed instruments are often better suited to the “sharp” side of the Circle of Fifths, in keys such as G, D, A and E and woodwinds are aligned for the “flatted” keys such as F, B-flat and E-flat.

When writing music, trying new keys can be a good way to break out of ruts, either for finding inspiration for a new piece or fine-tuning an existing one; for example, if a piece feels as if it is missing something, playing it in a different key might shed new light on it and make it feel more complete. For composers who write on and for a specific instrument, breaking out of the commonly used keys for that instrument can be a good technical challenge and a way of exploring new sounds. Guitarists and other stringed instrumentalists in particular can explore new sounds even without the technical demands of non-friendly keys by tuning down or using capos and electronic keyboards can be manipulated to accomplish the same thing.

Following are a few examples of why certain Outside Pedestrian tunes have been written in specific keys.

Instrumental considerations

Since O.P. is a guitar and bass oriented band, much of the music has been written on those instruments. 

Open strings

Anthony Fesmire: The open strings on the guitar have a particular color, brought out in the Em9 chord at the beginning of “The Sound” and the power chords at the beginning of “Dream.”

David Lockeretz: In ‘Marbakki’, by writing it in the key of D and using drop-D tuning, the first three notes are all played on open strings, which fills up space. Filling up space without necessarily playing more notes is a goal with O.P. because there are only two melodic instruments. In ”Marbakki” in particular, there are no harmonies or counterpoint, so being able to play those three notes on open strings is a big part of how the tune sounds. The bass riff in “Northern California Highway Song” has a similar origin. By setting it in g minor, the first three notes – G, A, D – are all open strings, and that fills up the space.

Fretted notes instead of open strings

Sometimes on a guitar or bass, a fretted note offers advantages an open string doesn’t have.

Lockeretz: “Rattlesnakes” is in f minor because even though the melody is pretty intricate, the harmonies are simple and the bass spends a lot of time on that low F [first fret on the lowest string]. Having it as a fretted note, rather than an open string as it would have been in the key of e minor, gives me more choices for articulating it. I can mute with either hand, instead of just the right. Also, the tune was originally written for a pre-Outside Pedestrian band that had an alto sax player and by playing it in f minor, the highest note of the melody was the same as the highest note on the alto, which helped give it the sharpness we were looking for. At one point we tried playing it in d minor and something was missing. It didn’t have the same punch.


Fesmire: Depending on the composition, it may be necessary for chords, melodies, etc. to fall in a low, middle, or high range on an instrument to achieve the proper effect. For example, the A section of “Tower One” uses chord voicings that move progressively higher. In this case, A was chosen as the key center to accommodate the climbing nature of this section.

Other considerations

Key center journey

Not all music stays in the same key from start to finish; in fact, if you find yourself stuck, jumping to a new key center can be a good technique for unlocking new ideas. Sometimes, simply repeating the same material in the new key can be enough to move the composition forward; the jazz standard “What’s New” features an A-A-B-A- form in which the B section is the same as the A, but in a different key.  

Fesmire: If a composition moves through a variety of key centers, the original key will impact those relationships. For example, my tune “Dream” starts in e minor and moves to g minor (an adaptation of the relative major). G was used because of its relationship to E. 


A contrafact is a piece of music based on a previous work. Charlie Parker was one of the first jazz musicians to extensively explore the concept: His tune “Donna Lee” is based on the old swing standard “Indiana” and another of his signature compositions, “Ornithology” is based on “How High the Moon.” A more recent example is Mike Stern’s tune “One-Liners”, based on the standard “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise.” 

Outside Pedestrian contrafacts include “Tweaked” (based on “Speak No Evil” by Wayne Shorter) and “Jake’s Shuffle” (based on “So What” by Miles Davis). A contrafact does not have to be in the same key as its source material, but it’s a logical place to start. 

Where do you hear it?

Sometimes the seed of an idea comes when the composer is not near an instrument. If the composer is able to keep the fragment in their head, when they get to an instrument (assuming they don’t have perfect pitch) they can figure out the key in which they first internally heard the idea. 

Lockeretz: I came up with the riff for “Big Leo” when I was away from any instrument. When I got a chance to play it, I figured out that I was hearing it in c-sharp minor. I don’t think I’d ever tried writing anything in that key, so I decided to go with it.  

Additional resources

Article about the characteristics of musical keys

Article about why composers might pick a certain key

Article with examples of jazz contrafacts

Behind the musical evolution of Outside Pedestrian’s arrangement of Bach’s “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” (Exploring process of remote creative collaboration)

The last “Ask O.P.” focused on some of the technical challenges we encountered in creating our remote performance video of our arrangement of J.S. Bach’ “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” In this post, we will discuss some of the creative challenges of working remotely.

Why “Jesu?”

At the outset of the 2020 holiday season, we had already created a virtual performance of “Two By Two” from our “Reclaimed” record and had reunited with our original drummer, Steve Tashjian, to record new versions of “Southern California Highway Song” and “Northern California Highway Song” from our first record, “Pedestrian Crossing.” After creating virtual performance videos for both of those songs, we wanted to continue exploring this format but did not have any new material and did not want to simply redo another tune. We decided to take a recognizable but not overplayed holiday song and create our own version of it.

Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” checked several boxes for us. We liked the idea of taking a classical (Baroque era) work and writing a contemporary-sounding arrangement of it; this is in keeping with the trio’s mission statement of modern eclecticism. Both Anthony Fesmire and David Lockeretz have enjoyed exploring the works of J.S. Bach, absorbing his influence as a composer and challenging themselves by playing the difficult melodic lines for which he is famous. Over the summer, the guitarist and bassist recorded virtual duets of two of Bach’s two-part inventions. “Jesu” seemed to be a logical continuation. 

The original arrangement

While the final arrangement featured a minor key guitar solo, the original version modulated to E-flat major. The modulation was set up by the final V7 chord (D7) of the first section, moving up half a step to the new key. The same idea was used to transfer to the bass solo: the V7 chord (Bb7) in measure 50 set up the move a half-step higher to the new key of B. With F#7 being the V7 chord in the key of B, the same method could have been used to return to the home key of G major. However, we opted for a drum solo (8 bars open, 8 bars over a melodic figure) before returning to the recapitulation of the melody.

The changes

The first change was to simplify the chord progression for the guitar solo.

The change from major to minor

On one of the Zoom calls in which we discussed the arrangement, the idea of changing the guitar solo to a minor key was brought up. The goal was to create tonal and harmonica variety in a way often done by Bach himself, as seen in this example from the original composition, where the music has left the home key of G major for the new key of A minor.

There was also a debate about whether the drum solo should stay. 

After trying a few different things, a drum solo was decided upon and the drum parts for the guitar and bass solo were scrutinized more closely.

Recording logistics also played a role in fine-tuning the arrangement and performance direction.

After a few more exchanges, the arrangement, performances and mixes were finalized.

Finally, the music was mixed and mastered, the videos were made and it was all put together.

David Lockeretz: “It was challenging but rewarding, both creatively and technologically. Musically, it laid the groundwork for us to explore new ways of collaborating as well as for exploring new interpretations of the classical repertoire. We’re all looking forward to being able to record and perform together in person, but in the mean time, we’re grateful to be able to keep our musical connection alive remotely and continue to create new music to share.”

How we create virtual performances

This edition of “Ask OP” is a response to some questions we’ve received about our recent video about creating virtual performances. It is a written summary of and supplement to the material covered in the video. 


Our first step is a Zoom call in which we discuss what song to perform, if we want to make any changes to the arrangement, or in the case of our performance of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” to create the arrangement. Since we have not been able to rehearse or even visit with each other in person since before the pandemic, interacting via Zoom, rather than just on a conference call, makes the meeting feel more inspiring.


Using either Finale or its offshoot PrintMusic, a lead sheet for the arrangement is created and shared via Google Drive. Anthony Fesmire then creates a play-along track with Logic Pro X, including MIDI drums and bass with a scratch guitar part. The track is then mixed down, both with and without bass and sent to David Lockeretz.

Virtual Performance blog post image 01


David Lockeretz, using a PreSonus Audiobox USB 96 with Studio One software, imports the file and adds his bass track. After completing it, he sends just the bass track back to Anthony, who imports it back into Logic Pro X. The new track is then sent to David Oromaner, who adds his drums in the same manner, also with Logic Pro X. With a completed rhythm section track in place, Anthony adds his final guitar parts. 

Virtual Performance blog post image 02a

Importing the play-along and exporting the finished bass track. Note in the second image that the play-along is muted so only the bass is heard in the mix that is sent back. Note too how the date is part of the file name to help make sure that the most recent version of the track is being used.


After the rough mixes are finished and heard by all the band members, Anthony will do a final mix and then master the track. 


As we are recording the audio tracks, we also record video on our smartphones or computer cameras. David Lockeretz sometimes prefers to record the video and audio components separately: “This approach can take longer, but I like being able to focus on one thing at a time. By locking in the audio recording that I’m happy with and then filming myself playing along to it, I feel looser when I’m doing both steps. On a tune like ‘Northern California Highway Song’ where there’s a bass solo, however, this approach doesn’t work as well because it’s hard to replay something that’s improvised. If just a note or two is off, I can let it slide, but I don’t want it to be obvious.” 

After the videos are completed, Anthony puts them together with the audio track in Final Cut Pro.

Virtual Performance blog post image 03


According to David Oromaner, “The biggest challenges are time and communication. When you’re doing something remotely, if you have an idea, instead of mentioning it face to face, you have to send an email and you’re waiting for the response. You’re waiting for someone to get back to you, which could take a day or two. But the end result is really inspiring in that we are all in different parts of the country and can still do this kind of work together.”

Lockeretz adds, “It does require a few extra steps; my parts tend to be more ambiguous at first, leaving the other players different options for what they can add on. After I hear what one of them did, I may end up changing my part. The convenience of digital recording is a blessing and a curse: it’s great to be able to record a part from my own home on my own schedule, but it’s tempting to keep editing and tweaking beyond the point of which the track actually sounds better.”


Lockeretz: “As a geographically spread-out band, yes. In 2020, we did a total of four virtual performances, complete with new audio and video, and we also did some short promos for Anthony’s new solo record, so we are getting used to the process, figuring out what works best for us. Of course, we are looking forward to playing and recording in person when circumstances permit, but if there’s been one good thing to come out of the pandemic for us it’s that we were inspired to explore this new way of creating music.”

Here is another article about creating a virtual performance.

What is modal interchange? (A special tribute to Chick Corea and “500 Miles High”)

As we look back on the life and music of Chick Corea, we want to take this opportunity not just to pay tribute to one of his most famous compositions but to discuss how it utilizes a deceptively simple concept called “modal interchange.”

Modal interchange involves borrowing harmonies from the parallel major or minor of the primary key (or mode.) For example, if the main key of the composition is G major, a songwriter or composer can employ modal interchange by using chords from G minor. This can add additional color while maintaining the continuity of the tonality. George Harrison used modal interchange in “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”: the verses are in A minor while the bridges are in A major. Understanding modal interchange and recognizing examples of it can help an improviser analyze a chord progression and spot the relationships between keys, while for composers and songwriters, it can be a gateway to exploring new harmonic territory.

Chick Corea’s “500 Miles High” is a rare example of a tune that has found an audience beyond the jazz world while also remaining a favorite within the community, being recorded and performed countless times the original Return to Forever version of 1973. With use of modal interchange, Corea creates a chord progression that is unpredictable enough to be interesting to player and audience alike while also providing continuity and consistency, allowing the band to really cut loose.

We start off in E minor. The move to G in bar 3 is expected, because G major is the relative major of E minor (they share the same notes). However, by going to G minor instead of the predicable major, Corea employs modal interchange. The next chord, B-flat major 7 (bar 5) is also from this borrowed key center; B-flat is the relative major of G minor.

Following this, the progression enters a minor ii-V-i setup to a new key, A minor, reached in the 9th bar. The next chord, F#m7b5 (bar 11) hints at a possible return to E minor as the ii chord of another ii-V-i sequence. Instead, we go to Fm7 (13) which leads to Cm11 (15). This is another example of modal interchange as, given the new key of A minor, F maj 7 and C maj 7 would be the expected chords. The Cm11 serves as a pivot: it starts as the i minor chord of a new key center, but by moving to B7 (bar 17), it becomes the flat 6 of a turnaround to the original key of E minor, with B7 serving as the V7 chord.

Here is a summary of each chord and the role it performs.

Like any compositional tool, modal interchange is just that – a tool that can give the musician another way to express themselves. “500 Miles High” presents some interesting and instructional examples of modal interchange but more importantly, it has communicated emotion to listeners and performers for almost 50 years as one of Chick Corea’s many lasting contributions to the world of music.


Is “Giant Steps” really the hardest jazz standard to play?

Image courtesy of Ethan Hein

For rock guitarists, it’s Van Halen’s “Eruption.” In classical music, it’s “Flight of the Bumblebee.” For bluegrass banjo pickers, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” Every genre of music has one work that, more than any other, serves as a rite of passage. You don’t have to spend years in the jazz community to know which tune fits that role.

Whether John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” is the most difficult jazz standard of all time is a matter of opinion, but most would agree that more than any other contender, its name serves as shorthand for improvisation intimidation. Vox calles it “the most feared song in jazz.” The Jamey Aebersold series has a volume devoted entirely to helping students master the progression. Ever since pianist Tommy Flanagan struggled with the changes at the original recording session, jazz musicians have seen mastery of the “Coltrane Progression” as the genre’s holy grail. Like ultra-marathoners or actors who have worked for a notoriously demanding director, most jazz musicians have a “Giant Steps” war story or two. The tune has been a reference point for more than half a century. How many jazz standards become memes?

Since the 60th anniversary edition of Giant Steps with the all the  previously unreleased alternate takes drops today, I reckon Flanagan memes  are back on the table : jazzcirclejerk

What makes “Giant Steps” difficult? The two main things are that it is usually played very fast (Coltrane’s original recording was north of 300 beats per minute) and that the chord progression constantly jumps from one key center to another, making it an obstacle course for the improviser. Once the musician can navigate the chord changes, there is the challenge of making it their own. Since ‘Trane, multiple generations of musicians from Pat Metheny to New York Voices have performed and recorded it, so saying something new musically with it is not easy. 

All that being said, what are the advantages of learning “Giant Steps” more than 60 years after it was first recorded? 

Even those who never plan on performing “Giant Steps” can still glean benefits from learning it.  While every chord progression presents its own requirements, the process of acclimating to “Giant Steps” – finding an approach, practicing and perfecting it – and the musical vocabulary developed as a result can be applied almost anywhere: bluegrass, metal and more. Think of the Farmers Insurance commercial – “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.”

Spending time with “Giant Steps” can also provide a lesson in musical history. Like most seemingly radical innovations, “Giant Steps” didn’t come out of nowhere. Wikipedia cites Rodgers and Hart’s “Have You Met Miss Jones” as an influence: “The song’s bridge, featuring key motion by thirds, may have served as an inspiration to John Coltrane in the development of the ‘Coltrane changes.'” Going back even farther, Coltrane was also influenced by Nicolas Slonimsky’s “Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns.” Musicians who worked with Coltrane during the “Giant Steps” era report that he carried the book around everywhere. 

Another advantage of playing “Giant Steps” is that after spending time with it, almost everything else will seem effortless by comparison, just as after training at high altitudes, an athlete will find competing at sea level to be easier. There’s an old joke about a guy hitting himself with a hammer. When asked why he is hitting himself with a hammer, he says, “It feels so good when I stop.”

Since “Giant Steps” several challenging jazz tunes have entered the literature and shown some staying power. Jaco Pastorius’s “Teen Town” is a benchmark for bassists, as is Mike Stern’s “Chromazone” for guitarists and Michael Brecker’s “Syzygy” for saxophonists. Still, it seems unlikely that another standard will capture the imagination of the jazz world quite as “Giant Steps” did. As the study of jazz continues to grow in years to come, so will “Giant Steps” and its infamous and inspiring legacy.

“How much should I spend on an instrument?”

If you were the parent of a teenager who’d just gotten their license, what kind of car would you want to get them? Odds are it would be comfortable, reliable, fuel-efficient and have a few nice features, but it would probably not be a brand-new Ferrari. The same idea applies to musical instruments, especially for beginners. If it’s too cheap it will probably be poorly made and get in the way of your progress and enjoyment; too expensive and it will become a $10,000 wall decoration if you don’t stick with it. How do you find the happy medium?

Quality and features

Sometimes two different instruments may look virtually identical, but one could cost twenty times as much as the other. You can help yourself by knowing exactly what you are paying for. Instruments can vary in price for many reasons: handmade vs. factory made; American vs. import; quality of materials; in some cases, resale or collector’s value. Other instruments may have certain features that don’t specifically effect the quality, but add versatility. Some violins, mandolins, ukuleles and other stringed instruments may be able to be plugged while others can only be played acoustically. Some bass guitars have 5 or 6 strings as opposed to the standard 4; some guitars have 7 or more strings. Some electric keyboards have the full 88 keys of a piano while others have fewer. In some cases the style of music you wish to perform may effect the instrument you buy: guitars designed for flamenco or classical are built differently from those made for folk or acoustic rock; bluegrass banjos are made differently from those used in dixieland jazz. Parents can use special features as a “carrot” with kids who want to play an instrument by buying a simpler model first and rewarding effort with a fancier one (“Oh, so you want to be a rock star? Okay, it’s a year of lessons on a used acoustic and then we’ll get you the electric.”)

Brands alone don’t always matter

One difference between musical gear and cars or clothes is that you are rarely paying for JUST a brand name. Some boutique manufacturers sell exclusively high end gear, but these are instruments that are likely to be only sought after by and sold to musicians who have been playing a long time and know very specifically what they want. Most major names have instruments at different price points, usually including a solid, inexpensive entry level option. It may be cheaper because it is made overseas or because the materials are inexpensive, but the quality is likely to be adequate for a beginner. Many online retailers have systems for customers to rate and review their purchases. Are the reviews of the instrument that costs more than your mortgage payment better than those of the budget model? What do buyers like better about the more expensive instrument? Are they factors that would make a difference for a beginner? If you plan on making a purchase in a store, you can take advantage of the wealth of real-world information online and research it. As with buying a car, knowledge is power when dealing with sales people.

Hard numbers

Here are a few examples from the online retailer Musicians Friend, from January 25th, 2016 (subject to change, of course)

Trumpet, $129 (on sale, normally sells for $179), 4.5 out of 5 rating from 88 reviewers

Clarinet, $689, 5 out of 5 rating from 3 reviews

Violin, $269, 4 out of 5 rating from 14 reviews

Drums, $385, 4.5 out of 5 rating from 40 reviews (includes only the shells: no cymbals, hardware or bags. Most musical instruments will have accessories and parts that may or may not be included in the price.)

Soprano ukulele, $33, 4.5 out of 5 rating from 17 reviews (the most common kind of ukulele is called the Concert Ukulele, but there are several other varieties as well, including soprano, tenor and bass.)

Additional thoughts

Here are a few resources to check out for more ideas on purchasing gear. Happy buying!

10 tips for buying music instruments online (Making Music Mag)

5 ways to save money on musical instruments (CD Baby)

Advice for buying new music gear (Teen Jazz)

5 tips for buying your first guitar (Guitar Friendly)

Tips on buying a classical string instrumentTips on buying a classical string instrument (American Music Institute)

What are some ways to break out of “ruts” in improvisation?

It’s easy to get stuck in a routine. You find something that works and you want to stick to it. You rely on the same few riffs for your solos and they get you through the gig–but ultimately you want more. We have seen many students go through this; even veteran musicians feel stuck from time to time. We’ve had those moments ourselves. To that point, here are a few ideas about how to break out of ruts and come up with fresh new improvisational ideas.

Practice the chord progression slower. When you take a familiar chord progression – a 12-bar blues, a jazz standard, a modal progression – and play it slower than you are used to, you will hear it differently.  Your phrasing and note choice will automatically sound unlike how it sounded before.  Riffs that sound good at 120 beats per minute might not sound as good at 80 and vice versa.  You may find it awkward and not like how it sounds, but as with any part of your musical experience, ideas and concepts often have to feel uncomfortable before they feel comfortable.  You can also try playing the progression faster than you are used to, but since it’s usually more of a challenge to play slowly, try doing that first.

Practice the chord progression in different keys. Being comfortable improvising in any key is a great benchmark for any musician to attain.  Certain instruments are aligned to play well in specific keys – “C” for the piano; “E” or “A” for guitar; “G” for banjo; “B-Flat” for trumpet, etc.  If you are playing in a key that is friendly to your instrument, it’s easy to revert to familiar riffs.  If you force yourself outside of that comfort zone, you may discover new ideas that you can translate back to the original key.

One note. There’s a lot of focus on: “What scale should I play?  What tensions should I use?”  This is important stuff, but there’s plenty more that goes into an effective solo.  By picking just one note and creating a solo with it, you can focus on dynamics, phrasing, articulation and other elements of improvisation that sometimes take a back seat to note choice.

Two on, two off.  Solo for two measures; leave space for two measures.  Get used to the sound of space; it is a valuable improvisational tool.

Sing along. If you are playing piano, guitar or any other non-wind instrument, sing along with yourself as you play.  It will force you to play lines that are more purposeful.  If you play a wind instrument, try singing along to the chord progression and then improvising over it; you may find that singing, instead of being tied to your instrument, gives you new ideas.

W.W.T.D.? What would Trane do?  Or Miles?  Hendrix?  Metheny?  Stevie Ray?  Listen, transcribe and find out.

Take a break.   You don’t have to solo on every single song your band or ensemble plays.  If you knew that during your set you would only have one or two solos, you would likely save your best ideas for them.  Plus, allowing other people the chance to solo in your stead will make you very popular on the bandstand.

“What are some good online resources for practicing improvisation?”

Ah, if I only had a Jamey Aebersold play-along for every time I was asked this, I’d have the whole series.

Practicing and playing music with your friends can be difficult.  Finding a place to play and organizing everyone’s schedules can be tricky and on top of that, all of the musicians need to be of similar ability levels and have compatible goals and interests.  Many community colleges and local music schools offer classes in jazz and other contemporary styles but while these can be valuable resources, they might not provide you with the individualized attention you need.  A good private teacher can be a tremendous help, but not everyone has the money for that.

However, the good news is that there are many great online resources to help students practice improvisation. While cyberspace can’t provide the experience of interacting face-to-face with other musicians or give you feedback on your performance, it can be a reasonable alternative especially if you have limited opportunities to play in ensembles.

Learn Jazz Standards has an extensive collection of Youtube videos containing play-along tracks and a website where students can download chord charts for free and play-along tracks for $1.99.  The site also contains videos for each song that help students get more in-depth looks at the chord progressions.

QG Videos also features play-along tracks to jazz standards; the videos show the chord charts for the tunes.  The Youtube channel offers several alternative versions of each track, including up tempo or slow and no piano.

Sometimes you might not want to practice an entire chord progression but just a section, such as a “ii-V-I” progression.  Learn Jazz Now’s channel features several such videos, such as this one in the key of C – and for those who want something a little different, the same progression in the key of G-Flat.

Jazz Everyone offers a mix of instructional videos, play-along tracks and downloadable sheet music, including etudes based on popular chord progressions and concepts such as chromaticism and ii-V-I progressions.  Some of the material is free; some of it can be accessed with a paid membership.

Jazz Practice Loops also offers play-along tracks, including ii-V-I progressions in all twelve keys as well as several articles about theory, scales, intervals and more.

While it’s not as interactive, Jazz Advice features articles about many aspects of musicianship, improvisation and jazz.  including this one about how to hear chord changes and this list of ten essential jazz standards.

What about resources for smartphones for musicians on the go?  Jazz Apps Mobile offers a series of fairly inexpensive apps that focus on aspects of improvisation including scales, progressions and even a jazz theory quiz.

These are just a few of the many products and sites available to help musicians with improvisation.  Technology has made us a global society and music is the universal language so it’s only natural that cyberspace can provide the answers to the challenges one faces in becoming a great musician.

It should be noted that the sites listed above were picked by Outside Pedestrian because of their musical and educational value.  The band did not accept any compensation or recognition by any of the publishers.  However, if any of said publishers happen to be reading this and would like to reciprocate us in any way, feel free to.

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