Happy New Year everyone. Hope 2000 was as great a year for you as it was for me and I hope 2001 is even better. 

The following is a letter from an AAJ fan with some questions about scales and improvisation. I was asked to try and wrestle these questions to the ground and turn the answers into an article (or two). Check out the letter: 

I have a question, which might make a good topic for an article - maybe. In an old interview with Frank Zappa I read a while back, he talks a bit about his guitar playing and some of the nuts and bolts of his group's improvisations. He makes an interesting remark about how in an improv; the soloist (i.e. Frank himself) might think, "let's play a mixolydian scale here" at the exact moment that his bassist might think, "oh, let's play a diminished scale here". Basically he's saying that this would not be a desirable effect in his guitar solo pieces and that coordinating the harmonic setting/events of the improvisation is an important part of his performances. 

Now, I fully realize that 'way out' kind of jazz would be full of clashing harmonies as Frank is fact, consonance may even be something freer players would want to avoid. My question is at what point in jazz do we start to hear players no longer playing in complete 'scalar agreement' with one another? I'm not talking necessarily about total dissonance or atonality or bitonality...I'm talking about one guy playing mixolydian and another guy playing dorian with the same root, possibly by 'mistake' during an improv. (Also, let's exclude from discussion any incidental use of chromatic scales...) 

Did this kind of thing happen in pre-free jazz? Or did it happen later? When a hard bop group saw Cmaj7 on the lead sheet, did that mean they could only play one set of notes at that chord change? Or did Cmaj7 imply a number of possible scales (with a C root) from which each player could play from, regardless of what the rest of the band is doing? 

Michael, a rock guy trying to expand his horizons 

Well Michael, where to begin? 

First I want to say it's great that you're trying to expand your horizons (always a commendable endeavor) and I hope I can shed a little light on your new path.

First lets back up a moment and look at how musicians learn to improvise. I myself see two main ways. Let's call the first way the Charlie Parker method of learning to improvise. I'm sure Mr. Parker practiced, especially when he was younger, but his main way of learning was simply through experience, by listening to other great musicians around him. Through his incredible ears and gifted depth of creativity he picked out the hip ideas that other musicians were playing and then added his own to make those incredible new lines of his. He wasn't thinking a lot about scales or harmony, though of course he knew about harmony. He was mostly using his ears! The second way that a musician can learn to improvise let's call the John Coltrane method of learning to improvise. Trane was the opposite of Bird. He didn't stop practicing and studying. He slept with his horn so that he could start practicing the moment he got out of bed. He practiced on the breaks at gigs and every other free moment he could find. He was a searcher. He searched for new scales and modes from all over the world. He studied out of violin books and harp books. He used the Slonimsky book of scale patterns. Trane learned by studying as well as using his own incredible ears! 

So we have two very different ways of learning the mechanics of improvisation but, and here's the big but, when Bird or Trane got on the bandstand to perform neither of them spent much time "thinking"! In performance they were both in the same state of incredible self-awareness. The mechanics became unimportant on the bandstand and the emotional side of their improvisations took precedence. They played from their heart and soul. This is the key to their greatness. They both had an incredible natural gift for being able to open themselves up to their inner creativity and let out their amazing ideas with wonderful ease, excitement and wonder. 

Ok Michael I hear you. You still want to know the answers to your questions. Now I love Frank Zappa but I didn't read the article so I don't know the exact context he was talking about, but most musicians don't usually think Ok now I'm going to use a mixolydian scale here for this section and a diminished scale there for another. This has been done of course (Miles Davis - Kind of Blue for example and it sounds like Zappa also) but this isn't a very common way of setting up an improvisation section today. Also this isn't the only way to set up an improvisation section. In fact of all the hundreds of bands I've played in not one has ever said to me, "play a mixolydian scale here" or lets only play a diminished scale there. Never! Not in a straight-ahead band or a free band or a funk group. I'm either taught a piece by ear or I'm given music with written notes and chord symbols and I can make my note choices using any of the many tools at my disposal. Scales are merely one choice. Other choices include playing: arpeggios in thirds all the way up to the thirteenth of the chord, ideas based on the melody, alteration notes of dominant chords (flat 5, flat 9, sharp 5 and sharp 9), arpeggios in fourths, leading tones, intervals, trills, multiphonics (horn players), clusters (piano players) and various other devices depending on the style of the piece, the dissonance wanted, the tempo, etc. 

OK so you still want to know if a bass player can play a diminished scale and a soloist play a mixolydian scale and still sound good together. The answer is absolutely. But I don't know many bass players who only make their lines out of just one scale. For a moment he might play a part of a diminished scale and then the next he might play an arpeggio of the chord in thirds starting on the root and walk up to the 7th or whatever. If Zappa played a G mixolydian scale on a G7 chord and his bass player used a G diminished scale (both which work for a G7 chord) it wouldn't be a major clash. But actually the example that you gave wouldn't usually come about as most of the time it's the soloist that tends to play the more colorful or complicated or unusual scales (the diminished scale is much more colorful than the mixolydian mode as it has the flat 9, the sharp 9 and the flat five in it) and not the bass player unless it's the bass player that is soloing. The most common function of the bass player is to play the foundations of the chords, keying on the roots so the tonality can be heard. They should support the soloist and not play too many complicated ideas so the soloist can go where he or she wants. They try to keep an ear out to where the soloist is going and help if possible. This doesn't mean he has to play the same scale at the same time as the soloist. As a piano player I'm often playing very different scales than the bass player when I'm soloing. You see jazz is often built in melodic and harmonic layers. The bass player tends to play the lower notes (both in pitch and of the chord), the harmony instrument(s) tend to play around with the changes (altering those 5th s and 9ths - often in the middle range) and the soloist is on top of that. So you will hear different instruments playing different scales at the same time a lot and sound quite good together. 

OK Michael, let's start out part 2 by talking a little about "way out" jazz as you call it. First of all since the late forties there have been experiments with free improvisation, meaning using something other than chords as the foundation for improvisation. Most music then and now is based on chord symbols as the basis for improvisation. But a few creative souls have tried getting rid of the chord symbols and improvised freely using other ideas as the basis for improvisation. Pianist Lennie Tristano at a 1947 recording session told an engineer to keep the tape rolling as he had his band improvise a couple of pieces using no set chordal pattern or song of any kind. The music they played was actually quite beautiful and not very dissonant at all. The amazingly creative bandleader and composer Sun Ra used open sections in the music of his archestra also around this time. And of course the king of free improvisation that influenced everyone from John Coltrane to Sonny Rollins was the great Ornette Coleman. His compositions from the late fifties were very bebop oriented in the melodies that he wrote but they had no chord changes. Improvisations were based on the soloist's individual taste and creativity. Ornette used what he called harmolodics, which in oversimplified fashion meant that each person in the band could play in any key and switch keys whenever they wanted as long as the line they played made musical sense. This new style of improvisation became the revolutionary cry for freedom in music. But don't be mistaken and think that free or open music is easy to play or that people can just play what they want. And also don't think that there is only dissonance in this very difficult kind of music. Some open music is very beautiful, just listen to any of the wondrous free improvisations of the great Paul Bley on the ECM label. In all music there is a mixture of consonance and dissonance. They are two sides of the same coin. You need them both to make good music. I've played a lot of open music and to me this 

There's another kind of way out jazz they you might be referring to and this is the music that was developed in the 1960's by John Coltrane in his exploration of modes as a tool for improvisation. The idea of using modes in jazz was first used and written about by composer George Russell when he wrote a piece for Dizzy Gillespie's band called "Cubana Be" in 1947 as well as the book he wrote about his 'Lydian Chromatic' concept a few years later. Of course it was Miles Davis who first popularized the idea of using modes with his "Kind Of Blue" album in 1959. But "Kind Of Blue" was not very 'out there' at all as everyone on the album (Bill Evans, Cannonball, Coltrane etc.) pretty much played within the keys that the chord changes called for. It was Coltrane who really developed the idea to it's extreme over the next half dozen years or so. Coltrane discovered that he could use Ornette's idea of playing in any key at any time when improvising over chord changes as well. This idea worked great using modes as the basis for creating his lines and of course this worked best when playing compositions with only a few chord changes that would often last for 8 or 16 bars at a time. So the chords would remain static and Coltrane would play modes in many different keys over these static chords. Some of the keys would be more related to the chords sounding more consonant and others would be very unrelated and of course be very dissonant. 

Michael you were also asking about pre-free jazz improvisers. To me we need to talk about pre and post bebop improvisers. You see it was some of the beboppers who brought a more intellectual approach to jazz. Musicians like Monk and Dizzy would often talk about music theory and try to search for more advanced ideas to add into their music. Before so called bebop (not a term developed by the musicians themselves) most musicians approached improvisation usually by using their ears. They really didn't think much about the mixolydian mode or the diminished scale or even about chord changes. They heard songs in tonal areas and then improvised by ear. Most songs were not so complicated and so it wasn't difficult to play by ear. Of course there were always composers like Billy Strayhorn or Duke Ellington that tried to write some challenging harmonies in some of their pieces and there were a few advanced players like the incomparable Art Tatum who could play as much advanced harmony as any jazz player alive in the 1930's. When Charlie Parker was a young man he came to New York and took a job as a dishwasher in a club that Tatum was regularly performing just to hear him as much as possible and Tatum surely had a great influence on advancing Bird's ear for harmony as well as for playing super fast lines. But it wasn't until the early 1940's that musicians really found a desire to study harmony and scales in any depth. 

The hard bop players of the 1950's took this new knowledge and added another twist into the mix - funk. They kind of took all this knowledge and went to church. Of course this meant using less complicated ideas as well and going back to simpler ideas found in the blues. So Michael the answer to your question about hard bop players seeing a C Major 7 chord and being limited to playing only a certain scale or certain notes the answer is no. First because they were not just thinking about scales. They had other choices like arpeggios or other intervals to use as improvising tools as I said before. Also many hard-bop musicians would even play the blues scale over the C Major 7 chord as it helped to give a more soulful sound to even a standard. Check it out! 

Well Michael I hope I've answered your questions in a somewhat understandable way and look forward to tackling some more!