How to improvise in modal jazz: Understanding “So What” by Miles Davis

Hi Jazz Fans!

I wanted to give you a brief introduction to the idea of "modal jazz."  We're going to look at probably the most famous example of modal jazz, a tune called "So What," by Miles Davis and Bill Evans.

We're looking at this piece because (1) it was part of a ground-breaking approach to jazz improvisation and composition when it came out, and it's still definitive of the modal jazz genre (maybe the definitive  recording?) (2) because "So What" is the best-known track on one of top-selling jazz albums of all time, "Kind of Blue."

It seems to me that contemporary modal improv, which had its jazz  birth in the late 1950's, was a huge influence on the increasingly improvisational rock of the 1960's, (even when players might not have consciously realized it!), and has never stopped being at the heart of so many great pop/rock/jazz solos until this very day.

My goal here is to show you enough about modal improvisation for you to start jamming along with these guys, as they improvise on this classic tune.  The way to "jam along" here is to play your own improvised lines along with each soloist in the recording.  In that sense, you and the soloists will be improvising simultaneously. This kind of interwoven "conversation" is not unheard of in jazz, so don't feel like you're interrupting the masters LOL.

There are three links below to YouTube videos of "Kinda Blue," as taken from the original recording.

In a nutshell, modal jazz is more concerned with exploring scales and modes than with creating melodies based on chord progressions.  I've included a link to an excellent Wikipedia article on modal jazz, in case you want to know more.  For now, this article is sufficient in terms of experiencing and practicing the modal approach.

(1) "So What" explores improvised melodies using the "Dorian" mode.  (The terms "scale" and "mode" are sometimes used interchangeably, and the distinction is somewhat academic, depending on the context ).

(2)  If you start on "D" and play every white key on the piano, going up or down one white key at a time (as in D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D.), you have just played a Dorian scale.

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