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mschlack's picture
Last seen: 1 year 8 months ago
Joined: Sep 2 2019 - 1:02pm
Fred Kaplan gets jazz improv all wrong in Russell review

Not sure if this is the best place to post this, but I just finished reading Fred Kaplan's review of George Russell's New York, NY in the April issue and his explanation of modal music was so bad I felt compelled to try and do better. As a long-time amateur jazz player (who has played and studied with pros), I was appalled.

I don't know what Kaplan's musical bona fides are, but they don't seem to extend to understanding harmony and improvisation in jazz. He tries to contrast improvising in bebop with improvising modal music. He makes several howler errors:

1. For some reason he thinks that improvisation happens twelve measures at a time. Wrong! It just follows the song form. Many tunes have 8 bar sections, others 16, 24 or 32. For example, when people say a tune has an AABA structure, they usually mean two 8-bar choruses, an 8-bar bridge and a final 8-bar chorus. Yes, the blues is often a twelve bar form, but can also be 8 bars.

2. Worse, he says beboppers had to improvise using only the notes in the chords. Wrong again. It is true that most jazz players -- not just beboppers -- improvise to the chords as they change. Each chord tells them what notes to play, but in a much richer way than he says. Every chord implies a key, and so every note in that key is a possibility. Some chords can be altered or substituted for, so that's another possibility. For example, Monk often would play a 7th chord with an added #9 or b9. And finally, jazz generally adheres to what's known as functional harmony, a system where the fact that a chord is either major, minor or dominant signals how to create and resolve tensions -- where to go next, in other words.

3. So it's not true then, that beboppers didn't play scales. They played scales all day long -- just listen to Bird. The difficulty is that they might have to play a DIFFERENT scale for every chord. Playing a bebop tune at high speed meant being, in a way, a slave to this constantly changing scalar landscape. It can feel like the tune is playing you, not the other way around. And many musicians wished they could stretch out and concentrate more on creating a compelling melody in their solo than just touching all the right chord tones.

4. Modal music helped them do that by reversing the relationship, to a degree, between chords and solo lines. The chords were written to all work in a given mode (usually Lydian, Mixolydian, Dorian or for a more Spanish feel, Phrygian). Herbie Hancock was a master of modal chording -- think of Maiden Voyage. This way, the soloist could float over the chords, creating a melody that works with them but is not compelled to constantly reference each change. It's a bit like how rock players often play over the blues without too much reference to the changes. Eric Clapton's blues aren't the same as Bird's!

Modal scales, for technical reasons, can have chords not usually heard in bebop (again, Maiden Voyage), and in some modes, there are simply fewer chords (as you go through the scale, a chord may turn out to be the same notes as another chord, just in a different order), so that also creates a different dynamic.

Ultimately, Kaplan gets it right that modal music allows the improviser more freedom, or at least a more relaxed setting to improvise in. I don't expect an audiophile reviewer to be a music theory expert, but if any writer is going to go into the kind of detail he does, then it's incumbent on the writer to do a better job of getting it right. I'm sure some of you will take issue with my attempt at music theory. I don't swear it's all 100% correct, but I think it's closer to the truth than Kaplan, by far.

Fred Kaplan
Fred Kaplan's picture
Last seen: 1 year 3 weeks ago
Joined: Nov 7 2010 - 4:32pm
In re whether I get jazz improv all wrong

I plead guilty to simplifying, maybe even oversimplifying, but I think some of the criticism here is a bit picky. When talking about 12 bars, etc., I did add the phrase "with variations." I didn't mean to suggest (and sorry if it came out that way) that all boppers played in 12-bar phrases. I was being illustrative. As to my main point, I will cite Miles Davis' words, from a Nat Hentoff interview around this time: “When you go this way [modes], you can go on forever. You don’t have to worry about changes, ad you can do more with time. It becomes a challenge to see how melodically inventive you are. When you’re based on chords, you know at the end of thirty-two bars that the chords have run out and there’s nothing to do but repeat what you’ve done, with variations.” (Italics added.) And yes, of course, Parker, etc., played scales, but, as you say, they were geared to certain chords, whereas modalism allowed the soloist to detach from "the deadline of a chord." Otherwise, I think much of what you're saying amounts to a different (somewhat more detailed) way of saying what I had written...Fred Kaplan

Allen Fant
Allen Fant's picture
Last seen: 1 week 3 days ago
Joined: Sep 12 2010 - 3:42pm
Thank You for both

Thank You for both perspectives.
Keep writing Jazz reviews- FK. I enjoy reading your work!

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