Modal jazz

Modal jazz is jazz that makes use of musical modes often modulating between them instead of relying on one tonal center. Although precedents exist, modal jazz was crystallized as a theory by composer George Russell in his 1953 book Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization.

Though exerting influence to the present, Modal jazz was most popular in the 1950s and 1960s, as evidenced by the success of Miles Davis's 1958 composition "Milestones", 1959 album Kind of Blue, and John Coltrane's quartet from 1960–64,[1] both of which were directly inspired by Russell.[2] Other performers of modal jazz include Chick Corea, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, Bobby Hutcherson, Pharoah Sanders, Woody Shaw, Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, and Larry Young.[1]


In bebop as well as in hard bop, musicians use chords to provide the background for solos. A song starts out with a theme that introduces a series of chords for the solos. These chords repeat throughout the whole song, while the soloists play new, improvised themes over the repeated chord progression. By the 1950s, improvising over chords had become such a dominant part of jazz, that sidemen at recording dates were sometimes given nothing more than a list of chords to play from.

Mercer Ellington has stated that Juan Tizol conceived the melody to "Caravan" in 1936 as a result of his days studying music in Puerto Rico, where they couldn't afford much sheet music so the teacher would turn the music upside down after they had learned to play it right-side up.[3] This "inversion" technique led to a modal sound throughout Tizol's work.[3]

Saxophonist Wayne Shorter has noted that the 1953 song "Glass Enclosure" by pianist Bud Powell was one of the earliest jazz songs to make use of Lydian chords, based on the Lydian mode that was not widely used in jazz until about a decade later.[4]

Towards the end of the 1950s, spurred by the experiments of composer and bandleader George Russell, musicians began using a modal approach. They chose not to write their pieces using conventional chord changes, but instead using modes. Musicians employing this technique include Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, and Wayne Shorter.

Among the significant compositions of modal jazz were "So What" by Miles Davis and "Impressions" by John Coltrane.[5] "So What" and "Impressions" follow the same AABA song form and were in D Dorian for the A sections and modulated a half step up to E-flat Dorian for the B section. The Dorian mode is the natural minor scale with a raised sixth. Other compositions include Davis's "Flamenco Sketches", Bill Evans's "Peace Piece", and Shorter's "Footprints".[5]

Miles Davis recorded one of the best selling jazz albums of all time in this modal framework. Kind of Blue is an exploration of the possibilities of modal jazz.[8][5] Davis acknowledged the crucial role played by Bill Evans, a former member of George Russell's ensembles, in his transition from hard bop to modal playing. Although his explorations of modal jazz were sporadic throughout the 1960s, he included several of the tunes from Kind of Blue in the repertoire of his second quintet.

Coltrane took the lead in extensively exploring the limits of modal improvisation and composition with his quartet, featuring Elvin Jones (drums), McCoy Tyner (piano), and Reggie Workman and Jimmy Garrison (bass). Several of Coltrane's albums from the period are recognized as examples of modal jazz: Africa/Brass (1961),[5] Live! at the Village Vanguard (1962), Crescent (1964), A Love Supreme (1964),[5] and Meditations (1965). Coltrane's compositions from this period such as "India," "Chasin' the Trane," "Crescent," and "Impressions" have entered the jazz repertoire, along with his interpretations of standards like Richard Rodgers's "My Favorite Things", and the traditional "Greensleeves".


  1. Henry Martin, Keith Waters (2008). Essential Jazz: The First 100 Years, p.178-79. ISBN 978-0-495-50525-9.
  2. Berendt, Joachim (1976). The Jazz Book. Paladin. p. 357.
  3. Ellington, Mercer (24 April 2011) [1994]. "Mercer Ellington On Piano Jazz". Piano Jazz (Interview). Interviewed by Marian McPartland. 13:50. Retrieved 2013-12-03. Well Tizol did the melody, and he said that, you know, he used to hear those unusual melodies, because in Puerto Rico where he studied, they were very poor and they couldn't afford too much music. So in order to make them get more practice and get varied compositions, they'd turn the music upside down. And the result, you get that modal sound that comes from most of the things Tizol's involved in.
  4. Mercer, Michelle (2007) Footprints: The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter. Penguin.
  5. Sutro, Dirk (2011). Jazz for Dummies. ISBN 978-1-118-06852-6.
  6. Kernfeld, Barry (1997). What to Listen for in Jazz, p.68. ISBN 978-0-300-07259-4.
  7. Herder, Ronald (1987). 1000 Keyboard Ideas, p.75. ISBN 978-0-943748-48-1.
  8. Miller, Michael (2008). The Complete Idiot's Guide to Music History, . ISBN 978-1-59257-751-4.
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