A masterclass from the November 2014 KEYBOARD archives.

When I was working with the great saxophonist Michael Brecker and he would play something outside of the chord changes, I would occasionally ask him, “What is that you’re playing?” Mike would often reply, “Oh, I don’t know. It’s basically a half-step up, half-step down kind of thing.” That may have been the case, but it was also Mike’s gentle way of saying that what he was playing was hard to describe in words. Often, what I respond to in a great solo is the artful balance of tension and release. In this lesson, let’s look at ways to take things “outside” to create tension when constructing solos.

1. Minor Mode Concepts

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Try playing Ex. 1 first over a straight C minor modal groove, ignoring the chords on top (listen to audio clip 1a). Over the C minor tonality, this solo line travels well outside of the key center, yet it somehow still resolves nicely, weaving in and out like a well-developed jazz line. Now, instead of playing the line over a C minor modal groove the entire way through, try substituting a bass line going from Bb7alt to Ebmaj7 like the chords above the score, as in audio clip 1b. Over these chords, the solo takes on an almost bebop flair, resolving as the chords resolve with good hooks back into the harmony. What’s the trick? In its simplest form, I’m substituting a simple V-I progression over the mode we’re in, and then I use a compatible pentatonic scale over the V chord. For example, to utilize Michael Brecker’s “half step down” idea in a C minor tonality, we think like we’re playing the progression Bb7 alt to Eb maj7 (V-I in in Eb major, the relative major key of C minor), and then we use a Bmin6 pentatonic scale over the implied Bb7alt chord. (The Bmin6 pentatonic scale includes many of the colorful tensions from the Bb7alt chord). Presto―instant “outside” and then a coherent “back in!”

2. Pentatonic Power

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In Ex. 2, let’s look at ways to use another pentatonic scale over our C minor mode. Here, we’ll employ the Emin6 pentatonic scale. First (as in audio clip 2a), play the solo line over a straight C minor modal groove, ignoring the chords on top. Over the C minor tonality, this line again sounds outside of the key center, yet it still weaves “in and out” and resolves nicely. Now, as in audio clip 2b, instead of playing a C minor modal groove the entire way through the solo line, try substituting a bass line going from Eb7alt to Abmaj7 like the chords above the score. What’s the trick here? I’m thinking like I’m playing the progression Eb7 alt to Abmaj7, (or I7alt to IVmaj7 in Eb major). So while an Emin6 pentatonic scale sounds about as outside of C minor as you can get, this system allows you to bring these tension tones in and out coherently.

3. Expanding Outward

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In Ex. 3 we’ll expand our harmonic options even further. First (like in audio clip 3a), play the solo line over a straight C minor modal groove, ignoring the chords on top. Next, (as in audio clip 3b), we’ll play the lines as though we’re following the changes C7alt to F13 above the score. Now, notice that instead of landing on a Cmin7 sound, we have the added tension tone of A in the mix for a Cmin6 or Cmin13 flavor. We can also start being less rigid about where we change chords in our mental progression.

4. Multiple Pentatonics

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Putting these concepts all together, Ex. 4 illustrates a solo line weaving several different pentatonics over Cmin7. In this example, I’m freely visiting a number of different key centers―sometimes only for a few notes, other times for a bar and a half. The simple V-I progression is only one of any number of quick progressions you can use as you substitution. I often use a little parallel progression moving in whole-steps, for example. The important thing is that by carrying the harmony in our heads, we’re hearing the tension on the dominant and the resolution on the tonic. To practice these concepts, pick a pentatonic scale you’d like to work on, find a quick V-I progression using it that resolves to your desired key, and improvise using run your “mental cadence” as you practice. This kind of thinking will expand your musical vocabulary over modes to an almost limitless degree!

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Pro Tip: Listen to Non-Keyboardists

“You can find great inspiration in the ‘outside’ playing of musicians who play instruments other than keyboards. For instance, the work of saxophonists Dave Liebman and Steve Grossman on the tune “Fancy Free” from drummer Elvin Jones’ Live at the Lighthouse album helped shape my synth lead concept,” says acclaimed keyboardist George Whitty, who has performed with David Sanborn, Herbie Hancock, Carlos Santana, and the Brecker Brothers. Whitty is also the creator of musicpath.net, an online video instruction portal, and Burn, an iOS play-along app. His latest release by his group Third Rail is entitled Ignition: Live Across Europe. For more info, visit gwhitty.com.