Minor chords are used liberally in jazz, both in standards and originals, so it’s important to know your options when it comes to playing scales over these chords.
On the surface, you could surmise that a minor chord would indicate a minor scale, and to that end, that a natural minor scale would suffice. However, the first choice for a scale over a minor chord in jazz improvisation is a Dorian mode, which is the second mode of a major scale. The natural minor, also known as the Aeolian mode, is the sixth mode of a major scale (and is its relative minor). The Aeolian mode is generally used in a specific setting, over a minor chord with a flat sixth degree. The key difference between Dorian and Aeolian is that the Dorian mode has a major sixth, whereas the Aeolian mode has a minor sixth. The brighter sound of the major sixth is usually the jazz player’s preference for minor chords. The sixth is a pretty color tone, and part of the upper structure triad (or chord extension) of 9, 11, and 13. So, a Cm chord, with a C Dorian mode, contains a scale tone triad built on the second degree, which is a Dm triad.
There are other minor scales that have specific chordal applications, and can expand your palette of colors and choices over minor chords. Following is a list of the most-used minor scales and examples of their chordal applications.
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Ex. 1. The C Aeolian mode (natural minor scale) shown in 1a is the relative minor of Eb major. Though often played on its own, the Aeolian mode can also create interest in a longer harmonic rhythm of a minor chord, by switching between the Dorian mode and Aeolian modes. The C Dorian mode in 1b comes from the parent scale of Bb major. Dorian is often the default mode when playing over minor chords in jazz; it has a somewhat brighter sound than Aeolian due to the major sixth. 1c shows the C Locrian mode, which comes from the parent scale of Db major. The Locrian (a.k.a. the seventh mode of the major scale) is a good choice for half-diminished chords, especially if you’re constructing quartal voicings for those chords.
Ex. 2. Play through the C Phrygian mode, which has parent scale Ab major, in 2a. The Phrygian mode has a distinctly minor quality, mainly because of the flat third. However, the application for this mode is usually over a 7b9 chord, or a sus4 chord. 2b shows the C melodic minor scale. The melodic minor scale can be thought of as a major scale with a flat third, or a natural minor scale (Aeolian mode) with raised sixth and seventh degrees. Also sometimes known as the “jazz minor,” the scale differs from its traditional-harmony cousin in that the construction remains the same whether ascending or descending. In traditional harmony, the sixth and seventh are raised a half step ascending, and lowered a half step descending. The left-hand shell voicing of root and guide tones gives an outline of the sound of the scale. This scale can create movement when playing on a minor chord for an extended duration, as in the standard “My Funny Valentine.” It can also be used as a standalone harmony. 2c shows the C harmonic minor scale. The harmonic minor has a flat third, flat sixth, and a major seventh. The left-hand chord is a rootless voicing of 9, flat 3, 5, and major 7. The unusual intervallic construction of this scale (the augmented second and interval of an enharmonic minor 3rd between the 6th and 7th degrees) sets this scale apart. The unusual chord symbol expresses the characteristic tones; however the scale can be played without these alterations.
Ex. 3. Once you have the scales down, the next challenge is to create lines or melodies using the notes of the scale. The ascending line of eighth-notes in 3a uses intervals of diatonic thirds. More specifically, the first two notes are an enclosure of the sixth. The Ab becomes the root of a scale tone ninth chord (Abmaj9), which resolves to the root (Ab), and then arpeggiates again from the third using octave displacement (down an octave). The phrase comes to rest on the color tone of the 11th. The left-hand chord is a rootless voicing for Fm7. Similar in construction to the previous example, 3b starts with an enclosure of the 3rd, then arpeggiates up a scale tone ninth chord (Ebmaj9). The left hand chord is a rootless voicing for Cm7. The descending passage in 3c uses notes from the C Locrian mode. The line begins with a descending C Locrian starting on the 11th, and concludes with a descending arpeggio of the Ab major scale tone triad. The last three notes are also an enclosure of the seventh of the C half-diminished chord. The left hand plays a rootless voicing for Ab7.
Ex. 4. The ascending line in 4a begins with a scalar passage, then an enclosure of the fifth, which then acts as the leading tone for the ascending arpeggiation of the scale tone Abmaj7 chord. The line comes to rest on the seventh of the C7sus4b9. The line in 4b begins with descending scale tone thirds, followed by a downward arpeggiation of a Cm triad from the root. The final phrase ends with an intervallic pattern using the C melodic minor scale. 4c begins on the fifth of the Cmb6maj7, which acts as the leading tone to the scale tone Abdim7 arpeggio, which then repeats using octave displacement in the last measure.
For some great minor scale action, check out these albums:
Herbie Hancock, Michael Brecker, and Roy Hargrove, Directions in Music; listen for various modes of the melodic minor.
Wynton Kelly, Piano; listen for the Aeolian mode.
Richard Beirach, Elm; listen for Dorian mode and melodic minor scale use.