Do you ever wonder why some solos sound like they’re driving down a greased rail and others seem to never find their footing? For me, a great illumination in this area came from saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi, who introduced me to the concept of minding which notes of a scale I was putting on the beats versus which of them I was putting between the beats. The ear perceives notes played on the beat to be the harmony that’s being played over, so in order to play a scale most in sync with any given harmony, we need to construct scales so that the notes that are on the beat outline the chords we’re playing. Let’s explore this a little more closely.
1. Out-of-Sync Scales
Ex. 1 illustrates a standard C major scale. Notice that for the first bar we’re outlining Cmaj7 on the beats but for the second we’re outlining Dmin7. At that point, we’re 180 degrees out of sync with the harmony we’re playing - we’re outlining Dmin7 with the melody while the chord is playing Cmaj7, and our line is suspending over harmony that’s resolving. This produces the classic situation where, even if everything else about the line is great, the musician sounds like he or she is “fishing.” They’re out of what I call the “harmonic pocket” and the line just isn’t hooked into the harmony in a way that provides driving propulsion. All the potential harmonic leverage between the tension and release in the harmony is wasted. Play a block Dmin7 chord over a Cmaj7 chord and you can hear that it’s just kind of a mess - that’s what we’re getting if our line is outlining the Dmin7 over the Cmaj7. What’s the solution? Read on!
2. In-Sync Scales
Ex. 2a aboveshows a way to solve our harmonic sync issue. Let’s use an 8-note scale, created by adding a passing tone between degrees 5 and 6 (G# in this case), that will stay in sync, with chord tones on the beat, all the way up and down the keyboard, as long as we start on a chord tone. Take a look at any classic bebop solo and you’ll see this passing tone all over the place. (It’s in the first bar of the bebop standard “Donna Lee,” for example). If you analyze what notes are put on the beat, it’s generally either chord tones or likely a great harmonic substitution made absolutely clear and coherent by which notes are chosen to be on the beat. The notes on the beat are what we hear as the harmony in the line. We also get the effect of tension between the beats and resolution to chord tones on the beats. This really helps drive the line.In Boston we called these “bop scales,” and there are ones for dominant chords (seen below in Ex. 2b with the extra note between degrees 7 and the tonic):
and a minor one (seen below in Ex. 2c withthe passing tone between degrees 5 and 6, and with a natural 7:
Finally, Ex. 2d:
illustrates the bop scale for altered dominant chords, using a flatted 2nd, a raised 5th, a flatted 7th and the passing tone of the natural 7th as well.
3. Out-of-Sync Solos
Ex. 3 illustrates an out of sync bebop solo with everything out of the “harmonic pocket.”
While some aspects of this line sound fine, everything about the line is completely at odds with the harmony. “But wait,” you ask. “If it uses notes from the right scales, what could be so wrong?” The answer lies in which notes of the scale are on the beat.
4. In-Sync Solos
Ex. 4 demonstrates a bebop solo with everything in the pocket. Now you can hear that when the harmony is suspending, the line is suspending as well, and when the harmony resolves, the line does also. Ah, much better! Remember, this doesn’t mean we’re stuck playing chord tones on the beat all the time. The idea here is just to understand the value of minding what you put on the beats and what you put between the beats. In fact, the real fun begins when we start to substitute good extensions onto the harmony and apply the same principles. For example, running an Abmin bop scale over a G7 chord puts the notes of an Abmin6 chord on the beat. Therefore, we hear a really clear representation of our substitution on the G7. Again, what’s on the beat is what gives things a nice, strong sound.