The Art of Synth Soloing: Crossover Master Jeff Lorber

Lessons on musical vocabulary and energy from jazz/funk artist Jeff Lorber
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A number of times over the Past 50 years, an artist has come along who absorbed the vocabulary and energy of the music around them, and brought it great(er) commercial success as instrumental music. I am thinking of artists like Horace Silver, Ramsey Lewis, and Booker T. and the MG’s.

To that list I add Jeff Lorber. Jeff took the energy and rhythmic foundation of funk, added his formidable jazz chops to it, and has written highly melodic tunes to feature it all. He has always been a fiery player and his early recordings showcased a band hitting hard. Sure, he has done a lot of pop and smooth jazz production work, but left to his own devices, and certainly when you see him live, Jeff comes to play. This month I am delving into some of my favorite Lorber licks and synth solos from his defining early years.

Equal Parts Funk and Jazz

From his emergence in 1977 through the mid-’80s, Jeff played synths on his recordings, often soloing with them. He was never a pitch-bend jockey, but always employed it sparingly, laying down tasty, melodic solo lines. A large part of that style was based on the minor pentatonic and blues scales, and he developed his lines wonderfully. Take a look at Ex. 1, the opening of his solo on “Always There,” a classic Ronnie Laws composition Jeff covered on the It’s a Fact album in 1982. He opens with an F minor pentatonic riff, which slips into one of his signature bluesy licks in the second part of bar 2. Notice his frequent use of grace notes as well. Ex. 2 shows another riff a few bars later, where he uses that same blues lick to build a nice series of variations. And in Ex. 3, he works the pentatonic scale again; while it is not overly complex playing, it is highly melodic with well-paced development. I have placed the whole solo chorus online for further study. Plenty of good licks to cop!

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What drew me to Jeff’s playing was how he blends this pentatonic/blues playing with more overt jazz lines. Without a doubt, my favorite solo is on his tune “The Samba” from Soft Space (1978). Loyal readers of my column will remember that I covered Chick Corea’s guest solo on the same tune back in October 2015.

Ex. 4 shows the opening of his solo, which works the F# minor pentatonic and blues scales over the more jazzy chord changes. In bar 4 he moves a bit jazzier, outlining the D major seventh nicely and then moving into a more bebop-based line for the C# dominant with the altered color tones. That line is based on the C# altered dominant scale, which comes from the jazz vocabulary (see Ex. 5), and is a favorite of Jeff’s. It resolves very colorfully into the ninth of the next chord. In bar 5 he returns to bluesier soloing, only to come back to the jazz in bar 6, with a tasty ii-V-i lick straight from the bebop language. Notice how he uses he same altered dominant scale, but this time it’s over the G7, which in jazz pedagogy is called a tri-tone substitution for the C#7 chord. The line resolves into the F# minor using the major seventh tone, a wonderful jazz color. Not to lose the listener, he finishes up with some straight pentatonic—such a perfect blend of the two worlds. The whole solo is posted online, and it is a wealth of tasty playing; I was tempted to devote the entire column to this one solo!

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Ex. 6 is taken from “The Magician,” also from his It’s a Fact recording. It gives us a chance to see how those pentatonic/blues lines work on a tune that is in a major tonality. The first four bars are pretty straightforward: It doesn’t matter if you think of the scale as a Bb major pentatonic or G minor pentatonic, it’s the same notes. This is an example of superimposing a different pentatonic scale over a key center (Bb/Gm over the key of Eb), as I discussed back in the November 2014 issue. The grace notes and slight bends add some soul to these great lines. Using the Eb in bar 4 helps to keep the major tonality clear, and is a nice melodic touch.

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Leading into bar 5, Jeff brings the jazz, with a 2-bar phrase that superimposes some classic be-bop for a Cm7 to F7 altered sound, which is the ii-V7 in the key of Bb. This “flattens” the harmony for those two bars in a tasty fashion: You can’t look at the notes at the start of bar 6 as a suspended chord; they work on a dominant seventh with a flat ninth. But the line “settles” back into the suspended quality expertly. Moving into bar 7, he plays a great little Bb major blues lick to finish the phrase out.

Plenty to Learn

Since returning to recording under his name again in 1991, Jeff has eschewed the use of synths except for background colors, preferring to solo on acoustic and electric pianos. He’s making some of the best music of his career, and I highly recommend you check out his recent recordings to pick up some more tasty licks from this master. If you play pop, funk, and R&B, you would do well to develop some vocabulary from Mr. Lorber.