This month I’m covering one of my all-time favorite solos. There’s so much to learn from it, and it blows me away that this keyboardist could spin such a perfect solo in the moment, live onstage.
The player is George Whitty, well known for his time with the Brecker Bros., as well as work with Chaka Khan, Herbie Hancock, Celine Dion and an award-winning career in television and film scoring.
The What and the Where
The solo is on a tune called “Above and Below,” written by Randy Brecker and first featured on Return Of The Brecker Brothers (1992). Later that year their label released a live concert on VHS tape that has not been reissued on modern formats. However, thanks to the Internet, it lives on!
The tune is full of Randy’s trademark poly-chordal harmony and fleet figures, and the solo section opens up to a fast samba beat with a nice chord progression. George’s solo comes in at around 3:59, and he is playing a Yamaha SY99 with a Minimoog-ish lead sound reminiscent of Chick Corea.
Example 1 shows his first chorus: He enters with some colorful note choices that emphasize the sus or 11th tone. His last two notes of bar 3 anticipate the coming Fmin11 chord, and the ascending run seems based on a Bb major blues scale, which doesn’t directly outline the Fmin, not that it needs to!
Note the figure on beat 3: This is a technique using approach tones or patterns, something that George has obviously mastered. It involves using notes just above and below a desired chord tone to create a melodic figure. Rather than try to explain it here, read the wonderful column George wrote for Keyboard back in 2015 HERE.
Play the figure from bar 3, beat 4 through bar 4; it sounds like a riff on an Ebmajor chord. Superimposing it over the Fmin works nicely. This modern approach of superimposing non-root tone modes over a given chord is something we’ve spoken about many times in this column.
After the scalar and chromatic notes it is nice how George opens up his line in bar 5 with the descending arpeggio using color tones, and then starts climbing up. In bars 7 and 8 he ascends using the Bb Dorian mode and for the following two bars plays some bluesy G minor pentatonic licks. He leads into the Absus chord centering on the 13th (the F) and again uses that same approach-pattern lick before moving into a more predictable Ab major pentatonic scale which continues throughout the following Ebmin11 chord.
For the final chord of the progression, he uses a scale known by many names: the fifth mode of the harmonic minor scale (based on the G Harmonic minor scale), the Phrygian Dominant scale, the Mixolydian b9/b13 and more. It works well to outline a dominant-seventh chord with a flatted 9th and flatted 13th. Plus he uses a C#as a chromatic passing tone. That’s a lot of micro analyzing, but I hope it helps you understand the vocabulary of note choices against the chords.
Example 2 picks up leading into his third chorus, and he’s using that same dominant-seventh scale color, this time adding the sharp 9th as well. An ascending Bb major arpeggio brings him up to a chromatic lead-in to the Emin chord that starts the progression. I like how he follows the seventh, then the major seventh ascending figure to finish the line on the root, even though the chord has now changed to an Fmin. So what sounds like an easy E minor figure when played by itself actually resolves into a minor-major seventh sound in bar 35.
The following line is very inside the Fmin7 chord, and then he, again, plays wider intervallic lines over the Db chord. The D natural on beat 4 may seem strange, but notice that it is another approach tone figure above (D natural) and below (C) the root tone (Db).
In the next two bars, George superimposes tonalities and follows line shapes without worrying about being inside the chord. This technique of using shapes and patterns while shifting key centers is a hallmark of learning to “go outside.”
He then relaxes the tension by returning inside for the G minor in bars 41 and 42, using pentatonic, blues, and jazzy minor-major seventh flavors. For the Absus chord he returns to scalar lines utilizing his signature approach-tone lick.
One Last Nugget
I’ll leave you with two more cool phrases from a later in the solo. Look at the line George spins for the Eminor11 chord in Example 3. He gets the major seventh in (the D#), then outlines the color tones using the Bmin7 arpeggio, followed by the major third! It’s another approach pattern lick, using the notes above and below the minor third of the chord.
From there he mixes up blues-scale and Dorian-mode notes nicely. For the Fmin he mixes up pentatonic, an approach-tone lick, and some slippery chromatic and minor-major seventh sounds. The entire solo is available HERE and shows more of this vocabulary, as his lines keep pushing forward with such energy and color.