The Art of Synth Soloing: Mark Gray's NYC Fusion

Lear to play synthesizer parts like Mark Gray
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The mid- to late -‘70s were a heady time for jazz/rock and fusion music, and much of it was being developed in New York City. This makes sense, in retrospect, as NYC was where Miles Davis recorded his seminal In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew albums, and where bands such as The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, and Larry Coryell and The Eleventh House were formed. New York City was also where a group of session musicians first formed a band called The Brecker Brothers. Led by brothers Randy (trumpet) and Michael (sax), the Brecker Brothers brought bravura horn writing and soloing into the genre and had a number of successful recordings. Their final album had a tune featuring an aggressive synth solo that I have always loved and have wanted to transcribe and share with you for some time now. It really captures the vibrant energy and musical vocabulary that was present during that era.

Some Background

The soloist was a NYC regular named Mark Gray, who is sadly departed. He was a superb pianist and synth soloist who played with Teruo Nakamura and The Rising Sun, and Hubert Laws to name a few. I reached out to a two of his close friends—Jason Miles and Barry Finnerty—who have shared some memories of Mark that we’ve posted online. The solo was played on a Prophet V, which Jason had helped Mark get into.

The Tune

Michael Brecker wrote Bathsheba, and it uses some harmonic devices that were a common trait of both his and his brother’s writing. They often used triads over alternate bass notes, as seen in the first and last chords of Ex. 1. If the first chord (F# major over an E bass note) were used in passing from an F# major to a B with a D# in the bass you might think of the chord as an F# dominant-seventh chord. Standing on it’s own you might think of an E lydian mode tonality with it’s distinctive #11 sound. We’ll see how Mark handles it in a moment. The last chord is even more distinctive, an A major triad over an F bass note. Together they form an F major seventh chord with a raised fifth, a popular modern jazz sound.

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The other variant of this technique was to use triads or even seventh chords over another chord, where the triad spelled out colorful extensions of the basic chord. This is clearly seen in the third chord of Ex. 1, a G major triad over a B dominant-seventh chord. The triad spells out the flat thirteenth (or raised fifth) and the sharp ninth color tones, and it is a common device to play pentatonic scales based on this key center, as I discussed back in my November 2014 column. Oops, don’t want to forget the second chord in the example: It’s a C major seventh over a B note, which evokes a phrygian mode sound.

The Solo

Mark comes in after Michael Brecker has taken one of his usual mind-blowing solos, and what is a player to do to follow that? His opening line (see Ex. 2) in the break leading into the solo is a straight E blues scale with tasty bends, and it establishes that Mark intends to “go for it” as well. From there he outlines the F# chord using the pentatonic scale, ignoring the E bass tone, then sticks closely to the C triad/major scale for the next measure. In bar 5 you see the use of the G triad over the B dominant seventh we just discussed, moving into some tasty chromaticism as he plays across the E minor seventh. For the C dominant-thirteenth he uses the half-step/whole-step diminished scale (see Ex. 3), and in an interesting and tasteful choice, he continues to use that scale for the A triad over F note, which provides some great color. The almost steady stream of sixteenth notes at this fast tempo adds to the urgency of his lines.

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Example 4 shows another instance of this same chord progression at the end of his solo, and here you see some alternate lines based on a similar scalar approach. Bar 59 has some great F# pentatonic lines, followed by some extended C major scale arpeggiations. In bar 61, rather than outline the G triad again, he sounds like he is starting a whole tone scale, and then uses some slippery chromaticism before moving into straight E minor pentatonic lines for bar 62. For the C dominant this time he starts with a Bb major pentatonic and evolves into the C diminished scale, which he again continues to use across the A/F chord. The final bars bring a tasty, bebop-like line to outline the final ii-V7-i (F# minor ninth - B dominant seventh - E minor).

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My final example comes from the half-time feel section of the solo, to showcase a different mood Mark conveys; it’s not all “spitting bullets” here. In Ex. 5 we see some soulful bending to outline the chords with a bluesier feel. It can be hard to convey pitch bends in written notation: You should listen to the solo to hear how he mixes longer and shorter bends.

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Learn From It

I’ve posted the entire solo online, and there is so much great vocabulary to draw from it. Pick your favorite lines and learn them in all keys, and especially take note of the masterful pitch bending he does. For me, this solo is the perfect example of the aggressive, but jazz-infused language that was the norm in NYC back in the day. Enjoy!