Bluesology (or, ‘the Seventh [Scale] and Sons’) originally posted 9/21/09
Lately the Mike Gordon band has played shows in Atlanta, Jacksonville Beach (Florida), and Birmingham (Alabama), as well as Memphis and Nashville (Tennessee). We are traveling within what might be called the heartland of the blues; on Sunday I visited Sun Studio in Memphis, where B.B. King and Johnny Cash, among others, made their first recordings. Being around so much blues history is a good time to talk about the ‘seventh’ scale (aka the Mixolydian scale) and its most closely related harmonic unit, the dominant seventh chord. In the Mike band we play many tunes with progressions dominated (pun intended) by dominant chords, including the Phish tune ‘Meat’, and cover tunes such as Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Swamp Music’, and Mike’s original tunes ‘Weekly Time’, ‘Sound’ and ‘Soulfood Man’ . The subject of ‘Soulfood Man’ is the singer, guitarist, and bandleader Colonel Bruce Hampton. Bruce sat in with us at our Atlanta show and sang a tune called ‘Yield Not To Temptation’, a blues classic introduced by the great blues singer Bobby Bland, which has become a cornerstone of Bruce’s repertoire. The Atlanta show was among our best in terms of the band’s ability to communicate musically; in addition to fusing rhythmically on the more rock-oriented tunes, there were some great moments of playing more responsively and conversationally, particularly on tunes such as Mike’s tune ‘Radar Blip’. This is one of the tunes where I often use bebop melodic concepts to solo over a funk rock groove. To give you an idea what I’m talking about, an audience recording of the Atlanta show can be heard at: http://www.sendspace.com/file/8cgl1q
The show downloads as a series of separate songs, so you could listen to just ‘Radar Blip’. Keep in mind that this not a professional recording but was made by an audience member.
As our road crew is rather small for a tour of this scope (the five band members are accompanied by the tour manager, two sound technicians, a lighting designer and a person who runs the ‘merch’ table where CDs, tshirts, etc. are sold), when we arrive at a new venue, I almost always assist the road crew in setting up my keyboard rig. My rig consists of a Yamaha Motif SE8 keyboard which provides most of my sounds, a Hammond X2 keyboard, and a separate amp for each keyboard. One of the advantages of being involved with load-in is that the sooner I can get my equipment set up, the sooner I can practice. Two things I have been doing recently when I practice are what I call the “major-diminished-minor” exercise (included on the intermediate/advanced page). Practicing this exercise with both hands in unison is a good way to listen to the balance between the dynamic level of your left and right hands. Recently, to focus on my left hand, I have been running a mirror image version of the exercise in my right hand simultaneously with the left hand.
In rock, blues and jazz groups, keyboard players almost always coexist with guitarists or bassists who, when they are comping (i.e. accompanying), spend much of their time in the range just around or below middle C. For this reason it’s often typical for the playing of pianists in these styles to be quite heavy on the right hand. My study of classical music and jazz has taught me about the many ways that labor can be divided more evenly between the hands, and so one of my goals in playing with this band is to continually strive for a more ambidextrous approach to the keyboard in the rock band setting. To this end I practice Bach keyboard music just about every day on the tour, either the two part inventions (which I play with one hand on each keyboard, to practice my two-manual technique) and/or the Partita in B flat major. Other ways I have been venturing into more ambidextrous playing have included trying out a Dave Grusin tune called ‘Memphis Stomp’ (brought to my attention by current student Russ McHenry), and transcribing piano solos by jazz and rock players that use a call and response approach to coordinating the hands (more about these in a future blog). My studies of jazz playing have oriented me towards thinking that playing with both hands means comping or creating a countermelody in the left hand, but practicing pieces like the Allemande of the Bach Partita reminds me that a single line melody can be divided between the hands.
I have included an exercise for taking seventh (Mixolydian) scales through the circle of fifths which uses ‘guide tone’ voicings in the left hand (3rds and 7ths) and a scale pattern which moves up and down each scale, stopping just before the starting note of each scale. One nice feature of this exercise – particularly for those trying to master all twelve major scales – is that this exercise runs the circle of fifths starting in the key of Db so that the various key groups – keys where scales are fingered in identical or similar ways – are grouped together. The order begins with the black key group (keys of Db, F# and B) where the second and third fingers of both hands are always on the group of two black keys, and the second, third and fourth fingers are always on the group of three. Then the sharp keys which are all fingered identically (E,A,D,G,C), the key of F which has only one fingering exception to C, and finally the keys where the fingering of the black keys does not always follow the rules of the black key group (Bb,Eb, and Ab). People preparing for piano proficiency should practice the scale exercise with the RH alone and using the major scale instead of the 7th scale. You could also double the the right hand pattern with the left hand (fingerings for both hands are shown). This creates the fingering where both hands start on the thumb in B,E,A,D,G and C.
One musical theme I have noticed running through some of Mike’s original tunes is the alternation between parallel major and minor keys. In the tune ‘Traveled Too Far’ (from Mike’s CD ‘The Green Sparrow’), the vocal verse as well as the guitar solo section is based on a four bar progression which moves between F major and F minor. I solo over a section of the tune ‘Andelman’s Yard’ that begins in A major and works its way to A minor. Mike uses a melodic major-minor shift in the tune ‘Suskind Hotel’, which begins with a unison lick moving from the major third to the minor third. Mike says this motion interested him because it is so often avoided by blues and rock players. (Examples of melodies starting on the minor third and moving to the major are much more plentiful – among them the second strain of the ‘Saint Louis Blues’ by W.C. Handy, another famous Memphis resident). One reason these major-minor concepts may have caught my attention is they remind me of the ancient and endless conversation among jazz players and educators about how to play the blues. Some texts and teachers refer to a ‘blues scale’ (the root, flatted third, fourth, sharp fourth, fifth and flatted seventh of any major scale) which is really a kind of minor pentatonic scale that, contrary to its inclusive name, only represents one of many pitch collections that get used by great blues players. This is sometimes paired with a ‘major blues scale’ (the root, the second, the minor AND major third, fifth and sixth of any major scale). In improvisation class at UVM I teach an approach, derived from Barry Harris’ teaching method, which begins with scales based off the three main chords and gradually adds half-steps according to certain rules. One of the many reasons I like this approach is that I think some of the most flavorful blues lines are those that use half-steps, particularly the motion from minor to major third. I found an example of such a lick in a live recording of a tune called ‘Columbus Stockade’ by Scott Murawski’s band Max Creek. The lick occurs in a piano intro by Max Creek’s keyboard player, Mark Mercier. In the ‘Columbus Stockade exercise’ I take Mark’s phrase, which deftly moves from major to minor and back to major, and transpose it through the circle of fifths. I have also included licks from Milt Jackson’s intro to ‘Bags’ Groove’ and the intro to ‘Swamp Music’ that use melodic motion from minor to major third. (Notice that the ‘Swamp Music’ lick follows the bebop approach of placing the dissonant minor third on the upbeat.) Pick one you like and learn it in all twelve keys! Columbus Stockade lick (and more)