pentatonic possibilities 1: major and minor pentatonics

Pentatonics are 5-note scales. Technically, any ordered sequence of 5 notes can be called a pentatonic. But the most common and widely used pentatonic is without doubt the one obtained by reordering a series of 5 notes stacked on top of each other in fifths (for example, the series “C G D A E” gives us “C D E G A” once reordered). This particular pentatonic comes in its “major” form (C D E G A), and its relative “minor” form (A C D E G).

So, what do I mean by “pentatonic possibilities?” Well, pentatonics tend to break up the diatonic quality of 7-note major and minor scales because of their intervallic content. So, to create fresh melodic shapes and give a more edgy feel to your lines while improvising over changes, you might ask yourself: what pentatonic scales can I use over these chords? Chords derive from modes, and modes from harmony types, so the question may be rephrased as: what pentatonic scales can be extracted from the various harmony types?

For the purpose of this particular post, I will limit myself to what I call the “common” pentatonic scale (the one discussed in the first paragraph). Let’s have a look at major harmony first. The pentatonics listed in the first and last column of the table shown below are extracted from the key of C major (C D E F G A B). Their “major” forms are listed in the left-hand side of the table along with their relative “minor” forms on the right-hand side, and the roman numerals represent the scale degrees for each pentatonic:

major harmony pentatonic possibilities
C D E G A I Maj. pent. <=> VI min. pent. A C D E G
F G A C D IV Maj. pent. <=> II min. pent. D F G A C
G A B D E V Maj. pent. <=> III min. pent. E G A B D

Natural minor harmony is equivalent to the Aeolian mode. Therefore, the pentatonic possibilities in natural minor are the same as in major harmony (the roman numerals indicating the scale degrees, however, would have to change due to the shift to relative minor).

Now, let’s have a look at melodic minor harmony. It turns out only one pentatonic scale can be extracted from this harmony type. It is shown in the table below in the key of C melodic minor (C D Eb F G A B):

melodic minor harmony pentatonic possibilities
F G A C D IV Maj. pent. <=> II min. pent. D F G A C

Finally, neither harmonic minor nor harmonic major harmony bear common pentatonic possibilities, due to a flatted 6th scale degree in both instances. However, some interesting “exotic” pentatonics can be derived from those harmony types…


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Charlie Rouse on “Monk’s Dream” / nonchord tones and melodic triads

My favourite passage from Charlie Rouse‘s solo on Thelonious Monk’s 1962 recording of Monk’s Dream – Take 8 is made up of the four closing phrases below (Charlie’s final statement right before the piano solo starts):

Monk's Dream, Charlie Rouse_C

Most of the soloing is built on chord tones here: the emphasis is placed on the notes that make up the lower part of the changes (root, 3rd, 5th, and 7th) as opposed to the tensions (9th, 11th, and 13th). It is interesting however to pay close attention to the use of nonchords tones, and to the various triads – interestingly all arpeggiated in a descending motion, and mostly in root position (RP) – that emerge to define a distinct melodic contour.

Nonchord tones:

  • Db in bar 1 (technically the “second” measure here: the very first measure shows the 3-beat pickup to the first phrase and we’ll number it “bar 0”) is a passing tone approaching the following C from above (upper chromatic approach);
  • A# in bar 3 approaches the note B (which, as the major 7th of the following C chord, is itself an example of harmonic anticipation) from below (lower chromatic approach);
  • the first E in bar 5 can be seen as a lower chromatic neighbor tone of the two Fs it’s surrounded by, although E is technically the flatted fifth of Bb7(b5), and could arguably be considered a chord tone as well;
  • D# in bar 5 is a lower chromatic approach to the following E;
  • the notes A (diatonic note to the E7sus/B chord) and G (chromatic note since it doesn’t belong to the E mixolydian scale from which E7sus/B derives) in bar 7 form an diatonic-chromatic enclosure, surrounding the following Ab; such nonchord tones are also commonly referred to as changing tones;
  • both Abs in bar 8 are upper chromatic neighbor tones;
  • the first F in bar 8 is a lower neighbor of the G, which when struck against the Ab7 chord becomes a bold sounding nonchord tone itself!;
  • Ab and F# in bar 9 form a chromatic enclosure of the following G.

Melodic triads:

  • Eb+ (RP) over C and F7 (bar 2);
  • Bb (2nd inversion) over Bb7(b5) (bar 3);
  • C- (RP) over F7 (bar 4);
  • E- (RP) over C (bar 6);
  • D- (RP) over F7 (bar 6);
  • C (RP) over F7 and E7sus/B (bars 6-7);
  • A- (RP) over E7sus/B (bar 7);
  • Bb- (RP) over Ab7 and G7 (bars 8-9);
  • Db (2nd inversion) over G7 (bar 8).

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Spirit of the Snail

Spirit of the Snail (Jim Funnell)
©201? Jim Funnell/Funnelljazz (ASCAP?/SACEM)
Recorded by Nicolas Charlier (Videlles, France) in April 2013. Mixed and mastered by Charles Frossard at Studio MESA (Soignolles-en-Brie, France) in July and November 2014.
Available sheet music:

Jim Funnell – piano
Oliver Degabriele – bass
Thibault Perriard – drums


Spirit of the Snail is a syllable-based melting snowball set to music. The poem is about staying present and draws upon shamanic snail symbolism.

When one dawdles sweetly and considers how
calm, stillness, and contemplation reveal
the detailed beauty of slow motion,
obviousness resurfaces.
Slowness seems necessary,
in all simplicity.
No one can lock up,
deep in its shell,
the spirit
of the
snail!


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“She’s Out of My Life” arrangement on Jazz Magazine staff playlist

The arrangement of Tom Bahler’s hit song “She’s Out My Life” that Jim Funnell contributed on saxophonist Philippe Lopes de Sa‘s debut album Woandering has been featured in a monthly playlist curated by the staff at Jazz Magazine, France’s foremost publication entirely dedicated to jazz.

playlist Philippe Lopes de Sa / Jim Funnell
Jazz Magazine
2017-07

Philippe Lopes de Sa / Jim Funnell
She’s Out of My Life

“Not only are the eleven original compositions by this saxophone and piano duo remarkable, but this arrangement of Michael Jackson’s hyper-emotional ballad (“Off the Wall”, 1979) will not possibly leave you indifferent.”

Where? “Woandering” (philippe-lopes-de-sa.com / cdbaby.com)

getting into the altered sound

Let’s take a look at a few things that can be done when an altered dominant chord presents itself in a tune (e.g. Eb7alt). The first thing to know is that the altered chord derives from the altered mode, otherwise known as mode VII of melodic minor. But to break out of the diatonic sound of the scale and gain a little freedom with it, here are a few tricks…

There are 5 different triads that can be used as numerators (the denominator being the basic chord sound, i.e. combinations of chord tones 1, 3, and b7) to get a solid sounding upper structure triad voicing for an altered chord:

  • bIImi
  • bIIImi
  • bV
  • bVI

getting-into-the-altered-sound_screenshot-1

You can then combine both minor triadic upper structures and both major triadic upper structures to form two hexatonic scales, which can be used as interesting melodic devices:

  • bIImi / bIIImi
  • bV / bVI

getting-into-the-altered-sound_screenshot-2

Now, if you take a closer look at both these hexatonics, you’ll notice that they have five notes in common. These notes make up a pentatonic scale (bV major pentatonic, a.k.a. bIII minor pentatonic), which can also be used as an even more angular melodic device.

getting-into-the-altered-sound_screenshot-3

Click “Download File” below to hear the midi examples notated above. The full PDF document is also available here. Enjoy!


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“meditative practicing” technique

The following “meditative practicing” technique comes in really handy when far away from your instrument.

All you have to do is choose a notated piece of music that you’ve got memorized and try and play it in your mind as precisely as possible, hearing it, and even feeling the touch of the piano (this also works if you play another instrument: just mentally recall the feeling you experience when playing your particular instrument). For pianists, Bach’s Inventions work well because they consist of two contrapuntal parts, which are already challenging enough to hear simultaneously with the mind’s ear. But you can choose virtually any piece of music. When a passage seems unclear, go back and “replay” it again, slower if necessary (just as you would when you practice on your instrument) until you’re able to hear each note, as well as each item of expression attached to each note, with utmost precision.

This technique certainly requires sharp concentration and thus works best in a calm environment. But if practiced correctly, its benefits are certainly to be felt as soon as you return to the piano (the following day for example – it’s always good to allow the mental exercise to fully sink in during the night…): overall, your knowledge of the piece will have been considerably strengthened; your memory won’t fail you and you’ll be able to concentrate on musicality right off the bat.


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cantabile style playing: practicing both legato and staccato

I’ve recently been working on most of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Two-Part Inventions as a kind of warm-up for the fingers and the ears (I learn them by heart and usually go through several first thing in the morning or at the beginning of each of my piano practice sessions). As I was playing No. 3 (D major) today, I realized I mostly was using legato phrasing and decided to venture into a staccato rendition of the piece. With the change of expression (staccato versus the former legato phrasing), I found myself much less self-assured: my memory failed me and I had to refer to the music on a couple of occasions. This, to me, was an indicator that I wasn’t hearing the melodic lines as clearly as I thought I was able to. Indeed, I don’t think my memory would have been caught off guard in that manner if a had been hearing them strong. So in addition to being a useful technical exercise, practicing cantabile style playing using both legato and staccato phrasing seems to be yet another great way to strengthen one’s inner hearing, and thus a very musical exercise. Highly recommended!


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“Spirit of the Sn@il” CD release: Le jars jase jazz review

Review of Word Out’s second album Spirit of the Sn@il on French jazz critic Guillaume Lagrée’s blog Le jars jase jazz (also available on paperblog.fr).

SOTSrecto02


Jim Funnell’s Word Out
“Spirit of the Snail”

Produced by Jim Funnell
Released on Tuesday, 22 September 2015
CD release concert at the Sunside in Paris at 7.30pm on Tuesday, 22 September 2015.

Jim Funnell: piano and compositions
Oliver Degabriele: acoustic bass
Thibault Perriard: drums
Isabelle Oliver: Harp

“Dear cosmopolitan and xenophile readers,

As you know, the EU motto is “United in diversity.” As far as politics is concerned, it remains to be proved. On the subject of music however, British pianist Jim Funnell, Maltese bassist Oliver Degabriele, and French drummer Thibault Perriard illustrate it perfectly every time they play together. I have already praised their music in concert and in the studio. On this album, the triad is augmented with the presence of harpist Isabelle Olivier. She is nor a feminine alibi for a masculine trio, neither a classical one for a jazz trio. Her harp sounds like the kora of a Mandinka master.”

“[ Jim Funnell’s ] music is the singular result of a thorough reflection on rhythms, sounds, and colors.”

“Whether you want to stimulate your ears, your brain, or get your limbs in motion, enter the Spirit of the Snail with Jim Funnell and his band!”

– Guillaume Lagrée