Tag Archives: improvisation

major and minor blues scales on Maceo Parker’s “Uptown Up”

Dear fellow funk/blues enthusiasts,

Here’s a transcription of Maceo Parker‘s alto saxophone solo on Uptown Up, the opening track from his album Funk Overload (1998), followed by an analysis of what’s going on melodically…

Note: although Maceo’s rhythm, phrasing, and expression won’t be discussed in length in this post, they are also really hip and definitely worth spending time accurately imitating on your instrument!

Uptown Up - alto sax (concert)_p1

Uptown Up - alto sax (concert)_p2

Shifts between major and minor blues scales:

  • [bar 0 – bar 3/beat 3]: Bb major blues
  • [bar 3/beat 4 – bar 5/beat 2]: Bb minor blues
  • [bar 5/beat 3 – bar 7/beat 1]: Bb major blues
  • [bar 7/beat 2 – bar 8/beat 2]: Bb minor blues
  • [bar 8/beat 3]: Bb major blues
  • [bar 8/beat 4 – bar 11]: C major blues
  • [bar 13/beat 3 – bar 15/beat 1]: C major blues
  • [bar 15/beat 2 – 16/beat 2]: C minor blues
  • [bar 17]: Bb major blues
  • [bar 18]: Bb minor blues
  • [bar 24]: Bb major scale

Passages where major and minor blues scales are intertwined:

  • [bar 12 – bar 13/beat 3]
  • [bar 16/beat 3 – bar 16/beat 4] (ascending chromatic motion)
  • [bar 19 – bar 23]

Comments on “intertwined” passages:

  • D# E F F# G: C blues. E is characteristic of C major blues, while F and F# are characteristic of C minor blues.
  • D D# E F (F#): Bb blues as a melodic anticipation of the next chord/section, with D characteristic of Bb major blues, and D# (Eb) and E characteristic of Bb minor blues. In this case the F# on the 1st beat of bar 17 is a lower chromatic approach to G (scale degree 6 of the Bb major blues scale). The note F# doesn’t belong to either of the blues scales in Bb. Arguably, it could still be heard as the blue note of the reminiscing C minor blues sound. In any case, the F# is part of the ascending chromatic motion initiated on beat 3 of bar 16.
  • C C# D D# E F: Bb blues. C and D are characteristic of Bb major blues, while D# (Eb) and E are characteristic of Bb minor blues.
  • Ab G F Eb D: Bb blues. Ab and Eb belong to Bb minor blues, G and D belong to Bb major blues, and F is common to both scales.

So based on this transcription, a few patterns stand out when intertwining major and minor blues scales:

  • an ascending chromatic motion from scale degrees 2/#2/3 up to scale degree 5;
  • a descending diatonic motion (akin to the mixolydian mode) from scale degree b7.

Conclusion: Maceo sets up the tone of his improvisation by using the minor and major blues scales separately at first, and then begins intertwining them more and more as he goes along. He finally crafts a whole passage featuring extensive chromaticism from bars 19 to 23, before wrapping up with an effective and strong major blues statement (bar 24).

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pentatonic possibilities 1

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 or 8-note scales because of their intervallic content. So, to create fresh melodic shapes and give a more edgy feel to my lines while improvising over changes, I came to ask myself: what pentatonic scales can I use over these chords? Chords derive from modes, and modes from harmony types, so the question could 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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Why it’s a good idea to practice soloing with the left hand while comping with the right hand…

To improve rhythmic independence? Of course. But also:

  • it might lead you to use different voicings than the ones you usually use for comping. Sometimes a voicing might be too low and sound muddy when played with the left hand in the lower part of the keyboard, but the same voicing played higher up will sound OK due to the absence of low interval limit restrictions;
  • the left hand is generally weaker and slower than the right hand. Such technical restriction forces you to rely more on musicality, inner hearing and singing when improvising with the left hand. When you then go back to improvising with the right hand, it feels a lot easier! Musicality is now right at your fingertips, with the greater technical ability of your strong hand available to serve it.

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