As most of us musicians and music students know, the circle of fifths is notably helpful when figuring out what key a piece of music is in looking at its key signature. But it also has practical uses and can indeed be seen as the theoretical framework for what is commonly referred to as cycle 5 root motion. Cycle 5 root motion is often used as a way of traveling through all 12 pitches of the keyboard in order to work on anything, from a snippet of music to a whole tune, in all 12 keys. It also underpins the concept of the widely used II-V-I progression.
To go through the cycle, simply begin on any given note, go down a perfect fifth or up a perfect fourth (for a comprehensive review of intervals, click here) to reach the second note. Once there, repeat the process: go down a perfect fifth or up a perfect fourth and reach the third note. Repeat again, and again, and again… Until you are back at your starting point and have completed the cycle!
Oftentimes, you’ll see the circle of fifths starting and finishing on the pitch C (as in the example above). But you can of course begin and end at any point in the cycle. Actually, I recommend starting at different points in the cycle every time you practice something in all 12 keys: repeated transposition can indeed be quite challenging and mentally exhausting, and more than once have I stopped half or a third of the way through the cycle, and forgotten where I left off the next day… So beginning on different pitches every time makes it more likely that you will eventually get through the whole cycle, or at least that you’ll cover some of the more unfamiliar keys!
When you start and end on C, unfamiliar keys (such as Ab, Db, Gb/F#, B…) are located towards “the middle” of the cycle, whereas the more familiar ones (fewer flats or sharps) are at “the begiggning” and at “the end” (in quotation marks because a circle obviously has no beginning, no middle, and no end!). Beginning the cycle on say the pitch Ab is a way to ensure that you’ll venture through unfamiliar territory during practice!
Back in 2019 (May through November) and then again more recently in July and August of 2020, AfuriKo had the pleasure to invite both Corey A. Wallace (on trombone) and Alex Busby Smith (electric bass) as guest artists as part of our monthly residency at Tomi Jazz (a Japanese bar & grill in Midtown Manhattan that features nightly live jazz). The shows in both trio formats were a blast, and Igneous Alloy, a composition of mine first recorded on Spirit of the Snail (2015), was one of the tunes we played almost every time. So we decided to record a quartet version of it (this time with both Alex and Corey featured on the same track!) to document these good times and make a little something available to those of you who weren’t able to make it out to Tomi’s. The arrangement was refined to suit this particular instrumentation, including trombone melodies, synth counterlines, and a new bass line/riff to support Akiko’s percussion solo. Our friend Laure Lang from the Hauts-de-France region added her grain of salt with a magical mix and crafty video editing. Enjoy!
The example above is an exercise to practice some solid sounding 5-note voicings to play over a minor II-V that resolves to a Ima7 chord (just like in the second half of the bridge to All the Things You Are¹). So buckle up and get ready to take this whole thing through the cycle of fifths in all keys! You’ll hopefully end up with a brand new, hip sounding chord or two in your jazz piano toolbox…
The first chord, F#mi7(b5), is built using what Mark Levine (1989) calls the insen pentatonic (B C E F# A – general formula: 1 b2 4 5 b7). You can construct the voicing yourself (without looking at the sheet music) by first playing an E below middle C (as the b7 of the chord, that E respects standard low interval limits), then skipping the F#, playing the A, skipping the B, playing the C, and so forth. In other words, playing every other note in the insen pentatonic scale and sounding all the notes together with both hands. As you can see from the example above, I have notated all five inversions of that chord (first ascending, and then descending all the way back to the inversion chosen initially). I find it very beneficial to practice in that fashion in order to create a “sheet of sound” effect, like McCoy Tyner comping for John Coltrane! Having all five versions of the chord under your belt will also enable you to voice lead as smoothly as possible in any situation, taking into account where you’re coming from and where you’re going harmonically. Lastly, if the tune you’re playing calls for dwelling on a certain chord for a somewhat prolonged amount of time (a few bars), there lies a perfect opportunity for you to explore some of those inversions for the sake of variation…
The second chord is a B7 to which we have added a b9, a #9, and a b13. These tensions form a C2 triad (C D G) which when inverted gives us either two perfect fourths stacked on top of each other (D G C), a Gsus triad (G C D), or a C2 triad (C D G)². Therefore we have an upper structure triad chord (UST) voiced with the aforementioned triad on top (played by the right hand) and the guide tones in the bottom (played by the left hand). To be musically consistent with the phrasing used for F#mi7(b5), I have included several “inversions” here too (to be precise, combinations of inversions of the top triad in the right hand with inversions of the guide tones in the left hand). Taken together, the five notes that make up the UST voicings used to voice this B7 chord also form an insen pentatonic (1 b2 4 5 b7), the tonic of which would be D (D Eb G A C).
The final chord, to which this progression resolves, is Ema7 (with thensions 9 and 13). The building process here is the exact same as for F#mi7(b5) (with the playing and skipping of every other tone in the scale), except that this time, a “regular”³ anhemitonic (containing no semitones) pentatonic is used (B C# D# F# G#). Do you notice how each individual voice outlines the pentatonic scale melodically? This also happened for the first chord of the progression, F#mi7(b5), which we also voiced using the play-and-skip-a-tone method applied to the insen pentatonic. On the contrary, playing through the different inversions of the B7 chord, voiced as an upper structure triad over its guide tones, is more choppy (with wider melodic intervals from one voicing to the next).
So there you have it: three solid sounding, 2-hand voicings for your minor II-V resolving to a major I chord. I hope you’ll enjoy practicing this snippet, and that it will prove to be a valuable addition to your harmonic vocabulary!
¹ Click here for a transcription (example #2) of guitarist Remo Palmieri soloing over the bridge of All the Things You Are (Gillespie 1993).
² Click here to see these quartal triads (2 and suspended) in root position and their inversions notated in treble clef.
³ In order to differentiate this particular pentatonic scale from other kinds of 5-note scales (such as the insen pentatonic mentioned earlier), I usually refer to it as “global.” After all, it “has been found in use upon every single continent of the planet Earth.” (Hewitt 2013)
Gillespie, Dizzy. Groovin’ High. Savoy 152. 1993 (originally released in 1955).
Hewitt, Michael. “Section 5: Pentatonic Scales.” In Musical Scales of the World, 125-134. The Note Tree, 2013.
Levine, Mark. “Chapter 15: Pentatonic Scales.” In The Jazz Piano Book, 219-237. Petaluma: Sher Music Company, 1989.
The track “Oleleko” from AfuriKo’s album Tao was featured on SoundCellar 2013, a Spotify playlist put together by the South West England venue for their 10-year anniversary. SoundCellar is “a haven for fans of non mainstream music in the atmospheric setting of the Blue Boar cellar bar in Poole, Dorset.” The playlist highlights bands and artists that have visited the venue during the year 2013.
Jazz a la Calle is an international cultural movement that culminates in a festival held each year in Mercedes, Uruguay, and boasts artists from all over South America and beyond.
Jazz At The Lescar is a weekly jazz night in Sheffield, England, ran by Jez Matthews and his team (Jazz Promoter of the Year in the 2018 Parliamentary Jazz Awards).
BTRtoday‘s mission is to inform and impact their audience in a positive way by identifying artists and cultural trends on the rise and contextualizing them alongside those that may be more established.
The Jazz Hole, hosted by sought-after New York City clarinetist and saxophonist Linus Wyrsch, presents the music of new talents from inside and outside of the New York circuit, and every once in a while, Linus is able to sneak in a major jazz artist, sometimes accompanied with a short interview (John Clayton, Lew Tabackin, Fred Hersch, Sue Mingus, Steve Gadd, Jojo Mayer, Gerald Clayton, Javon Jackson, the President of Resonance Records George Klabin, Sofia Rei, Sharel Cassity, Mark Sherman, Harvie S, Jean-Michel Pilc, Dafnis Prieto, Randy Johnston, Helen Sung, Gregorio Uribe and many others).
(For access to all BTRtoday shows that feature AfuriKo, click here to view AfuriKo’s artist page on their website.)
Six tracks from Jim Funnell’s Word Out latest album Spirit of the Snail (2015) were aired on Radio Robert on April 30, 2020. The Parisian station, created during the COVID-19 pandemic and operated by the team at 59 Rivoli (a venue known for its exhibitions, performances, and artists-in-residence programs) notably offers playlists and podcasts. Their daily jazz show “Jazz non scientifiquement prouvé, la playlist du Pr Raoult” airs at 7PM GMT+2.
Six tracks from AfuriKo’s latest album Tao (2019) were aired on Radio Robert on April 27, 2020. The Parisian station, created during the COVID-19 pandemic and operated by the team at 59 Rivoli (a venue known for its exhibitions, performances, and artists-in-residence programs) notably offers playlists and podcasts. Their daily jazz show “Jazz non scientifiquement prouvé, la playlist du Pr Raoult” airs at 7PM GMT+2.
If you’ve ever had a go at analyzing a standard and/or figuring out what scales to use on each chord, the question “So, what exactly is the deal with modes?” might have popped up in your mind. This very question certainly did arise recently during an online conversation I was having with a student of mine, who further developed his concern: “In the key of C for example, all of the modes are made up of the exact same notes (the white keys on the piano)… So why bother learning them!?” That is indeed a good question…
As musicians, we have to remember, and above all experience, that each mode has a distinctive flavor, or color, and conveys a particular mood or feeling. A mode’s particular color is conferred to it by the specific arrangement of intervals within the mode, and the resulting relationship each tone in the mode bears with its tonic. Some tones play a more important role than others in giving a mode its unique color. We call them “characteristic notes.” So let’s have a look in more detail at each mode of the major scale, and see if we can figure out what the characteristic note(s) are for each of them.
The modes of the major scale above are ordered from the brightest or most “major sounding” (Lydian’s intervals are all major or augmented, with the exception of the perfect 5th), to the darkest or most “minor sounding” (Locrian’s intervals are all minor or diminished, with the exception of the perfect 4th). The root C being common to all seven modes, it is not considered a characteristic note (or part of a pair of characteristic notes) for any mode. In order for you to hear the different modal colors, I recorded seven short improvisations on the piano (one for each mode) over a C drone (the tonic, common to all seven modes, played in octaves in the left hand).
Lydian is the only mode that has #4, which is hence the sole characteristic note for this mode. This first snippet is in C Lydian (otherwise known as mode IV of the G major scale):
Now, when we lower #4 (F#) to 4 (F), we get the Ionian mode.
Ionian and all subsequent modes have 4, but Ionian is the only mode that has the pair 4 & 7, which are characteristic notes for this mode. The short improvisation below is in C Ionian (aka mode I of the C major scale):
Lowering 7 (B) to b7 (Bb) gives us the Mixolydian mode.
Mixolydian and all subsequent modes have b7, but Mixolydian is the only mode that has the pair 3 and b7, which are the characteristic notes for this mode. The improvisation below is in C Mixolydian (mode V of the F major scale):
Lowering 3 (E) to b3 (Eb) gives the Dorian mode.
Dorian and all subsequent modes have b3, but Dorian is the only mode that has the pair b3 and 6, which are the characteristic notes for this mode. The improvisation below is in C Dorian (mode II of the Bb major scale):
Lowering 6 (A) to b6 (Ab) gives the Aeolian mode.
Aeolian and the remaining two subsequent modes have b6, but Aeolian is the only mode that has the pair b6 and 2, which are the characteristic notes for this mode. The improvisation below is in C Aeolian (mode VI of the Eb major scale):
Lowering 2 (D) to b2 (Db) gives the Phrygian mode.
Phrygian and the last remaining subsequent mode both have b2, but Phrygian is the only mode that has the pair b2 and 5, which are the characteristic notes for this mode. The improvisation below is in C Phrygian (mode III of the Ab major scale):
Finally, lowering 5 (G) to b5 (Gb) gives the Locrian mode.
Locrian is the only mode that has b5, which is hence the sole characteristic note for this mode. The improvisation below is in C Locrian (mode VII of the Db major scale):
Lowering the root by a semitone would give the Lydian mode, but this time constructed with the note B as the new tonic (down a semitone from C). We could go through the same cycle again, outlining all seven modes from the brightest to the darkest, based on B as the new modal center if we wanted to… But by now, I’m sure you got the point!
Just like I did for the recordings above, spend some time with each mode, improvising with it in free rhythm (no regular pulse necessarily needed here). You can explore melodic ideas in the right hand while holding down two Cs an octave apart in the left hand (the drone). Spend 5 to 10 minutes (or more) with a particular mode during each session, and practice different modes based on different tonics every day. Eventually, all 7 modes in all 12 keys (84 in total!) should become familiar musical terrain, but take it easy… day by day and one step at a time! The goal is to internalize them deeply, and fully assimilating one mode in one key will help you assimilate other modes (in the same or different keys) faster.
Then of course, you can start applying them in the context of tunes. Modal jazz tunes such as So What, Impressions, Cantaloupe Island, etc. are a great starting point because they usually feature a slow harmonic rhythm (the same chord spanning a large number of measures) and few different modes/tonic centers. John Coltrane’s Naima is also a great choice with plenty of beautiful modal colors. The harmonic rhythm is faster with this tune though, so take it step by step (1 or 2 bars at a time) and extend the harmonic rhythm if necessary (i.e. play several bars of the first chord, the same number of bars of the second chord, and make a loop out of the two-chord progression; then repeat with the next couple of chords and so on!).
One of the four public radio stations (and the youngest one) belonging to Radiodifusión Nacional del Uruguay, Babel broadcasts instrumental music 24/7 in the whole country (97.1 FM in Montevideo and 100.9 FM in Maldonado) and worldwide through its website. Focusing on jazz, fusion, and world music, its motto is “Quality music to drop prejudice.”
During the festival held in Mercedes in January 2020, their program “Jazz a la Calle especiales” covered the live shows with music and artist interviews. AfuriKo was featured on 14 January 2020, alongside two Argentinian bands: Ingrid and the Córdoba Jazz Orchestra.