Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 25

Jim Gold Word Count: 3851

Pattern in melodic improvisation and harmonic progression in the music of John Coltrane:
with particular reference to Coltrane's improvised cadenza during his rendition of Billy Eckstine's composition 'I Want to Talk about You', and his manipulation of similar devices in his compositions and improvisation.

Jim Gold Abstract

In Pattern in melodic improvisation and harmonic progression in the music of John Coltrane, I aimed to demystify John Coltranes music and present a case for its clear internal logic and structural beauty. I also hoped to create a document useful for those studying jazz improvisation and harmony. For this essay I focussed primarily on Coltranes improvised cadenza during his rendition of the Billy Eckstine composition I Want to Talk about You. To carry out a meaningful harmonic analysis, I needed a transcription, so I undertook this task myself. In addition to reading what I could find on the subject, I consulted one of Europes leading experts on Coltranes music, Mornington Lockett. He was able to provide valuable insights and suggest fresh avenues of research. In my analysis I attempted to identify recognizable patterns and shapes in Coltranes improvisation, such as triad pairs, hexatonics and II-V-I language. I also related the devices used to similar examples in the rest of Coltranes body of work. My results were conclusive in proving the wealth of pattern and structure in Coltranes music, and I inadvertently managed to find evidence of Coltranes influence on younger musicians.

Jim Gold


Contents Introduction Deriving Shapes and Patterns from Scales Repeating Motifs Use of Triad Pairs Use of Synthetic Scales Use of the Three-Tonic Cycle Conclusion Bibliography Discography

3 4 6 10 13 16 19 23 24 25

Jim Gold

John Coltrane (1926-1947) was a leading African-American jazz musician, performing mainly on tenor and soprano saxophones. Coltranes music is renowned for its fiery creativity and the saxophonists visceral approach. This uninhibited style has led some listeners to be dismissive of his style, considering his note choice to be random and meaningless. This is particularly true of his more unhinged performances, such as the seminal free jazz album Ascension and the cadenza which follows his performance of I Want to Talk about You on the album Live at Birdland. The words of Associate Editor of prominent jazz publication Downbeat, John Tynan, who stated, on listening to a 1961 performance of the saxophonist, that [he] listened to a horrifying demonstration of what appears to be a growing anti-jazz trend exemplified by those foremost proponents [Coltrane and fellow saxophonist, Eric Dolphy] of what is termed avant-garde music1 exemplify this trend. It is this cadenza which this essay will attempt to rationalise and interpret, in order to go some way in understanding Coltranes thought process. In this way it might convince sceptics of the internal logic of Coltranes music. I will relate my analysis of sections of the cadenza to other examples of Coltrane using similar techniques, both in improvisation and compositions. By doing this I hope to strengthen my interpretation of Coltranes techniques by establishing continuity in his work.

Coltranes motivation for playing these kinds of free cadenzas is touched upon in The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, where it is stated that in pieces such as Giant Steps, Coltrane, by seeking to escape harmonic clichshad inadvertently created a onedimensional improvisatory style. In the late 1950s he pursued two alternative directions. First his expanding technique enabled him to play what the critic Ira Gitler called sheets of sound2. (Italics mine) It is these sheets of sound that can be heard clearly in the cadenza to I Want to Talk About You. Furthermore, Barry Kernfeld comments that such flurriesdisguised his excessive reiteration of

John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy Answer The Jazz Critics, Down Beat Magazine, http://www.downbeat.com/default.asp?sect=stories&subsect=story_detail&sid=212 (Accessed June 18 2008) 2 Barry Kernfeld, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz (New York: Macmillan Publishers Ltd), s.v. "John Coltrane."

Jim Gold formulae. It is this very concealing that I will attempt to make lucid in this essay by revealing Coltranes techniques.

The transcription and analysis of these extracts is valuable to the jazz community as a whole, and in particular the improvising jazz musician. From Coltranes use of patterns and shapes the improviser will be able to derive his own melodic and harmonic material that will add to his jazz vocabulary. Furthermore it may inspire him or her to investigate Coltranes cyclic systems and potentially create fresh systems influenced by them.

In order to identify the patterns used, I undertook the task of transcribing notable sections from the cadenza. By listening carefully I was able to configure these sounds to standard Western musical notation. It should be noted that the lack of fixed meter makes precise notation of rhythms particularly challenging, but the transcriptions that have been produced are nonetheless an invaluable tool in analysing Coltranes music. All transcriptions are mine unless otherwise noted.

Jim Gold

Deriving Shapes and Patterns from Scales

Fig.1. John Coltrane, I Want to Talk About You, (06:30 06:40)

If we analyse this section in depth it is possible to see it as implying a II-V-I cadence typical of the jazz idiom, one that Coltrane would have been very familiar with. An example of such a cadence would be the Dm7 G7 Cmaj7 that comes in the last 4 bars of a conventional jazz 12 bar blues in C major. This extract is to some degree a pastiche of the clichd jazz lick shown below, which is often played over a II-V-I cadence.

Fig 2. Conventional jazz II-V lick

Fig 3. John Coltrane, I Want to Talk About You, (06:35 06:40)

Particularly from bar 5 in Coltranes phrase we see the guide tone of F# (implying the chord of G minor with a major 7th) descend to an F (implying G minor with a lowered 7th) and then to an E (forming the 3rd of C7). Fig. 3 above indicates these common guide-tones with arrows.

Jim Gold

A scale that jazz musicians commonly use over dominant seventh chords is the altered scale. This scale is a mode of the melodic minor scale, and is formed by starting on the leading note of that scale.

Fig 4. G altered scale

Over a tonality of G7, this scale emphasises all the notes that are outside the conventional sound of the chord, and so is typical of harmonically complex jazz. In How to Comp, Hal Crook describes this effect as altered tensions3. Notably, the 3rd (B) and 7th (F) are not altered, as this would too drastically change the function of the chord.

In addition to playing the scale in a linear fashion one can also derive a number of shapes and patterns from it. Just as we can derive F and G major triads from C major scale, we can derive C# and D# major triads from the G altered scale. Below we see how both Ab and Bb(A#) minor triads are also built into the altered scale.

Fig.5. Minor Triads in G altered scale

It is the minor triad that is built on the b2 of the scale that Coltrane uses in this extract.

Hal Crook, How to Comp, (Advance Music, 1995) p.17

Jim Gold

Fig.6. John Coltrane, I Want to Talk About You, (06:37 06:40)

Here we see, in the context of a C dominant seventh chord, a C# minor triad. This is a clear indication of Coltrane deriving the minor triad shape from the C altered scale.

We can see many examples of Coltrane superimposing harmony over existing chord changes outside of this cadenza. Often he will use triadic or arpeggaic constructions as these are often the clearest ways to describe harmony. An example might be bars 912 of the saxophonists solo on Blue Train from the album of the same name. Blue Train, as its name suggests, is a 12 bar-blues in the key of Eb. Therefore, the last 4 bars of each 12 bar chorus contain a II-V-I cadence in the key of Eb. In his solo, Coltrane does not stick rigidly to the chords of Fm7 - Bb 7 - Eb 7, but instead implies contrasting harmony over the top.

Fig.7. John Coltranes solo on Blue Train, bars 8-12.

The key section is shown with the square brackets. In this section Coltrane is not using the altered scale over the C7 chord, as the F natural used in the line does not fit into that scale.

Jim Gold

Fig.8. C Altered Scale

Instead it appears that Coltrane is implying a minor plagal cadence over the chord changes. Since a plagal cadence is the resolution from chord IV to chord I, a minor plagal cadence is the resolution from chord IV minor to chord I. In this case that resolution is from the clear Bb minor shape indicated by the square brackets to the F natural that is the first note of the next bar. This example demonstrates that Coltrane was not limited to altered scale vocabulary in his harmonic language.

Jim Gold


Repeating Motifs
In the cadenza Coltrane does repeat certain ideas that demonstrate that his improvisation is to some degree based on things that he has assimilated and practiced rather than being completely wild and free. One such motif is heard twice, once at (06:16) and again at (06:24)

Fig.9. Coltranes repeating motif.

If we assume that this pattern is derived from a diatonic scale or mode, there are several possible harmonic interpretations of it. The one I thought of at first was that it could imply the tonality of G Lydian.

Fig.10. Harmonic implications of Coltranes motif

Similarly it could be descriptive of any of the church modes of D. Also the notes of the motif fit into the scale of E melodic minor.

Fig.11. Further Harmonic implications of Coltranes motif

These and other interpretations are possible, and nobody can definitely state what Coltrane was thinking. However, Mornington Lockett has suggested me that the motif

Jim Gold could imply several of the altered tensions over the chord of Eb 7. All the notes of


the motif fit into the Eb altered scale. Remember that the altered scale is the same as the melodic minor scale a semitone up, and so just as the motif fits into E melodic minor scale, it fits into the Eb altered scale.4

Fig.12. Further Harmonic implications of Coltranes motif

This is possibly the most practical use of this shape for jazz improvisers, as dominant seventh chords are extremely common in jazz harmony.

If we look at this motif in its historical context there are several interesting things about it. The first is that we can see the late Michael Brecker, a celebrated saxophonist and devotee of John Coltranes music, using an identical shape in bar 92 of his solo on the piece Pools by the jazz fusion group Steps Ahead.

Fig.13. Michael Brecker Pools solo.

The brackets indicate the relevant segment; we can see that it is simply a transposed version of the original Brecker construction. This pattern is well known and attributed to Brecker. On his website Mornington Lockett refers to a version of this pattern as a classic Michael Brecker construction.

4 5

Mornington Lockett, interview by author, Winter 2008. Transcription by Charles McNeal, http://www.charlesmcneal.com/, (19th June 2009)

Jim Gold


Fig.14. Classic Michael Brecker Construction from Mornington Lockett

The relationship between Breckers pattern and the motif by Coltrane is clear. It seems very likely that Brecker, who is known to have transcribed a great deal of Coltranes music, heard this motif (perhaps subconsciously) and created his version of it. This is a very exciting discovery and it surely demonstrates how artists as great as Brecker are very much influenced by their own heroes just like the novice jazz musician.

Jim Gold


Use of Triad Pairs

The use of triad pairs is well documented in jazz. Several books exclusively cover this topic such as Walt Weiskopfs Intervallic Improvisation: The Modern Sound and Gary Campbells Triad Pairs for Jazz. The most common technique is to alternate the use of two triads, creating a hexatonic (six note) scale. However, as Jason Lynn states in his article on the technique, in order for this approach to yield a hexatonic (six note) scale, the two triads must be mutually exclusive they must contain no common tones.6

This technique can create some very interesting colours of tonality. Below we see how two major triads (the most common pairing of triads) can produce, on a major chord, a Lydian or #11 sound.

Fig.15. Example 1 of triad pairs.

Similarly, over a dominant 7th chord, two major triads can produce the sound of a suspended 4th, or, as it would be known to jazz musicians, a sus chord.

Fig.16. Example 2 of triad pairs.

In Coltranes cadenza on I Want to Talk About You we can clearly see his use of this technique.

Part II, Hexatonics, Jason Lynn, http://www.opus28.co.uk/jazz3hex.pdf, (18th June 2007)

Jim Gold


Fig.17. John Coltrane, I Want to Talk About You, (06:04 06:10)

Here we see the alternating of E minor triad and F major triad along with C augmented triad and Bb diminished triad.

Fig.18. Coltranes use of triad pairs, Example 1

Since Coltrane is not playing over a fixed chord sequence at this point, it is harder to decipher what tonality this triad pair implies. The most obvious would be that of C major with a #11, i.e. the church mode of C Lydian. Because a diatonic scale cannot contain 3 semitones next to one another, the missing seventh note from the hexatonic must be D, as either Db or D# would result in a non-diatonic scale. This would indicate that the tonality implied must be that of one of the church modes of C. However, as we will see by Coltranes use of synthetic scales, there is no need for us to be bound to the conventions of diatonic scales in our analysis of his music.

Fig.19. Coltranes use of triad pairs, Example 2

In this example the triad pairs are not mutually exclusive, and so together create a pentatonic scale rather than a hexatonic. This pentatonic is very interesting and could be used to describe several advanced jazz harmonic sounds.

Jim Gold


Fig. 20. Pentatonic derived from Coltranes Triad Pairs

This is perhaps one the most attractive of its possible manifestations. In the context of a C7 chord the pentatonic contains two altered tensions that are found in the altered scale that were covered in the first section of this essay. These are the b2 and #5 (Db and G#). In addition, the natural 3rd (E) and flattened 7th (Bb) mean that the chords function is not obscured the scale only colours it. This is a prime example of how the analysis of Coltranes cadenza can produce material that is suitable for improvisers to absorb into their melodic and harmonic vocabulary.

Jim Gold


Use of Synthetic Scales

Synthetic scales can be defined as non-diatonic scales, i.e. scales that are not modes of the major, harmonic major, harmonic minor or melodic minor scales. Examples of these are the whole-tone scale and the diminished scale. Classical musicians may know these same scales as Messiaens 1st and 2nd modes of limited transposition. Another example of a synthetic scale is the augmented scale. This is constructed of alternating minor thirds and semitones to form a six note scale (hexatonic). It can also be thought of as two augmented triads a semitone apart and so another example of the technique of triad pairs that has already been noted.

Fig. 21. Augmented Scale

If the order of intervals is reversed so that the scale is now formed by repeating semitone-minor third, this new scale is called the inverted augmented scale.

Fig. 22. Inverted Augmented Scale

The following extract can be analysed and shown to be an example of Coltrane using the inverted augmented scale.

Jim Gold


Fig.23. John Coltrane, I Want to Talk About You, (07:08-07:10)

Further analysis can give an indication of the tonalities that Coltrane is implying in this phrase.

Fig.24. John Coltrane, I Want to Talk About You, (07:08-07:10)

This shows how the shape of the augmented scale can be used to outline an augmented tonality, i.e. a chord containing a #5.

One might say that we cannot be sure that Coltrane was thinking of this exact scale when improvising this extract. However, there is good evidence that the saxophonist was very familiar with this synthetic scale. In the book, The Augmented Scale in Jazz, Walt Weiskopf and Ramon Ricker admit that in examining improvised solos it appears to the authors that most soloists have used augmented scales and triads in an intuitive manner. It is doubtful that many of the players cited in this book have systematically tried to codify their use of this material. However, they go on to say that two players that might be an exception to this speculation are John Coltrane and Michael Brecker.7

The clearest indicator of Coltranes familiarity with the augmented scale is his use of it in his composition One Down, One Up. This piece has a form of AABA and is

Walt Weiskopf and Ramon Ricker, The Augmented Scale (New Albany: Jamey Aebersold Jazz, Inc, 1993), page 6.

Jim Gold comparable with Miles Davis composition So What in its use of only two chords


each A section is Bb 7#5 throughout and likewise each B section is composed only of Ab 7#5.

Fig.25. First 3 bars of Coltranes One Down, One Up

As shown below, this extract from One Down, One Up contains all but one notes of the inverted augmented scale, and includes no tones extraneous to that scale.

Given that this melody was pre-composed and thought-out carefully, we can be almost certain that Coltrane was thinking of an augmented scale as the basis for his melodic material. Therefore we can be confident that the examples of augmented scale material in the cadenza were intentional by the saxophonist.

Jim Gold


Use of the Three-Tonic Cycle

To jazz musicians, John Coltranes most infamous composition is surely Giant Steps. This piece is well-known for being a minefield for improvisers who are often tested on their ability to successfully navigate the treacherous chord changes. In Giant Steps, instead of following most common jazz standards which modulate generally round the cycle of fourths or in tone and semitone shifts, Coltrane takes the major third as the basic for his harmonic movement. A number of common standards did contain elements of this kind of modulation, such as Rodgers and Harts Have you Met Miss Jones.

Fig.26. Chord Changes to the B section of Have you Met Miss Jones, Rodgers & Hart (Note: Have You Met Miss Jones is generally played a semitone lower than it is notated here, but I have shown it in this key for each of comparison to Giant Steps)

As we can see, the initial tonal centre of B moves down a minor third to G by way of a traditional II-V-I cadence, typical of jazz harmony. Notably, in the 6th bar of this bridge the direction of the major third cycle changes, and the Eb tonal centre rises to G instead of going down to B.

In Giant Steps Coltrane took this technique to new extremes by using several patterns of modulation to traverse the chord sequence. He made frequent use of the technique of prefixing each new tonic centre with its respective II-V cadence or at least its dominant.

Jim Gold


Fig.27 John Coltranes Giant Steps

In the extract notated below, we can see evidence of Coltrane using this system of modulation by major third in his improvisation.

Fig.28 John Coltrane, I Want to Talk About You, (07:36-07:43)

At normal speed this section sounds extremely chaotic, but on closer inspection there is definite pattern in Coltranes use of repeating shapes.

Walt Weiskopf and Ramon Ricker, Giant Steps: A Players Guide to Coltranes Harmony (New Albany: Jamey Aebersold Jazz, Inc, 1994), page 10.

Jim Gold
Fig.29. Locketts analysis of Coltrane


In the above analysis of the key passage from the middle of the extract Mornington Lockett, an expert on Coltranes work, has identified the tonalities that Coltrane is implying. We should keep in mind that Gb major is the relative major of Eb minor, and so for the purposes of this analysis we can treat them as indicative of the same general tonality. Therefore, we can state that the sequence of key centres inside the square brackets is B minor Eb minor G minor Eb minor G minor.10 These three centres (B, Eb and G) form an augmented triad, as they are each a major third away from each other. Therefore, this sequence is an example of Coltrane manipulating the three-tonic cycle that he also used in Giant Steps, by repeating a certain pattern (in this case minor7 arpeggios) in major thirds. This sequence is comparable to the bridge of Have You Met Miss Jones in that it changes direction round the cycle i.e. it does not go from G minor to B minor as one might expect but instead to Eb.

There are further examples in the cadenza of Coltrane using similar ideas involving repeating a pattern while moving it around in major thirds.

Fig.30. Coltrane, I Want to Talk About You, (06:28)

The Online Sax Lesson, Mornington Lockett, http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/morningtonlockett/iso/isosaxlesson.html, (18th June 2009) 10 Ibid

Jim Gold Again the shape being manipulate is that of a minor7 arpeggio and again the relative major of one of the minor chords is implied, in this case D major. While we could


look at both these examples as a textbook use of the three-tonic system, Mornington Lockett has produced a fascinating new interpretation of them. He realised that by taking all the notes of Gm7, Am7 and Ebm7 and forming a linear scale out of them, you come up with a nine note synthetic scale.
Fig.31. Construction of Messiaens 3rd Mode

This scale has the interesting characteristic of containing the first three notes of the natural minor scale repeating every major third. As it turns out this scale was also used by Messiaen as another in his series of Modes of Limited Transposition, in this case Mode 3. As Mr. Lockett states, I am not suggesting that Trane was actually thinking of it in that way, but it is a point of interest. Nonetheless, we know that Coltrane thought incredibly technically into the harmonic implications of various patterns, studying Nicholas Slonimskys Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, in which the Russian-born composer aimed to document all possible combinations of tones. The relationship between Coltrane and this text is well illustrated in Jeff Bairs dissertation, Cyclic Patterns in John Coltranes Melodic Vocabulary as Influenced by Nicholas Slonimskys Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns. This all shows that Coltrane analysed harmony in extreme detail and it is not inconceivable that he conceived of the implications of Messiaens Mode 3 in relation to his 3-tonic cycle.

Jim Gold


Throughout this essay we have seen much evidence that Coltranes improvisation was not random and thoughtless, but instead he considered harmony and scalic patterns in considerable depth. It is telling that something so seemingly random does in fact have a clear internal logic. This surely supports Mark Levine when he states in the introduction to his seminal text The Jazz Theory Book that A great jazz solo consists of 1% magic and 99% stuff that is explainable, analysable, categorisable and doable.11 I hope that studying this essay will help the musician to incorporate elements of John Coltranes harmony into their music. Furthermore, the saxophonist would benefit from playing along with Coltrane and aiming to reproduce his phrasing and tone with precision. In the middle of such a harmonically dense analysis it is easy to forget that there is more to music than just the notes.

In his book Jazz John Fordham relates an anecdote which illustrates Coltranes tendency to play a lot of notes for a long time (demonstrated in this cadenza!). Apparently Coltrane told his bandleader Miles Davis that once immersed in a solo, he didnt know how to stop. Try taking the saxophone out of your mouth, replied Davis.12

11 12

Levine, Mark. The Jazz Theory Book, (Petaluma: Sher Music Co) page vii John Fordham, Jazz (London: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 1993), page 120.

Jim Gold


Crook, Hal, How to Comp,.17, Advance Music.

"John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy Answer the Jazz Critic." Down Beat Magazine. http://www.downbeat.com/default.asp?sect=stories&subsect=story_detail&sid=212 (accessed June 19, 2009).

Fordham, John. Jazz., 120. London: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 1993.

Kernfeld, Barry, ed. The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. New York: Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

Levine, Mark. The Jazz Theory Book. Petaluma: Sher Music Co.

Lockett, Mornington. Interview by author, Winter 2008.

Lockett, Mornington, The Online Sax Lesson http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/morningtonlockett/iso/isosaxlesson.html, (18th June 2009) Mcneal, Charles. "Transcriptions." Charles Mcneal. www.charlesmcneal.com (accessed June 19, 2009).

Weiskopf, Walt, and Ramon Ricker. The Augmented Scale, New Albany: Jamey Aebersold Jazz, Inc, 1993.

Weiskopf, Walt, and Ramon Ricker. Giant Steps: A Players Guide to Coltranes Harmony, New Albany: Jamey Aebersold Jazz, Inc, 1994.

Jim Gold


Coltrane, John. Blue Train. Blue Note Records B000005H40 . CD. 1990.

Coltrane, John. Giant Steps. Atlantic / Wea B000003489 . CD. 1989.

Coltrane, John. My Favourite Songs. Fabulous (USA) PID 763237 . CD. 2003.

Coltrane, John. One Down, One Up: Live at the Half Note. Universal Classics B000B0QOJA . CD. 2005.

Steps Ahead. Steps Ahead. Wea Int'l B000007443 . CD. 1996.