What is Modal Jazz? 5 Albums That Define The Genre

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Modal jazz is a type of jazz music that originated in the 1950s. The most famous example of modal jazz is Miles Davis’ seminal record Kind of Blue. Modal jazz is unique in the fact it uses musical modes instead of chord changes as the basis of its harmonic structure.

The introduction of modes in jazz music gave rise to some of the most-celebrated jazz albums of all time.

Read on to learn about the history, theory, and evolution of the genre. Or skip to the bottom to dive straight into five of the records that defined the genre.

What is a mode in music?

To understand what modal jazz is, we need to understand what a mode is. A musical mode is a way of ordering notes in a scale, specifying which notes can be used. There are seven different musical modes, some major and some minor.

Modes have not just been used in jazz music but have been utilised in music throughout history. Modes get their names from ancient Greece, with each of the different modes referring to a different region in ancient Greece.

Modes are commonly associated with Gregorian chant and church music but today are used in a variety of modern genres including pop, rock, and jazz.

wayne shorter

The seven different musical modes are as follows: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian.

Although there are seven, the most popular ones used in the composition of jazz music are Dorian, Ionian and Mixolydian.

Modes are essentially a type of scale. For example, Ionian mode runs from C to C, and it is effectively the same as a  major scale. Starting at the root, the internal between the notes is tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone, semitone.

By comparison, Dorian on D runs from D to D. The internal between the notes is tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone, semitone, tone.  Modes provide a theoretical framework for the melody, as particular modes dictate which notes you can use to create a melody.

dorian d mode
Dorian on D

How is using modes different to using chords?

Modes give a wider scope for experimentation as they offer a different way to create harmony. In jazz, before musicians started using modes, they used chords to construct harmony.

Chords and chord progressions can be limiting in comparison to modes as they limit the range of notes that can be used. When musicians use modes to construct harmonies, they can use the seven notes in the mode.

This produces greater possibilities for improvisation which makes it such a useful framework for jazz music. Essentially, when we talk about modal jazz, we are referring to how the improvisation occurs vertically in modes, instead of horizontally with chords.

How is modal jazz different from tonal jazz?

The terms modality and tonality cannot strictly be separated, but in essence tonal music belongs to typical music theory one learns, so has major and minor keys, a tonal centre (a root note) and functional harmony. 

Modality also has a tonal centre but uses modes instead and does not use a functional harmony. When using modes, chords are not tied to anything and do not need to resolve, and a chord progression is not necessary.

How is modal jazz different from other types of Jazz?

The main difference between modal jazz and other types of jazz is the use of modal harmony. The use of modes distinguishes it from earlier bebop and hard bop, and the later development of free jazz.

Bebop & Hard Bop

Before Modal jazz, bebop and hard bop were the predominant types of jazz. Bebop is typified by a fast tempo with quick chord and key changes. Songs are structured around predetermined complex chord progressions, with solo improvisation occurring over the top of this.

Modal jazz in comparison is based on predetermined modes and is a lot slower in pace. With fewer changes between modes throughout a song, and the slower tempo used in modal jazz, there is more space for improvisation.

Free Jazz

Modal jazz differentiates itself from the later genre of free jazz due to its structure around modes. Whilst modal jazz did away with the so-called restraints of chord progressions in the name of improvisation, free jazz did away with modes as a restraint. This lack of any restraints gives free jazz its free nature.

herbie hancock

The History of Modal Jazz

In 1953, composer and bandleader George Russell published a book entitled ‘Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organisation.’

This seminal jazz theory book was instrumental in presenting how modes could be used in jazz and solidified their use. The book influenced Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and other jazz musicians at the time.

Russell outlined how jazz musicians could use modes for improvisation and did not have to stick to chord progressions. This was also at a time where jazz musicians like Miles Davis and Charles Mingus wanted to find a different harmonic basis for jazz music, so the use of modes was welcomed.

The most notable record influenced by this book was undoubtedly Kind of Blue by Miles Davis released in 1959.

Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, Jackie Mclean and others all went on to use modes in their music, creating various sensational albums and performances. After some years of modal jazz being the predominant form of jazz music, the path was laid for the emergence of free jazz.

Here are five of the best modal jazz albums that illustrate the sound of the genre.

Kind of Blue – Miles Davis (1959)

miles davis kind of blue

Kind of Blue is the best-selling jazz album of all time and contains some of the best examples of modal jazz. On this record Davis plays with John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Julian Adderley, Jimmy Cob and Paul Chambers to form a sextet. The songs ‘So What’ and ‘Flamenco Sketches’ are quintessential examples of modal jazz with ‘So What’ being based upon the Dorian mode.

However as much as some tracks on this album exemplify modal jazz, as Samuel Barret and others note, not all the tracks on this album are based upon modality. As Barret argues, despite the story in music history about this album being renowned for its use of modal jazz, the album has other roots and influences coming from blues which should not be ignored.

Empyrean Isles – Herbie Hancock (1964)

Empyrean Isles - Herbie Hancock

In 1964, Hancock along with Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter and Tony Williams released this excellent album. The original compositions by Hancock established him as a major jazz artist in his own right. The album contains the track ‘Cantaloupe Island’ which is a classic example of modal jazz.

My Favourite Things – John Coltrane (1961)

My Favourite Things - John Coltrane

The eponymous track on this album is a modal reimagining of The Sound of Music classic ‘My Favourite Things’.  It earned Coltrane wider popularity as it became a commercial success and would be featured on various radio stations throughout 1961. This was the first album featuring Coltrane playing the soprano saxophone as he played alongside McCoy Tyner, Steve Davis, and Elvin Jones.

Speak No Evil – Wayne Shorter (1966)

Speak No Evil - Wayne Shorter

Speak No Evil contains elements of modal jazz as well as harp bop. This critically renowned record of jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter features Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Elvin Jones. It was released whilst Shorter was a member of Miles Davis’ 1960s quintet.

The Real McCoy – McCoy Tyner (1967)

The Real McCoy - McCoy Tyner

Although McCoy Tyner is not that strongly associated with modal jazz, this album released in 1967, combines features of modal jazz with post-bop. Recorded after Tyner’s exit from John Coltrane’s quartet, the album features Tyner on piano alongside Joe Henderson on tenor saxophone, Ron Carter on bass and Elvin Jones on drums.

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