Modal Music: Older…..but Newer Too

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medieval mss File:Dorian_mode_C coltrane miles someday maalouf wind

The other night I was listening to a Beirut-born, Paris-based quarter-tone trumpeter named Ibrahim Maalouf.  He’s the son of the renowned master of the Arabic trumpet, Nassim Maalouf.   Most people have heard this unusual instrument in Jon Hassell’s muscial dreamscapes.

As I was listening, the band kicked into a modal groove and the stars aligned.  This is the groove base of Arabic, Indian and other world music.   Although the band members are seasoned jazz pros (Mark Turner, sax, Clarence Penn, drums, and Larry Grenadier, bass, they all were very comfortable and adept in the modal style.

Modal music is very old—think of  Early Music, the genre that preceded the Renaissance and Baroque styles.   It’s dominance ended around 1500 with the Renaissance and birth of modern polyphony and the harmonic counterpoint that came later with Bach.   Modal also provides the base of Indian and Arabic music going all the way back to the middle ages.  Modal music is a system wherein there is a base note or tonic that all other notes play against.  Think of the tambura or drone in Indian music;  the sitar plays ascending and descending notes against this “home plate” drone and different musical values result, both consonant and dissonant.

If you have a piano take all white keys up an octave from middle C.  That’s the Dorian mode.  If you play a C chord–C, E, G, C–it sounds very different from Dorian.

We’ve all heard modal style in Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, which is based on just two chords.  There is also “Teo” from Miles’ Someday My Prince Will Come” or “Solea” from Sketches of Spain, and Coltrane’s “India” on his Impressions album, which was inspired by Ravi Shankar.  Keyboard genius the late Joe Zawinul would go modal for hour-long pieces.   Modern classical composers have also embraced modal thinking and composition.  One musician characterized modal music as “few chords, lots of space”.   Compare Miles Davis with, say, Clifford Brown, and you can immediately see that Miles liked lots of space provided by the modal style and its absence of constant chord changes.

The interesting thing for me is that musicians, say the post-bop generation of Miles and Coltrane got away from chordal music and embraced the modal style, not to sound older but rather to create a new music that could break away from Charlie Parker’s bebop and the later hard bop style.  Modes can create a hypnotic effect on listeners as well:  it’s a more meditative form that causes the mind to dream.  Coltrane studied Ravi Shankar’s music and it was only the saxophonist’s early demise that prevented him from studying with the Indian master on a regular basis.   Compare Coltane’s “Giant Steps” with “India” and you’ll hear the difference between chordal and modal.  Or just listen to a raga and you’ll get it.   Come to think of it, Ravel’s “Bolero” is also modal, like much arabic-andalusian music.