Larry Coryell — Jazz Minor (Altered Scale) Lesson

A pretty cool lesson on what Larry Coryell calls the Jazz Minor Scale, also known as the Altered scale. You can hear jazz players use the concepts involved with this scale all the time and it makes for some really nice improvisation options over dominant seven chords. The song that really got me into jazz, and the first one I was playing the chords and melody well enough to enjoy playing, was Django Reinhardt’s 1953 (electric) version of Night and Day. I LOVE this version of the song and quote some of the licks on a regular basis. In his first chorus Django uses Altered Scale licks against the Fm7b5 – Bb7 (2-5 in the key of Eb) and this, combined with the awesome tone of his amplified Selmer gives the song a very sophisticated, MODERN jazz sound. I usually play Night and Day in the key of D as do a lot of other Gypsy Jazzers and it is the key Django and the Hot Club of France recorded his first pass at the song in 1938. Comparing the two versions is a good measure of how far Django progressed over the course of his career. He always had great musical sense, timing, and phrasing abilities, but in my opinion the later version is miles better yet is still obviously Django. Recorded only two months before he died, I think it is another example of a recording that obviously disproves the argument that he lost his edge after WW II.

Larry Coryell has been a guitar virtuoso since the 1960s and has played with many heavies throughout the years including (to once again bring this back to Gypsy Jazz): Stephane Grappelli on the 1979 album Young Django and modern Gypsy Jazz/Jazz powerhouse Bireli Lagrene on the 1997 Spaces Revisited. He also did an album with Emily Remler that I think is fantastic and have in my great discs column on the RIGHT >>>>>. I don’t have nearly enough of the stuff he has done and hope to be able to get more in my collection sometime in the near future. In these two videos he goes over various concepts and uses for the Altered Scale and illustrates the more salient points with the jazz standard Stella by Starlight as an example. Stella isn’t an easy tune unless you are already a pretty adept player, so I think it’s important to focus on the scales and chords he shows in the beginning and the simple licks he demonstrates at the end to really get the sound of this stuff in your head. Obviously these scales and chords for every key are all over the neck so just getting that ingrained will take a little bit of time. Usually if I see a lesson like this I will pull out the bits I can do and then return to it later to pick up on the more advanced stuff. Larry says “take your time”, and in my recent post on how our brains learn music, research, that’s right, SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH has shown that a focused, step by step approach is much better in the long run than trying to learn it all in one go. Having said that — if you have been playing Gypsy Jazz you will notice (Larry covers this in the 2nd video) that while this scale can be described or thought of as a major scale with a minor third, or similar to a harmonic minor scale, or a major-minor scale, it can also, with the addition of a seventh before the root, be seen as a combination of the diminished and a whole tone scale. Of course these are two very commonly-used scales and arpeggios in Gypsy Jazz, so if you have been working with them, you will probably have an easier time integrating the Altered scale into your playing. In a future post I will show some of the licks in Django’s Night and Day just because they are topical and fun to play.

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