Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Modal Basis of the Grateful Dead’s Jams and Songs

In rock history the Grateful Dead pioneered long, probing, and psychedelically oriented improvisational jams, best represented by their song “Dark Star.”  However, most of these jams were not free form but actually highly organized musical structures, and followed the lines of exposition found in modal jazz of the late 1950s and 1960s, especially Miles Davis, John Coltrane (names well known to Deadheads) and their followers.
Davis’s most famous modal composition is “So What” (referenced by the Dead once in 1988, click here for example), which is based on the D Dorian mode, or D-E-F-G-A-B (natural, instead of flat as it is in minor)-C.  In each of the modes there is usually at least one defining note that imparts the unique sonic flavor to the mode.  In the case of the Dorian it is the raised sixth note, B, producing the interval of a major sixth when heard against the tonic note, D.  
The turn to modal jazz in the late 1950s by Davis, Coltrane, and Bill Evans, among others, was precipitated by George Russell’s 1953 book, Lydian Concepts.  In the book he makes the theoretical case, relying on examples drawn from modern Classical music, for a modal-based improvisational practice. The result was that it freed musicians from the rigid nature of soloing over chord changes, and allowed the musicians who were comping the chords—the pianist and bassist, or guitarist—to play variant notes of the mode as an accompaniment.  The end result was a melodic or linear approach to improvisation, where instead of playing the chords, the players were freed to invent new lines and melodies based on the mode.  Note that the best players would deviate from the mode, as Davis did on “So What” by incorporating the C# or chromatic runs. 
The Dorian mode was an easy place for jazz artists to start, in that it already contained the pentatonic collection found in the blues that was also major source for jazz.  Spelling it out, the collection of notes in the Dorian mode contains the notes of the minor pentatonic scale, or D-F-G-A-C.
In posts to follow, I will explore some of the musical choices the Grateful Dead made in terms of modal structures.  Great Dorian jams are found in:  “Playing in the Band” (D), “King Solomon’s Marbles” (B), and “Eyes of the World” (B).  “Eyes” is a special case because it uses modal mixture, that is, mixing the Dorian mode (B-C#-D-E-F#-G#-A) with the standard major scale (starting on E:  E-F#-G#-A-B-C#-D#); note in these two scales the ½-step chromatic relationship between D and D#. In a coming post I will analyze the outro to the early “Eyes,” from 1973-1974, which featured some chord changes and musical riffs not found in 1975 and beyond. This modal mixture turning on an E reference is also found in the so-called “Mountain Jam” portion of “Alligator,” where the E minor pentatonic (E-G-A-B-D) gives way to the E major pentatonic (E-F#-G#-B-C#) quotation of the Donovan song “There is a Mountain,” which is then spiced with a D# from the E major scale (note the parallel rise in the third and the seventh:  G-G#, D-D#); finally Phil’s bass line powerfully reiterates the E minor pentatonic to bring back the final chorus. 
In addition to the Dorian mode, the Dead often employ the Mixolydian mode (a major scale with a lowered seventh degree).  For example, “Dark Star” is based on A Mixolydian (A-B-C#-D-E-F#-G) with some interesting chromatic choices.  “Let it Grow,” “Wharf Rat,” “Aiko,” “Franklin’s Tower,” “Bird Song,” and “Deal” also use this mode in their jams.  The Lydian mode (a major scale with a raised fourth degree), not often found in popular music, is also found in the Dead, in the song “Fire on the Mountain,” where the raised fourth degree E# is prominently heard in the main guitar riff as a lower neighbor note to the F#. 
Taking this idea of modal soloing a step further, I will try to show how modal linear thinking in turn also influenced the Dead’s vertical thinking, that is, the kind of chord progressions used in their music.  As an obvious example, the main “Dark Star” vamp can be heard as having two chords, A and G (with the caveat that in modal jamming, the chords are not of the first order of relevance, and sometimes the chords are ambiguous or only casually present in the accompaniment—sometimes the E minor substitutes for the G).  Here the G chord is built on the defining lowered seventh degree of the A Mixolydian scale. “Wharf Rat” is similar, and indeed this song seems closely related to “Dark Star.”  Here the Mixolydian note “G” is the third of the E minor chord, where the main verse of the song is sung to an oscillating A chord and E minor chord.  A song permeated with Mixolydian thinking is “Althea,” where the tonic is E (Bm>A>E, a minor twist on the standard blues V-IV-I, ), but the B minor (the opening chord of the song) also has the third, D, which is the Mixolydian 7th scale degree in E; finally the song’s chorus and bridge state the VII chord, or D major. 
Stay tuned for more modal and harmonic analysis of these and other songs.