Composition and arranging techniques from Grand Union Orchestra composer/director Tony Haynes

6: More on scales and improvisation

The ideas explored here come straight out of a workshop with the Grand Union Youth Orchestra I was doing recently with two other Grand Union Orchestra core musicians – Australian Louise Elliott (tenor saxophone and flute), who is expert on Latin-American music as well as being a great jazz player; and Yousuf Ali Khan (tabla and voice), whose internationally-acclaimed expertise extends from Bengali folk song to North Indian classical music.

When I came in, Louise was running over Benny Golson’s Killer Joe – with a salsa feel rather than mid-tempo swing, as it’s more straightforward for young players, a bit less intimidating when it comes to improvisation. Here are the bones of the piece in this form:

For the purposes of improvisation practice (including the invention of backing figures and riffs), you can ignore the middle eight and cycle just the first two bars, two 7th chords a tone apart, and play from the component notes of these chords. However, there is another approach…

After the break, Yousuf introduced one of his rag-based compositions, Rag Charukeshi:

To get into these pieces, we go over the scale a few times that the Rag is based on; in this case it starts as a major scale, but has a flattened 6th and 7th (there’s also a useful Indian way of practising scales in groups of mixed ability, which is demonstrated here too):

Louise then pointed out that the way she gained fluency as a young musician was to devise patterns that grouped notes together ascending or descending; this is the example she gave (top line), but of course the variations are limitless:

Yousuf then pointed out that this corresponds exactly with the way South Asian musicians gain fluency in certain rags – a technique known as ‘vakra’ – and the patterns can be applied to any raga, where there are infinitely more varieties than the European major or minor scales and modes; the bottom line is an example he gave, but of course again the variations are limitless.

At this point, I realised that the tonality of Killer Joe and Rag Charukeshi were related, and that the same scale could actually be fitted to both chords:

Using this technique, it is possible to improvise melodically over the two-bar sequence without having to think ‘vertically’ of each change from C7 to Bb7 – a tremendous liberation for less experienced players! – and in fact it’s a great way to explore the effect of ‘extensions’ (the 9ths, 11ths, 13ths etc) that are implied in the basic harmony.

Then by a reverse process, Killer Joe-type harmonies suggested themselves for Yousuf’s theme, and finally of course it adopted a kind of Latin rhythm:

This is not necessarily how Yousuf would like his composition performed, of course, and it’s quite likely we shall not do it again! However, it’s a great example of how several radically different approaches to music-making – particularly when they come from different musical cultures – can spark off each other to great creative effect.


Yousuf suggested some very ingenious possible tihais for his composition, which explore the same basic idea, but get progressively longer:

You can see the principle – a three-times related phrase which goes across the four-square basic pulse, but miraculously resolves on the first beat of the bar!

These devices pepper South Asian music, especially the improvisations of classical Indian musicians, and serve as very effective structural signposts. I shall explore this technique further future blogs – see Post 8; in the meantime, as a taster, try Collateral Damage from If Paradise (track 21 on the Music page of the Grand Union Orchestra website) – but listen not to the jazz soloists but the ‘big band’ backing figures.


One comment on “6: More on scales and improvisation

  1. viviennesoan
    December 30, 2012

    Reblogged this on viviennesoan and commented:
    Thanks . Where are you now Louise?

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This entry was posted on November 27, 2011 by in Composition, Music and tagged , , , , , .
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