Pentatonic Ideas

One of the things I have found intriguing about Woody’s use of pentatonics is the way he combines different pentatonic scales together in various rhythmic groupings. There has been much written about how pentatonic scales can be used over certain chords (for example, see Jerry Bergonzi’s Pentatonics book) – however, I have recently been thinking about situations where two pentatonic scales a certain interval apart could be used.

  1. Pentatonic scales a semitone apart – This is a classic device of ‘side-stepping’, creating tension by slipping out of key with the underlying harmony before resolving back in the home key. Woody uses this idea frequently – for example, see his solo on If where the entire solo is built around the juxtaposition of the ‘inside’ B flat pentatonic scale and the ‘outside’ B pentatonic scale. Pentatonic scales a semitone apart can also be used over a V-I resolution creating a tritone substitution – for example, a D flat pentatonic can be played over a G7 chord resolving to either a C or D pentatonic over the Cmaj7 chord.
  2. Pentatonic scales a major 2nd apart – These can be played over a maj7 #11 chord, the two pentatonic scales combined actually create a lydian mode (for example, C and D pentatonic scales create C lydian mode).
  3. Pentatonic scales a minor 3rd apart – These can be used over a dominant 7th flat 9 chord – for example, the linking of C and E flat pentatonics will include all the notes of the C mixolydian mode plus an Eflat (the flat 9). The four pentatonic scales coming from the same diminished axis (eg. C, Eflat, F# and A) can also be combined together in the same way the four triads from a diminished scale can be combined over a dominant chord. Finally, switching between pentatonic scales a minor 3rd apart can be a way of playing outside, superimposing a fresh set of chords.
  4. Pentatonic scales a major 3rd apart – It was Woody’s linking of the E flat and B pentatonic scales in tunes such as What Is This Thing Called Love and Rosewood that got me thinking about how various pentatonics can be linked together. In both cases, he uses scales a major 3rd apart to leap outside the changes, possibly influenced by the Giant Steps changes of John Coltrane. He also uses common tones to link the two scales together – for example, the major 3rd of the C pentatonic becomes the root note of the E pentatonic a major 3rd up. The idea can be extended to include all pentatonic scales on the same augmented axis (eg. C, E and G#).
  5. Pentatonic scales a perfect 4th apart – Woody also uses this idea frequently as these two pentatonics combined create a very strong dominant – tonic effect, strongly outlining a tonality. Sometimes this outlined tonality fits with the underlying harmony, sometimes it doesn’t.
  6. Pentatonic scales an augmented 4th apart – These can be combined over a dominant chord, alternating between a simple, unaltered dominant sound and a heavily altered tritone substitution sound.

This covers all possible combinations as pentatonic scales a perfect 5th apart have already been covered talking about those a perfect 4th apart, those a major 6th apart by those a major 3rd apart and so on. All of these combinations have their uses, and I have been practicing the ability to link scales together at will and in a variety of rhythmic groupings as Woody did. I do, however, still have a lot of work to do to get these down.

The Legend of Cheops and Rosewood Transcriptions

Woody Shaw – Rosewood

Here are two transcriptions from the 1979 album Rosewood. Both tunes have long forms with several different sections, and Woody only takes one chorus on each tune. The Legend of Cheops is by Victor Lewis and for the most part has a samba feel to it. The opening section is in concert A, or B major for the trumpet – this is a very difficult key to play in but Woody copes with ease. In fact, the B pentatonic scale appears to be one of Woody’s favourites and he uses it in several of the solos I have transcribed (for example: If, What Is This Thing Called Love and Zoltan). He also spices things up a bit by inserting C naturals (eg. bar 16) and G naturals (eg. bar 18). Woody’s playing in this opening section is a mixture of strongly diatonic, pentatonic material and chromatic scales.

From bar 41, the start of the next section,  Woody does not venture outside the changes for the rest of the solo. Instead, he concentrates on constructing smoothly flowing, melodic lines, often using pentatonic scales but using them in an inside manner – for example, the I pentatonic over a I chord (as heard in the first 40 bars) can be heard at bars 41, 65 and 86, and the II pentatonic over the I chord can be heard at bars 57 and 85. Woody uses the pentatonic scales in an extremely melodic way. His time feel is, as usual, spot on, and I should make a special note of the phrase he plays between bars 52 and 56. This is an exquisite phrase and shows his complete mastery of articulation, as well as the ability to navigate wide intervallic leaps at speed with ease.

The tempo on Rosewood, this one of Woody’s compositions, is again very fast, and his articulation and speed of fingers is astounding, particularly on the semiquaver passages. A fast tongue is essential to playing the wider intervallic leaps employed by Woody, and Woody has developed his tonguing ability to outstanding levels. I am not sure if he is maybe using double tonguing – however, this would also be incredible as double tonguing large intervals is extremely hard.

As with The Legend of Cheops, much of the material is based on pentatonic scales. He uses pentatonics in some of the standard usages – for example, I pentatonic over a I chord (bar 4), V pentatonic over a I chord (bar 8), II pentatonic over a I chord (bar 13), and IV pentatonic over a sus chord (bar 25). But he also uses pentatonics as a means of playing outside. In bars 38-40 he uses chromaticism to switch from C pentatonic down to B pentatonic, then down again to B flat pentatonic, resolving with and F and G over the D-7 chord at the start of bar 40. Then over the Aflat maj7 chord in the next bar, he sets up to play a phrase using the E flat pentatonic scale, only to again use chromaticism to switch to B pentatonic, implying A flat minor – however, he still manges to ensure he resolves correctly with a C natural for the A-7 chord in bar 42. Bar 53 is also interesting – here he starts off playing using the B pentatonic scale, switching up a semitone to C pentatonic on the 4th beat, only for this new scale to become an inside sound as the chord moves to D-7 at the start of bar 54. This is another example of the anticipation of a change of chord, seen already on several other occasions in other solos I have transcribed. Bars 62 to the end are also very effective – here Woody plays almost exclusively notes from the E flat pentatonic scale over shifting chords. The scale is consonant with each chord except for the passing chord of A7sus, and creates a stable frame of reference on top of the shifting harmonies underneath.

Things for me to work on:

  • melodic use of pentatonic scales, using simple applications such as the I pentatonic scale over a I chord
  • mixing strongly diatonic material with chromatic lines
  • faster tongue and finger speed, and an improved time feel (maybe experiment with double tonguing fast passages)
  • shifting between pentatonic scales a semitone apart through the use of chromatic material
  • chord change anticipation
  • use of one consonant pentatonic scale over shifting harmonies

NOTE: Due to a complaint from Victor Lewis, the composer of ‘The Legend of Cheops’, I have removed the transcription of Woody’s solo on this tune.

What have I been practicing?

Here is an idea of some of the things I have been working on in my practice, and ways in which I need to develop further.

  1. Sound – Woody’s sound is one of the things that attracts me most to his playing. I have been playing long note exercises, really focussing on the sound I am making. My aim is a full, fat sound in all areas of the instrument. I have also been working on vibrato exercises and gradually I hope to include more vibrato in my playing. I have also been attempting to include a wider range of articulations and inflexions into my playing. The way for me to tell if these exercises are helping my sound is to record my playing and I hope to be doing this with a band very soon.
  2. Time/feel – I have been working a lot with a metronome on the Herbert L. Clarke Technical Studies book, trying to increase the speed and regularity of my fingers and tongue on basic scale and arpeggio exercises. I feel my articulation has improved since I started working regularly on these exercises, but I still have some way to go until I can match Woody’s articulation skills. My aim is to slowly keep on notching up the metronome markings once I have mastered the previous mark, and to keep on pushing myself by playing at fast tempos. I had a gig in Liverpool last week with the band Marley Chingus which was a real workout for me as they like to play tunes at incredibly fast tempos – however, attempting to play at fast tempos is part of the process of improving and I feel it was very beneficial for me.
  3. Pentatonic scales – I have been working with Jerry Bergonzi’s Pentatonics book, trying to gain fluency with the various patterns he mentions and working out in which contexts various pentatonic scales can be used. I have also been practicing the ability to link together pentatonic scales a certain interval apart in various rhythmic groupings, and I have been studying various contexts where these linked pentatonic scales could be used – I will go into this in more detail in a future post as my ideas are still crystallising. Again, I feel I have improved in this area and pentatonic scales are now an essential part of my improvisational vocabulary. I now need to gain even more fluency, especially when linking scales in irregular rhythmic groupings.
  4. Outside playing – I have been attempting to play outside the harmony a lot more than I used to, and I have been trying out a few ideas, with mixed results. This is the area where I need to put in the most thought in the upcoming weeks and months. The pentatonic approach seems to be to be a fruitful one, especially the linking together of scales a minor or major 3rd apart. I also need to try out the idea of using bebop language in an unconventional manner, as Woody did on his solo on Zoltan. To judge my improvement in this area I really need to record my playing and then transcribe what I played, analysing it to see what I did in what context, and picking out the ideas that worked best to develop further.


I had a really great tutorial with Martin Speake yesterday in which we looked in depth at Woody’s tune Zoltan from the Unity album. I had been having trouble working out the chords for the middle 8, but with Martin’s help I have managed to work them out. Here is a lead sheet for the tune:


The tune opens with a march like theme taken from Zoltan Kodaly’s Hary Janos suite. This theme is a prime example of the lydian sound heard when the pentatonic scale based on the II is played over the I bass note – in this case, D pentatonic over C. The second theme of the tune, marked A on the lead sheet, switches to a latin feel but is harmonically similar, switching between a D pentatonic scale over C to a C pentatonic scale over B flat. This tune is in AABA form, and the solos are over this form. The B section is also comprised of lydian chords which appear fairly straight forward in the head – however, I was later confused by what Woody was playing in his solo. Here is a transcription of the solo:

Woody Shaw – Zoltan

(Warning: this solo is at B flat trumpet pitch, ie. one tone higher than it sounds)

What confused me was the fact that Woody was clearly playing phrases using bebop language outlining the chord of Eflat7 (concert) where I had reckoned the chord to be Gflat maj7#11 – see bars 17 and 49. However, Martin helped me to realise that the chord is still Gflat maj7#11, Woody is just superimposing fresh harmony on it. Here is an example of Woody using bebop language in the ‘wrong’ key to create a fresh sound. Joe Henderson also does this is his solo but in a more ‘inside’ manner – if you listen around 3’38 on the track he can be heard playing F7 bebop language over the chord Eflat maj7#11. Martin and I then proceeded to try out this idea on all of the lydian chords in the tune – firstly, Joe Henderson’s inside way using the bebop scale starting a tone above the root note (Woody also uses this idea – see bars 13 and 37), and then Woody’s more dissonant way using the bebop scale starting a minor third below the root note. In both cases, familiar bebop language is used in a different context to how it is normally used.

Woody does a few other interesting things on this tune. He consistently uses the A pentatonic scale over the Cmaj7#11 chord – this scale mostly fits but there is a clash between the C in the bass and the C# in the scale. In fact, the only time he uses the conventional approach to lydian chords seen in the head – using the pentatonic scale based on the note a tone above the root – is at bar 81 where he plays Aflat pentatonic over Gflat maj7#11 (concert pitches). This solo shows that Woody was not content to use the conventional pentatonic approach, he wanted to explore and discover new ways of incorporating dissonance. It also shows his respect for jazz language of the past and a willingness to incorporate it in fresh situations. There is much in this solo for me to explore further.

More Transcriptions

Here are two more transcriptions I have done:

Woody Shaw – You Stepped Out Of A Dream

Woody Shaw – If

You Stepped Out Of A Dream is taken from the 1986 album Solid, and whilst it is not a particularly adventurous solo harmonically, it is still a very impressive solo. Woody’s sound and sense of melody on the solo are fantastic, and his time feel is impeccable. He uses a lot more scalic passages than he did as a younger man, and the big intervallic leaps are becoming less evident. Woody uses several sequences in the solo to great effect – for example, bars 1-4, 15 and 57-58. The use of pentatonic scales is sometimes evident – for example, bars 79-80 – but they are less key to Woody’s approach to improvisation than they were a few years earlier. This is a more mature and more melodic improvisational style, one less focussed on ‘outside’ playing and large intervallic leaps.

Woody’s solo on the Joe Henderson blues If, taken from Larry Young’s Unity album, is a very interesting solo. The chords I have put on the solo are some standard blues changes – however, neither Woody nor Larry Young stick to a distinct set of changes, and I have put these in as a reference only. For much of the solo, Woody jumps between two pentatonic scales – B flat major and B major. The B flat pentatonic scale creates an inside, bluesy sound, and can be played over the whole chord sequence without ever really sounding dissonant. The B pentatonic scale is used as a contrast as it doesn’t really fit with any of the underlying harmony. Woody switches between the two scales at will and uses the dissonant B pentatonic scale on all sections of the chord sequence, the only consistent aspect being a consonant resolution at the end of each chorus. I really like the way he varies rhythmically how he links the two scales together, only rarely allowing the change to fall on a barline. This is a novel way of playing on the blues – Woody takes two scales, one consonant and one dissonant, and juxtaposes them to create tension and release. The fruits of such an approach can be seen in his later recordings, and this is a key idea I need to incorporate into my own practice.  This is a truly masterful solo, and Woody was only 20 years old at the time!

Sashianova Transcription

Woody Shaw – Sashianova

Here is a transcription of Woody’s solo on Sashianova, taken from the album Little Red’s Fantasy. One of the things that strikes me most about this solo is Woody’s time feel. Pretty much everything he plays is perfectly in time, even in the fast semiquaver passages. In bar 35 he gets slightly ahead of himself but still manages to nail the resolution, landing perfectly on the 3rd beat of bar 36. The tonguing on some of these semiquaver passages is incredible – I have some way to go until I can tongue at that speed but I am working on it.

This solo is also notable for the wide range of articulations, dynamics and inflexions used by Woody. At times he plays legato, quietly and sweetly (for example, bars 41-42) but at others he plays aggressively and with strong articulation (for example, bars 49-52). The rhythm section, particularly Ronnie Matthews on piano, do a fantastic job in supporting Woody and allowing him to explore different feels. Woody also uses a range of smears, falls, trills and false fingerings – however, these are used tastefully and sparingly, and provide a contrast to the smooth legato lines also played. I would like to incorporate the use of inflexions into my own playing, but I am also aware of the difficulty of using such devices artistically and not just for the sake of it. Woody incorporates them into his lines effortlessly, and only at places where it makes logical sense.


Woody Shaw – There Will Never Be Another You

Woody Shaw – What Is This Thing Called Love

Here are the first two transcriptions to go up on my blog, There Will Never Be Another You from the 1986 album Solid, and What Is This Thing Called Love, from the 1981 album United. (The transcriptions are written at B flat pitch, ie one tone higher than they sound)

There Will Never Be Another You is played at a medium tempo and for much of his solo Woody outlines the changes without being too adventurous, concentrating on the melodic line and also his sound. He often uses a sharpened 4th to create a lydian sound, especially on Fma7 chords and the G7 found in the 13th bar of the form. He also makes use of the pentatonic scale based on the tritone of a dominant chord (see bar 49), sometimes combining it with more conventional dominant chord harmony to good effect (for example, bars 9 and 33). The last four bars of each chorus he plays are of great interest. In bar 30, he sets it up with a strong statement in the home key, before seemingly shifting up a semitone and outlining the key of F# major – over the II-V of A-7 – D7, he outlines G#-7 – C#7, a II-V in F#. This then resolves to the G-7 in the underlying harmony, but Woody soon returns to F# major which functions as a tritone substitution over the C7 chord to provide a resolution to the tonic key at bar 34, the start of the second chorus. The four bars at bar 62 are very similar – again, the first bar contains a strong statement in the tonic key before Woody outlines the chord C#7 in the second bar which resolves to an A# on the first beat of bar 64. This can however also be viewed as a B flat, the third of the underlying chord of G-7 , and Woody uses this as a pivot note, linking two harmonies, to return to ‘inside’ playing on the G-7 chord. This does not last long however, and over the next bar or so Woody outlines the tonality of B major, which then resolves to the tonic key of F major once again for the return to the start of the form.

What Is This Thing Called Love is played at a burning tempo, and, propelled in part by Mulgrew Miller’s harmonically ambiguous comping, Woody plays a lot more adventurously and ‘outside’ the harmony. Once again, he often uses the sharpened 4th to create a lydian sound especially over the Dmaj7 chords – on these he also uses the E pentatonic scale (for example, bars 6-7 and 49). In this solo, Woody also shows himself to be a master of more traditional bebop language, particularly towards the start of the solo. This is then developed into more complex pentatonic based language such as that seen in bars 38-41. At this point, Woody links together the pentatonic scales of E flat and B by use of a common tone or pivot note, E flat or D sharp. Neither of these chords fit with the underlying harmony, yet Woody manages to resolve on to a C# for the Dmaj7 chord in bar 41. Bar 71 shows a similar linking of the E flat and B pentatonic scales, as does bar 104. The phrase from bar 121 to 126 is particularly masterful, with Woody combining sequential playing with pentatonic ideas, wide intervallic leaps and chromatic movement all in the same phrase. Another important idea can be seen at bar 56 – here Woody anticipates the A7 chord by two beats. This anticipation of harmony is a device used frequently by Woody, and one I need to look at in more detail.

What points have I taken from these solos to incorporate into my own practice?

  • use of the tritone pentatonic over a V chord and the II pentatonic over a I chord
  • use of a sharpened 4th over tonic chords to create a lydian sound
  • substitution of different II-V’s to create a new sound (this is something I have been discussing with Martin Speake and will be writing more about later)
  • the use of a pivot note contained in two distinct harmonies to link the two together
  • juxtaposition of more traditional bebop language with more complex pentatonic and intervallic lines
  • the linking of pentatonic scales a major 3rd apart as a means to go ‘outside’ the harmony
  • the anticipation of chord changes