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Pop and Jazz: The Difference

Jazzed Magazine • Basic TrainingJanuary 2019 • January 4, 2019

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What is the difference between taking a solo in Bruce Springsteen’s band and the Art Blakey band? Let’s explore the Mixolydian Mode (i.e. Dominant 7th  chord ) and how the use of it makes one sound like a jazz saxophonist as opposed to a rock sax player.

What is it?

The significant difference between a major scale and a dominant 7th chord is that, for the dominant chord, the 7th is a flat. Instead of a half-step below the root, the dominant 7th is a whole step below the root. Whether you are trying to fit in with a rock band or a jazz band,  if you do not play the 7th as part of your solo you are not making the sound of this type of chord.

Use in Rock and Pop Compared to Jazz

All the examples of pop Mixolydian lines outlined below will have the 7th  included in the phrase. Some will also have the 3rd and the 7th. The 3rd and the 7th are the guide tones – notes which determine the type of chord (major, minor, dominant 7th, major 7th) you are implying in your solo.

Another tool of the rock player is to use a note from the blues scale (see the excerpt from the “Respect” solo). Recently, on the show “The Voice,” when a singer ended the song on  the 9th of the key, Pharrell Williams said, “I like how you ended on a jazz note.” A “jazz note” would be a note from  the upper tension notes (the 9th, 11th, and the 13th). When the pop lines use the 2(9th) or the 6th (13th), this note is used  a passing  tone, but the jazz lines want to add this harmonic color to the chord.

The jazz player also uses the be-bop scale, which involves inserting a half-step between the root and the 7th. This creates a  degree of chromaticism which adds to the complexity of the phrase. Another tool of the jazz player is to use an enclosure. This is when you play a note a half-step above and below a chord tone (more chromaticism).The pop music lines are usually diatonic (from the key), whereas jazz lines use chromaticism and tension notes to create harmonic color. Additionally, jazz articulation uses the tool of “ghosting” or “swallowing” a note.

The Blue Mitchell line at the right uses scale tone approach notes to chord tones, jazz articulation, and emphasizing the sound of the 13th. The Dexter Gordon line uses the 13th and the be-bop scale. The example from Charlie Parker uses an enclosure, the be-bop scale, and the sound of the sharp eleven. The Jerry Bergonzi line employs the nine leading to the 13th.The Hank Mobley line arpeggiates  a dominant 9th chord and ends on the sharp eleven. Both styles require a thorough knowledge of the Mixolydian sound requiring vocabulary from which to invent a compelling solo.

In a career spanning 50 years, New England–based bandleader, sax player, and jazz educator Miles Donahue has performed and recorded 14 albums, many of which are available on iTunes. His site,, offers an effective course for new players to learn jazz improvisation and for seasoned players to learn fresh approaches to soloing.

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