August 2008 Convention
Kansas City, MO

The Locrian-Pentatonic Method of Jazz Improvisation

Horace Alexander Young

Recording jazz artist Horace Alexander Young presented ideas on using the Pentatonic and Locrian scales over standard chord progressions in jazz improvisation. This system has been in existence since the origins of jazz, and was encouraged over the traditional use of the Blues scale. Audience participation was strongly encouraged: Young played examples and had flutists respond, taking care that each inflection was copied.

Pentatonic scales were discussed first. Young sang a line and had the audience sing it back, emphasizing that learning jazz is an ear-based process. After having the audience play the G Major and E Minor pentatonic scales, he then provided simple chord progressions and took note of the freshness of a minor tonality over major. While keeping all explanations and examples as simple as possible, Young added Bb Major and G Minor pentatonic scales, allowing the audience to experiment with the changes of a 12-bar blues. A melody was demonstrated and quickly obtained by the audience as more experimentation with the pentatonic scales occurred. One of the major highlights of this presentation was hearing volunteer audience members of all ages work with Young’s ideas.

Throughout the presentation, Young had various tips for flutists wishing to sound more idiomatic. First, he encouraged flutists to use a longer articulation, or détaché. Young also suggested using the syllables ooh-dah, ooh-dah when playing straight eighths for a swinging sound. Note that an articulation should only be used on the off-beats. A comment was made on the use of vibrato; Young encouraged the audience to think about whether great jazz artists use vibrato or not and to take cues from the recordings.

The Locrian scale also helps to keep the art of improvisation less complicated and more interesting in sound. To demonstrate, Young played C Major chords while the audience played the Locrian scale starting on B. The chord sequence that the audience worked with was: ii7-V7-I-I (dm7-G7-C-C). Young explained that this is considered one of the most challenging chord sequences in jazz. Flutists were encouraged to play the Locrian scale in eighth notes against these chords, and on the final two measures, performers improvised over C Major. Finally, Young explained, the next step would be to replace the Locrian scale with an improvised solo and merge that with the pentatonic scales.

—Tess Miller