The title is ultimately a Led Zeppelin reference (not too surprising, seeing as how one of my previous blog entries was an analysis of the alluded album), but it is relevant here for a couple reasons. First, Infernal Machines – the debut CD from New York-based big band Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society – is heavily influenced by rock acts such as Led Zeppelin. Second, it is emblematic of trumpeter Ingrid Jensen’s approach towards using dissonance. She plays out, but she does so in a densely logical way.
Like many songs from Infernal Machines, “Transit” is a predominantly spacious composition that is driven by an ostinato vamp. This ostinato can essentially be reduced to a two-measure syncopated octave figure in the bass, which establishes both the piece’s rhythmic vitality and its D minor tonic (E minor for the Bb trumpet – since the transcription is in the trumpet’s key, I will refer to tonic as E minor from this point forward). This figure evolves beyond its simple gesture, and while the harmony does not always adhere to the E pedal, it is still unchangingly modal throughout. The harmony that develops tends to be the result of counterpoint in the ensemble, and everything stays within the confines of the song’s tonic mode. What is unique about this track compared to others from Infernal Machines is that it is largely a solo feature: more than 3 ½ minutes of the song’s 7 minute duration is occupied by Jensen’s monumental flugelhorn solo.
Due to “Transit’s” perpetual vamp, Jensen’s solo is challenged by an unbreaking harmonic stasis. This challenge is hardly unique in jazz: ever since Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, modal approaches to harmony within the genre have been fairly common, and this has become particularly true with the fusion of jazz with other more popular genres. Fusion jazz tends to prioritize groove over harmony, and Argue’s incorporation of rock elements throughout Infernal Machines certainly illustrates this concept. Soloists often address this challenge by utilizing groove-based rhythmic energy, but they also relish the harmonic freedom by allowing themselves to veer away from the vamp’s harmonic base. While several jazz improvisers imply harmonically dense material over harmonically static ostinatos, what makes Jensen’s solo on “Transit” unique is the way in which it layers and juxtaposes distinct keys, scales, and modes both throughout her solo and within single phrases.
***Use of forms/modes of scales***
In addition to exploring numerous key areas, Jensen also incorporates several types of scales in this solo. As previously mentioned, tonic for the song is E minor, so it is not surprising that there are ample examples of minor scales. The most commonly used type of minor scale is harmonic minor, which is a minor scale with the seventh note raised half a step.
Used less commonly are the melodic minor (raised sixth and seventh notes), natural minor (no pitches raised), and Dorian (raised sixth note, or a scale built from the second note of a major scale) forms of the minor scale. Example 2 shows an example of melodic minor:
Example 3 demonstrates the use of natural minor:
Example 4 showcases an abbreviated example of Dorian:
Notice that the example of natural minor (Ex. 3) is in D minor, which differs from the E minor tonic. The harmonic context has not changed, but Jensen is briefly implying a different key with this riff. She uses a wide variety of keys and key areas, and I will discuss her use of those momentarily.
In addition to minor scales, Jensen also incorporates several examples of major scales. Example 5 is a passage that begins in the song’s relative major key, G major:
While G major and E minor share the same key signature, there are a couple factors that distinguish this phrase as G major. Emphasis of the pitch G certainly helps, particularly in relation to the pitch E. More importantly, however, the chromatic pitches used make more sense as chromatic embellishments in G major than they would as altered pitches in one of the forms of E minor. While a C# (raised sixth note in E minor) is used enharmonically, it functions as a part of a chromatic line that resolves downward. If this was either E melodic minor or Dorian – both of which would have C# – the next pitch would not be C natural.
Major scales do not exist in altered forms as frequently as minor scales, but Jensen does consistently use another form of a major scale known as harmonic major. I will discuss the function of harmonic major later, but this form of major takes a major scale and lowers the sixth note of the scale by a half step. This form is referred to as harmonic because, like harmonic minor, there is an augmented second interval (three half steps) between the sixth and seventh notes of the scale. Here is an example of G harmonic major, although the lower sixth from the scale (Eb) is written enharmonically (D#):
Jensen also implements scales that do not have a tonal center, including chromatic (all half steps) and diminished (a symmetrical scale that alternates between half and whole steps) scales. The following example incorporates both of these scales:
***Use of keys/key areas***
Most of the examples I have used to this point illustrate forms of scales that were in the song’s tonic (or relative major), but as the following examples will indicate, Jensen explores an expansive canvas of sounds. Although there are several unique keys and key areas, most of the scales, keys, and general patterns of organized sound Jensen uses can be understood as functioning in one of four ways:
- Tonic/tonic mode mixture (E minor/major)
- Embellished dominant (B major)
- Embellished leading tone (Eb major)
- Chromatic sequences (undefined key)
Tonic/tonic mode mixture
Even though “Transit’s” tonic is clearly E minor, the vamp on which the solo section is built uses only octave E’s, which gives this section substantial modal flexibility. E major works just as well as E minor because the defining third note of the scale is often not made explicit by the rhythm section. Examples 1, 2, and 4 demonstrated various uses of E minor, and Example 8 illustrates the use of E major:
This passage is actually close to functioning as a form of E minor (both C# and D# are present, but the fact that they are not used consecutively would make their functions difficult to classify), but the exclusive use of G# distinguishes it as major. The use of C# and E in the third and fourth measures recalls Jensen’s use of E Dorian [Ex. 4], particularly in the shared technique of rhythmic alternate fingerings, and this also lends to Jensen’s blurred definition between the modes of E.
Another passage that occurs slightly before Ex. 8 in the solo also contributes to this melding of major and minor:
These three measures tonicize E, but G and G# both appear, making the classification of this passage as major or minor difficult. Neither pitch is used as a chromatic passing tone, so dismissing one as merely an embellishment does not make sense. Instead, this supports the notion that Jensen approaches her solo with a conscious ambiguity, at least harmonically.
The dominant to tonic relationship is the most essential component of tonal harmony, and this is true on both local and global levels. A chord built above the fifth note of a given scale moving to a chord built above the key’s tonic is the traditional goal of most tonal progressions, but the key of the note a fifth above tonic is also the most common destination for a modulation. In E minor, that key would be B major/minor, and Jensen uses several phrases that elaborate on modal expansions of this key area with a freedom similar to her approach to E major/minor.
Example 10 demonstrates one of B’s forms of minor in use:
Example 11 shows an example of the harmonic form of B major:
And Example 12 mixes major and minor within the same phrase:
Ex. 11 is slightly misleading because one of the A#’s is written enharmonically as a Bb, and A natural appears multiple times. However, A# is used frequently enough and emphasized significantly enough to prioritize it ahead of A natural, and the consistent presence of D# and C# as well as the prominent placement of B’s makes this phrases sound like B major. Taken together, though, these examples help to illustrate a similar approach to modal flexibility as was seen with the song’s tonic.
Another way Jensen embellishes the dominant of this song is through her use of G harmonic major. G major is actually a key used with some frequency, but its uses can be understood as having functions that embellish other keys. Since G major is E minor’s relative key, the instances of this unaltered scale can be understood as an elaboration of tonic. G harmonic major also elaborates E minor in a way, but it does so through its dominant.
Often, altered scales such as harmonic major will be used by jazz improvisers to approach complex harmonies in an organized manner. One of the ways in which harmonic major is applied is over a dominant seventh chord with b9, #9, and b13 alterations. This is nearly an altered dominant chord, but there is no #11. Actually, there is no eleventh whatsoever, be it altered or not. Example 13 shows how that chord would be spelled, using B7, which is the dominant of “Transit’s” tonic E minor:
And Example 14 lays out how those notes would be arranged as a scale when they are reordered within the span of an octave:
If those pitches were to start and end on G, they would yield a G harmonic major scale:
By changing E to Eb (or D#), the harmonic form of G major embellishes the key of B with altered pitches from that chord and scale. This also serves to elaborate on the tonic E minor, but it does so indirectly by working through its dominant. By utilizing this altered scale, Jensen is able to jolt the listener away from the expected pattern of pitches implied by the song, but she does so in a way that not only makes theoretical sense, it sounds organized and coherent while still being unexpected.
Embellished leading tone
The third category of organized scales and keys Jensen uses is the one least connected to a conventional theoretical understanding of the tonic E minor, and it is also sounds the most dissonant in this context. The key’s leading tone of D#, or Eb enharmonically, is a point of emphasis in many phrases throughout the solo, and it appears exclusively in its unaltered major mode.
Unlike scales seen in the previous two categories, there really is no strong theoretical connection between this scale and the song’s tonic. Eb major is one of the most dissonant scales possible in comparison to E minor. When comparing Eb major and E melodic minor, only two pitches (G and Eb, enharmonically) are shared between them. Since diatonic scales have seven unique pitches by definition, and there are only twelve possible pitches, this is the least possible number of shared pitches between any two scales. Objectively, Eb major would be at least the most dissonant scale possible. As the following examples will demonstrate, the scale seems to be used primarily through the context of providing a dissonant perspective on motivic development.
In contrast to most of the previous examples, Eb major is almost always used in a way that outlines triads or demonstrates tertial movement rather than predominantly scalar motion. Example 16, although brief, illustrates this kind of movement perfectly, as almost every pitch is approached and resolved by the interval of a third:
Example 17 has a wider variety of melodic motion – steps, thirds, and fourths all appear multiple times, and there is also a leap of a fifth. While it highlights Eb major, it is technically the pentatonic form of the major scale, as Ab and D are omitted entirely. However, this example does use the same Bb – G – Eb triadic motion that appears in every instance of Eb major from Jensen’s solo.
Example 18, like Example 16, is almost entirely structured on tertial movement, and both examples start in nearly identical fashion. What makes this phrase unique, though, is the way in which it repeats the Ab – C dyad to add additional conflict against the song’s tonic of E minor. These two pitches make more sense in Eb major than E minor, but when alternated like this against the pedal E, it implies an E augmented triad. Augmented chords are symmetrical (two major thirds stacked above each other) yet very dissonant sounds, and the fact that this is emphasized at the end of one of Jensen’s extended phrases heightens the dissonance of her improvisation, even when compared to the existing dissonance of Eb major and E minor.
Despite the fact that Eb major is much farther removed from tonic than B major/minor, Jensen uses both key areas to create dissonance in a highly organized way. This is particularly true with her use of triads in the Eb major passages. Triads are simple gestures that serve as the basic building block of tonal harmony, and they are so identifiable that their pattern can be recognized even when it clashes with keys and chords played around them. Perhaps Jensen uses triadic movement more than scalar movement in Eb major because it gives a more solid foundation for the otherwise very dissonant key.
Although there are other scales and keys that are used sporadically, the final major area of organized pitches is Jensen’s use of chromatic sequences. Sometimes these phrases imply certain keys or key areas, but their adherence to motivic development often causes them to shift away from any specific key. Regardless, the repetitive pattern of the motive is more readily apparent to the listener than any key reference. It is important to distinguish these passages as sequences rather than scales because they typically unfold in a series of intervals that develop chromatically. For instance, Example 19 begins chromatically but then states a four pitch chromatic neighboring tone figure around G that is promptly restated on A#, an augmented second away:
A chromatic motive that is used more commonly, however, is one that involves a step followed by a leap, usually in the opposite direction. Example 20 gives a brief demonstration of this, as these six pitches follow a quartal pattern in which a perfect fourth (Eb to Ab, for example) is followed by a major second (Ab to Bb).
The “025” and “027” from this example refer to the intervals within the motive, and the terminology is borrowed from set theory. Each number refers to one of the pitches, with “0” being the reference pitch and the others being the total number of half steps away from that pitch they are. In this system, pitches are always reordered to yield the smallest possible group of numbers, so “025” would be a major second and a perfect fourth from the lowest pitch (Bb – F – G, with F as 0), and “027” would be a major second and a perfect fifth (Eb – Ab – Bb, with Ab as 0).
The “027” pattern returns shortly after Example 20 in the solo, although here the pattern appears as two descending perfect fifths offset by a step:
Both Examples 20 and 21 have pitches that function entirely in Eb major, so they could also apply to the previous section. However, I hear these patterns of intervals as taking priority over their tonality, although it also deserves mentioning that the intervallic pattern of the triad also took precedence in those earlier examples. On the other hand, triadic sequences have a stronger tonal implication than do quartal or quintal figures such as Examples 20 and 21, and the use of triads was also not as repetitive as these.
Another permutation of the step/leap pattern can be found in Example 22, which uses a more purely chromatic figure that features a half step and a third in alternation:
Even if it is difficult to pick up the exact pitches in these sequences, their quick repetitions and cyclic nature allow them to stick out to the listener. They still clash with the song’s tonic, but the listener can at least pick up on the fact that some system of organization exists here. Along with the more scalar examples discussed earlier, these chromatic sequences show Jensen’s commitment to creating concrete patterns that are still dissonant within the greater context of the song.
One of the most impressive aspects of Jensen’s solo is her variety of phrase lengths, although her longer phrases are noteworthy for the way in which they often incorporate numerous keys and modes without sounding completely disjunct. While understanding the organization of her fragmented ideas (including short ideas and one that are taken from longer phrases) is important for knowing how everything functions within the larger context, Jensen’s full genius cannot be appreciated without examining how these disparate sound worlds are fused together so seamlessly.
Examples 23, 24, and 25 all feature multiple key areas, modes, and general methods of pitch organizations within them (in fact, Example 25 features all four areas discussed here), but they are also united by the fact that they are fluid in their transition from one key area to the next. They evolve organically and in real-time, and it is impossible to tell the gaps between them without the visual aid of the transcription.
Example 23 is the first extended phrase from Jensen’s solo to traverse several key areas. It begins by highlighting the dominant key of B, both with harmonic major and minor scales. The descending scale transforms to E minor, though this can also be seen as a continuation of B minor. I prefer to see it as E minor because its most emphasized pitches (E, A, and B) are more important pitches in E minor than B. In E minor, they would function as tonic, subdominant, and dominant, so my ear gravitates toward that tonality. Either way, this comfortable key is quickly supplanted by something completely foreign and unexpected: a mixture of Db major and minor. Similar to Eb major, there is virtually no theoretical connection between Db and E minor, but this is the only time in the whole solo that this key occurs. The transition is sudden and smooth, though, and it comes off as shocking conclusion to this extended phrase.
In stark contrast, Example 24 starts in the tangentially related F pentatonic minor. Perhaps this is better understood as functioning as Eb major (which would also give this phrase examples from all four areas), but the emphasis on F was my reasoning for classifying it as such. It then veers into an extended descending chromatic passage (including Example 22) before returning to tonal scales. This final ascending scalar run spans nearly two octaves and does not change direction until the penultimate pitch, but it features three distinct key areas that overlap with one another.
This run is mostly structured around E minor, and another way of interpreting it is to see it all as E minor with a couple of chromatic variations. However, the fact that there are three significant segments that strongly imply distinct scales leads me perceive it in three juxtaposed installments. The F natural that occurs at the beginning of the run removes it very quickly from its expected E minor context and, instead, places all pitches up to and including C natural within C major. The D# that follows contradicts this key, but it lends itself nicely to B harmonic major when taken with the accidentals the follow the rest of the ascent. Even though this accounts for all of the pitches of this run, there is still an E harmonic minor that exists as a link between these two scales. This label is significant because it uses the song’s tonic as a way of linking this otherwise unrelated scales, but the motion of D# to E is so strongly associated with E minor that would difficult to not hear that concrete sound in this otherwise modulatory passage. Also, Jensen uses scalar runs that switch between B and E minor (largely through the use of D#/E and A#/B in the same line) at other points in the solo, so she has already established that precedent.
Example 25 is mostly in Eb major, but it concludes with a sequence that explores a few key areas in rapid succession. While the first few measures strongly outline Eb major, the Db and E natural that appear in the second measure are problematic to this interpretation. There is no clear explanation for these pitches, though my analysis suggests that those four eighth notes are implying F harmonic minor within Eb major. The phrase clearly returns to the tonic E harmonic minor halfway through, though this resolution is short-lived. The F natural begins a short motive that implies F major before being sequenced in the next measure to a figure that implies B harmonic minor (A#/B). This pattern also does not last, and the phrase concludes with an ascending diminished scale. While this phrase does not demonstrate the same overlap that Example 24 had, it clearly portrays Jensen’s schizophrenic shifts between radically contrasting key areas.
***But what does it all mean?***
This solo is a masterclass in how to creatively approach a harmonically ambiguous song as an improviser. Jensen uses the freedom afforded to her to explore an expansive range of sound worlds that is never random but frequently unpredictable. She uses scales, patterns, and sequences to create dissonance against the rest of the ensemble while still maintaining consonance within her improvised melody. Most of the obscure scales she explores relative to tonic can also be understood through either the song’s tonic or dominant, so she achieves dissonance somewhat deceptively. Even when gestures do not have a concrete connection to tonic, they are usually achieved through recognizable patterns and sequenced figures that allow them to sound more at home here than one might otherwise expect. The use of fluid transitions across scales also contributes to their ability to sound organic. For any young and emerging improvisers looking to expand their harmonic vocabulary who might be reading this, Jensen’s solo suggests that playing out is actually more in than you might think. You just have to dig a little deeper in what already exists in the music.
For my full transcription, click here. The transcription is not entirely complete, as some of the licks Jensen uses were beyond my grasp as a transcriber. These sections were left as rests, though this transcription does have the correct total of measures.