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Bobby Hutcherson and the Pentatonic Scale

by David Birrow Birrow.David@MacPhail.org

One of my favorite vibes players is Bobby Hutcherson. I especially like his Blue Note recordings from 1963 through 1969. His playing is melodic, adventurous and provides an experimental foil to the playing of Milt Jackson.  I started transcribing his solos a few years ago including the tune Maiden Voyage from the 1967 album Happenings with Herbie Hancock, Bob Cranshaw, and Joe Chambers. 

I picked this tune to transcribe because I was having a hard time soloing coherently over the chord changes.  As is the case with most modal tunes,  chords are held for several bars, and if you aren't careful you'll end up wandering around in one mode or the other, rambling about this or that. But Hutcherson's recording was simple and was very tasteful. What immediately became evident was Hutcherson's pervasive use of the minor pentatonic scale(ex. A-C-D-E-G). Take a listen, his solo begins at 2:14:

He utilizes the C, A, Bb, and Ab minor pentatonic scale without it sounding like he is using the pentatonic scale.  He accomplishes this by using a few subtle but recognizable rhythmic motifs, most notable is: This idea shows up on seventeen different occasions, most often on beats 1 and 2.  Other techniques he uses during this solo are: anticipation of the next harmonic change by changing scales one measure before the change, outlining minor 7th chords starting or ending on the 9th, effective use of musical silence, creating arpeggios from the pentatonic not just scale-wise motion, and variation of  phrase lengths.  Here is the entire solo (download a pdf here):

 This is a prime example of how the pentatonic scale can be effectively use for improvisation.  Post other examples in the comments below!

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