Emile De Cosmo and the Byzantine Scale

If anyone embodies the improvisational and technical aspects of jazz education, it is Emile De Cosmo. I've had the pleasure of getting to know Emile since the time he contacted me about an article I had written about jazz contrafacts, and I can tell you, the man is deeply knowledgeable, and as excited to share his insights into jazz theory and technique building today as he was back in my college days, when I first bought one of books in his Polytonal Rhythm Series. Our initial conversation, back in early February, resulted in my adding another of his books, The Diatonic Cycle--a tour de force of the twelve major scales and their relative harmonic minor scales--to my practice library. Last week, after chatting with Emile on the phone, I purchased yet another book coauthored by him and his wife, Laura. A compendium of articles that Emile and Laura wrote for Jazz Player magazine, The Path to Jazz Improvisation is a treasury of insights into the vast array of scales and modes that are available to jazz improvisers today. At $14.95, the book truly is a steal--and no, Emile didn't give me a free copy so I'd write him a glowing review*. I ponied up the money just like anyone else, and I'm glad I did. I know a fair amount about jazz theory, but there always seems to be something new to learn, and Emile and Laura's book is proving to be a good source. I'm thinking right now about the chapter I've been reading on the Byzantine scale. In his foreword to the book, David Gibson, editor of Jazz Player, writes, "When I read his chapter on the Byzantine Scale I almost fell off my chair. I had never thought about jazz in those terms. I suddenly realized that jazz improvisation has roots which go back much further than the jazz master of the 1920s, 30s, 40s, and beyond." Of course my curiosity was piqued by Gibson's words. The Byzantine scale? I'd heard of it before, but never explored it. I think I had some vague idea that I had it already tucked in my pocket as some mode of the harmonic minor scale. And indeed, the Byzantine scale is related to the harmonic minor, but it is a scale unto itself, and a darned interesting one. Probably the easiest way to conceive of the Byzantine scale is, as Emile describes, to superimpose two major seventh chords a half-step apart. For example, if you dovetail CM7 and DbM7 and then arrange the chord tones in successive order, you get the following: C, Db, E, F, G, Ab, B, C. Another way to think of this is to approach every tone in a major seventh chord with its chromatic lower neighbor--e.g. for the DbM7 chord (Db, F, Ab, C), you would precede the Db with C, F with E, Ab with G, and C with B. The De Cosmos recommend using the Byzantine scale with major seventh and dominant seventh chords that share the same root as the scale. In other words, you'd use a C Byzantine scale over a C7b9 or a CM7. At least one other application quickly suggests itself to me as I look at the structure of the scale, and that is to pair it with an altered dominant that is based on the second degree of the scale. For instance, by playing a C Byzantine scale over a Db7#9, you get both the flatted and natural sevenths (B and C), allowing the latter to function as a passing tone between the flat seventh and the root of the chord. I have to say, though, that it may be a while before I dig into the Byzantine scale in earnest. Right now I'm focusing on the diminished whole tone scale, with some forays into both the augmented and diminished scales. Those pack challenges enough. But I think I can see a new area of woodshedding on the horizon. Emile and Laura's book should prove a valuable resource, and you'll hear more about it from time to time. I have yet to write about Emile's concept, the polytonal order of keys, or POOK, for short. But that's for another post. As for this one, well...the day is beautiful, and Lisa and I have plans to visit Meijer Gardens. It's time to get rolling. Happy practicing! _____________ *Emile did, however, send me a POOK T-shirt and a CD of he and Laura playing tunes that he had written. I don't mind telling you that the De Cosmos can blow!