Photo by Rich Gastwirt.

The Lydian Chromatic What?

In 1953, George Russell published the Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization. It was a watershed theory in jazz and—at least according to Miles Davis—led to the birth of modal jazz, Davis’ album Kind of Blue, and John Coltrane’s modal period. But its influence wasn’t limited to jazz. If you’re a fan of Carlos Santana, Frank Zappa, the jam-band scene, or one-chord funk vamps that groove forever, much of that traces its origins back to modal jazz and, ultimately, to Russell’s concept.

David Fiuczynski studied with Russell at the New England Conservatory and was a member of Russell’s Living Time Orchestra (he’s on 1989’s The London Concert album). And although Fiuczynski doesn’t claim to have mastered the concept, at least two of Russell’s ideas play a significant role in Fiuczynski’s playing and teaching.

“The first is the ingoing-outgoing concept,” says Fiuczynski. “That means taking all the scales you know and realigning them. I do that according to 7th chords. Slowly, you get further and further away until you’re playing in keys that are on the other side of the circle of fifths. Your chord is a C major 7 and you’re playing in either B or C# major, or you’re just playing chromatically. Or—if you’re a nut job like me who works off a 72-note-per-octave microtonal grid—you’re doing microtonal chromatics, complete!

“What I like about that system,” Fuze explains, “is that it’s not so much about right and wrong. It’s about you deciding where you want to be. In other words, what’s more ‘out’ for you? You and I will probably have different perceptions of that.” But that aesthetic flexibility, according to Fiuczynski, is the concept’s universal appeal. “You’re not thinking, ‘right or wrong.’ You’re thinking, ‘neighborhood, city, country, continent, planet,’ and so forth.”

“The other thing I use from Russell is the vertical, horizontal, and super-vertical concepts.” That sounds more far out than it is. A “vertical structure” is a chord, so a vertical solo outlines the chord changes. A “horizontal structure” is similar to a 12-bar blues—it’s essentially a number of vertical structures (chord changes), but the solo uses just one horizontal melody or scale like a minor pentatonic or a blues scale. (Though Fiuczynski hates the latter term. “The blues is a feeling not a scale.”)

The “super vertical” is what Russell used to try to explain Ornette Coleman. “Basically, this guy blasts off into the universe,” says Fiuczynski, “and every now and then comes back down. He plays something free, he outlines a chord, and then he plays something free, and then he comes back. So those are the two main concepts I use in my playing and teaching. But beyond that, you are on your own [laughs]!”