Questions about scales & modes — March ’14 Bass Player Mag

SmilinSteve wrote to me after reading my Woodshed column in the March issue of Bass Player Magazine with a question about my use of the chord symbol Esus7b9. Chime in if you have thoughts about this.

SmilinSteve writes:

Phrygian Is Minor!

I noticed that youve listed the Phrygian mode on pg 54 of Bass Payer Mag as Esus7flat9
Wouldnt it be E min sus7 flat9?
Isnt Phrygian Minor?

My answer:

Thanks for your email. Yes, Phrygian is indeed minor, and you’re right that I used a nebulous chord symbol to describe it. It could have been more clear if I had written Emin7susb9.
But, I have a reason that I didn’t write it that way — I don’t often see Emin7susb9, but I often see this chord symbol:
Esus7b9, or E7susb9, which emphasize the suss  and b9 as defining sounds rather than the minor 3rd as the defining sound. 
Sus chords can be major or minor, but the defining notes would be found in a typical voicing like:
(bottom to top) Bass note: E, chord voicing: F A B D
So when I’m playing bass lines or solos, the defining notes to me are: E F A B. Whether there’s a G or G# in there is up to the context.
That’s a sound that I hear a lot, and it could indicate an E Phrygian (with the note G), or the 5th mode of A harmonic minor (with the note G#).
The absolute clearest way to indicate the mode is just to write:
E (Phrygian)
and there are some other ways, which I also see, that make the specific voicing and the use of the Phrygian scale even more clear, like:
Esusb2
Dmin9/E
Dmin11/E
F/E
Since there are so many ways to indicate a Phrygian mode with a chord symbol, I opted for the most nebulous. That’s always a choice in writing chord symbols—whether to try and give a long chord symbol with a specific voicing, or just give the bare minimum and let the improvisors use their ears.
I appreciate knowing that guys like you are reading the columns and holding me to a (hopefully) high standard.