Jazz Idioms In Foggy Mountain Breakdown

Scruggs has been reported to have affection for swing music and particularly some Pete Fountain things. It is not too surprising that he shows a couple of interesting jazz oriented elements in the original Mercury recording of Foggy Mountain Breakdown, one possibly subconscious, the other purely intentional.

Examing the notes used in FMB, notice there is no 4 note of the scale (C in the key of G, or in actuality, C# since they were tuned up almost a half step) played. While there are b3 (Bb) notes, these tend to be used in passing in slides and chokes. The #4/5 combination (the 2-3 hammer-on on the second string) which announces the tune and the #5/6 (the 1-2 slide on the fourth and 8-9 slide on the second string into E minor) are essential. In the first case, that’s why that opening statement is called the FMB roll. The second case confirms to the listener that it really is FMB.

Therefore it is reasonable to view the scale the tune is built on as 1, 2, 3, #4, #5, 6, 7, 1, with the ‘obligatory for bluegrass’ 5 note included too. This scale without the 5 is what defines the Lydian Augmented mode and is a very jazzy sound. In fact, when you happen to start this sequence of notes on the #5, you have the fabled Superlocrian scale and mode. This is one way of looking at what is happening when the E minor is played by sliding into it! Lester, of course, played E major against the banjo’s E minor, maybe in subconscious protest to the Superlocrian, and thus provided the masterful addition of minor second tension that is released as everyone gets back to G. Or if you insist on looking at this part from an E root, it's Melodic Minor. Pretty sophisticated stuff.

The second bit concerns the time honored jazz practice of inserting musical quotations from other songs into a tune. Earl did this too with the original FMB. On the first time through the banjo takes three solos, just like in its predecessor, Bluegrass Breakdown. The opening four measures of the first two solos are the double hammer signature lick, but in the third time through he inserted the opening line of Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean!

Thanks to Paul Hawthorne
The Banjo Conservatory
Tehachapi, Ca