“First There Is A Mountain. . . “: The Allman Brothers and Structured Extended Improvisation

My last post discussed The Allman Brothers Band and their use of arrangement ideas in their Blues songs. This time I would like to talk Allmans and their use of arrangement in their extended improvisations and in particular the song “Mountain Jam”. Other songs that would fall into this category of extended improvisations would include  “Whipping Post”, “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed” and “You Don’t Love Me” but “Mountain Jam” has always been a personal favorite.
The song opens with the guitars playing the melody (based on the Donovan song “There Is A Mountain”) in a loose semi-improvised counterpoint. Duane Allman tends to stick more closely to the melody (while spinning variations on it) while Dickey Betts will play around Duane’s lines. The rest of the band is holding back, entering at their own pace and adding their own comments. Then the texture of the song changes with a sudden shift of the band going from loose counterpoint around a central theme to the guitars and organ playing the melody together in harmony while the rhythm section settling into a more conventional role of supporting the melody instruments. This section reminds me of  the image of a flower opening its pedals in the morning.
Up to this point, the overall tonality of “Mountain Jam” was E major. For the solos that follow (Duane, Greg Allman on Hammond organ, Dickey), the tonality shifts more to E dominant (a.k.a. E7) while the rhythmic feel settles into a more conventional rock groove.  The solos are now using a more blues based vocabulary than in the opening section. This illustrates one of the reasons that Allman Brothers extended jamming holds up so well. Within songs that could go on for up to 30 minutes or more, there would be subtle transitions in groove, tonality and texture that made these performances feel like you are being told a story, with different shades and moods. If you listen to other extended Allman Brother pieces like “Whipping Post” or “You Don’t Love Me”, you’ll find a similar approach.
It was usually towards the end of Dickey Bett’s guitar solo that he and Duane would play semi-improvised guitar lines in harmony. I say semi-improvised because in listening to multiple versions of the song, I found that Dickey would start playing one of a number of set riffs that Duane would join in with in harmony. The dual guitar lines played in harmony  were the hallmark of the Allman Brothers sound and here provide a alternative from the straight soloist/accompaniment texture that we were hearing.  It was from here that everyone would gradually go quite and the song would segue way into the dual drum solo. Occasionally, prior to the drum solo, the band would go into a Chuck Berry like section which would feature solo guitar breaks that would fit right into “Roll Over Beethoven”. This section doesn’t appear on the “official” version found on Eat A Peach but an excellent example of it can be heard on their performance at the Warehouse in New Orleans on March 20th, 1971 (listen to it here at the 57:10 mark: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kg7ssACzQhc). It is interesting to note that the Allman Brothers would sometimes play this section at different points of the song or sometimes not all.
After the drum(s) solo, the bass solo begins. It is in my humble opinion that the bass solo on the Eat A Peach version of “Mountain Jam” is one of the best Rock bass solos on record. As a bassist myself, I am not usually impressed by bass solos and certainly not ones as long as this one but it’s an extended statement that demonstrates what a melodic instrument the bass is capable of being. Berry Oakley’s playing throughout this song (and in general) is amazing and he is certainly one of the most under appreciated bassists in Rock. Listen to the way he engages the guitarists melodically in the opening section and the great fills he plays while laying down the groove during their solo sections. So Cool!!
Coming out of the bass solo, the full bands enters with the guitars playing a cool harmonized line somewhat reminiscent of “Third Stone From The Sun” and then quickly move into a two chord vamp over a shuffle rhythm, once again providing subtle variety within the greater whole of the song. It is here that Duane Allman introduces yet another texture: his slide guitar. Guitar Geek Point Of Interest: Duane’s slide solo in “Mountain Jam” is one of the rare times he played slide in standard guitar tuning instead of the open E tuning he favored for the majority of the Allman Brothers repertoire (“Dreams” being the only other song where Duane would play slide guitar in standard tuning) .
From this section the band goes into what is probably my favorite part: what I refer to as the “Country Gospel” section. Loosely based on the chord progression of  “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”, it features Duane’s guitar playing at it’s soulful best. There is at least one version of “Mountain Jam” (see below) where the band actually goes into a instrumental version of  “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”.
From there the band finally returns to the main melodic there of “There Is A Mountain” played by the guitars in harmony and ending the piece with ringings chords. The way they  return us to where we started, after the lengthy journey we all have been taken on, always makes me smile and makes me shake my head is disbelief as to how good these guys were.
It was hearing songs like this, played by bands like the Allman Brothers, that inspired me to play music and to love music the way I do. I hope all of you are so lucky.

Below, in what I believe to be the earliest video made of the band, is the Allman Brothers playing Mountain Jam at the Love Valley Festival in North Carolina on July 17, 1970. To give you an idea of context, this performance took place shortly before Duane Allman became involved with the recording of Derek and the Domino’s “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs”.   Enjoy.

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Posted in Jam Band, Music Appreciation and Analysis
5 comments on ““First There Is A Mountain. . . “: The Allman Brothers and Structured Extended Improvisation
  1. danwalkner says:

    Love that tune. Solid analysis, too.

  2. Mark Henry says:

    Enjoyed this piece very much.

  3. […] becoming more formalized over time (for my discussion and analysis of Mountain Jam, see my post https://roymusicusa.com/2014/06/30/first-there-is-a-mountain/). The Grateful Dead, particularly in the early seventies, would sometimes play thematic […]

  4. fusak says:

    This is an amazing read! Thank you! Life long skateboarder in New Mexico turning 50 soon…we have a backyard pool (built for skating) and the Allman Brothers Band jams frequently when we have BBQs/skate sessions. My favorite for sure. Live at Fillmore East plays OFTEN. Blah blah after saying all THAT: I have yet to meet a single person who doesn’t really really groove out and get in the zone as far as my beloved ABB. ESPECIALLY Mountain Jam and Elizabeth Reed. My grandpa lived Next door to Dickey Betts in Osprey Florida. I would love for them to somehow know, in 2023 there are a bunch of 40+ federal and public sector employees cruising around with Fillmore East almost ALWAYS on the speakers. Have a great year everyone sincerely.

  5. fusak says:

    Great read and thank you! It would be my dream for the band to know (somehow out there) that there is a group of 40+ year old skateboard lifers with a backyard pool in New Mexico who ALWAYS have “Live at Fillmore East” jamming from the speakers at our BBQs/skate sessions. Almost all federal or public sector employees, just going for it in the desert, rocking out to Allman Brothers Band as a key component. Have a great year everyone

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