Taking a Modal Approach to Epistrophy

I've been revisiting some old jazz tunes lately and, yet again, remembered how hard Monk's tune Epistrophy makes you think. In this post I'm going to describe some approaches that try to avoid "running the changes" and instead find scales that "work" over whole sections of the tune.

The Changes

As you doubtless know, the main part of the tune is based on 4-bar phrases, each bar of which contains two dominant chords a semitone apart. The first four bars, for example, go like this:

C#7    D7 C#7    D7 C#7    D7 C#7    D7

Everything then goes up a tone (D#7/E7) for 8 bars and comes down again for another four. There's an 8-bar bridge almost entirely on an F#m7 vamp and then we get another four bars of D#7/E7 and another four of what we started with.

Most players, when they meet them for the first time, are completely flummoxed by these changes. If you try to just play inside them, following each chord, it's not only rather difficult because of how fast the chords go by, it quickly starts to sound constrained and repetitive, as if the music's going nowhere. What are we to do with these chords?

Clearly if we're not going to use different melodic material on each chord we're going to have to find things that "work" logically over both chords. There are a lot of traditions that have grown up around this tune for doing exactly that. Here I'm going to describe an approach that takes in a few of them as well as generating some new ideas.

As soon as you start taking this approach, however, another problem arises: how to stay oriented in the chord changes now that you're dealing with 4-bar and 8-bar sections. It's easy to lose count and get caught out. One approach is to change scale strategies, especially within the 8-bar section of D#7-E7, maybe deciding to play one scale over the first four bars and a different one over the next four.

This comes close to turning Epistrophy into a modal tune, with the comping defining the "inside" notes that related closely to the scale (i.e., "mode") being used by the soloist. As in any modal tune, you can and should go outside the mode to add tension. This way of thinking makes Epistrophy a lot of fun to play if you don't enjoy galloping through arpeggios and changing harmony every two beats.

Tip: the best way to work with these ideas is to just play over the first four bars of Epistrophy If you find an idea you like you just need to transpose it up a tone for the "other" A-section. The bridge is a completely different animal, although modes of some of these scales provide some exotic possibilities for playing over it.

Caveat: to my ears, not all of the ideas presented here sound good over a generic backing track for this tune. If you want to actually take a modal approach in soloing the comping should reflect that, too. Otherwise you can always use these ideas as sources for isolated licks or patterns. In other words, these are not tricks that "just work", they're ideas that require work from you.

All scale and arpeggio fingerings can be found, along with analysis, in Scale and Arpeggio Resources: A Guitar Encyclopedia, which is free to download as a PDF (just click the link). Page numbers may differ in your edition: if so, Ctrl-F is your friend.

Custom-Building Modes from Chord Tones

Heptatonic Modes from the Chord Tones

Here's another way to think of it. The dom7 chords in a single bar contain the following notes, taking the lower root as the root of the whole thing:

1 b2 3 4 5 b6 b7 7

This is an 8-note scale with interval map s, mT, s, t, s, t, s, s. This contains three consecutive semitones, which are a bit dull. We can remove them by removing one note from the scale. There are a number of ways to do this. Of course, they all produce heptatonic scales:

s, mT, s, t, s, t, t     Phrygian Major (p.53)
mT, s, t, s, t, s, t     Nasika Bhushani, aka Hungarian Major (p.208)
s, mT, s, t, s, mT, s     Double Harmonic (p.213)
MT, s, t, s, t, s, s     Superaugmented ##2 ##4 (p.241)

Using C# Phrygian Major on this tune is actually quite a well-known strategy, but the other scales are much rarer. They all have interesting sounds over Monk's chords and with some effort you can get jazzy licks out of them as well as more "outside" sounds.

Building Modes from the I7-V7 Interpretation

Another common approach is to think of the D7 as a tritone substitution for G#7, as if we're hearing I7 V7 in C#. That would mean you can play blues or altered dominant phrases over the C#7. If you just take this approach blindly, though, you'll find that some things work much better than others and some sound really quite bad.

Let's pretend the chords are C#7-G#7. What notes does this give us, taking C# as the root?

1 2 3 4 5 #6 7

This is the Ionian #6 Scale (p.197); try building ideas around this.

Building Modes from the V7-IV7 Interpretation

This idea comes from the idea of putting a minor 3rd substitution in for the first chord: we play over E7-D7 instead of C#7-D7 (because E is the minor third of C#). Another way to think of this is that we're interpreting the whole thing as being in the key of A major, with a blues feel. So A Minor Pentatonic, or related scales, can work here. It's as if you're playing over a fragment of the 12-bar blues, from halfway through bar 9 to halfway into bar 10, over and over again.

Instead, though, we could look at what notes these two chords contain and take a modal approach:

1 b2 b3 3 5 b7

This is a hexatonic scale, the one referred to in Scale and Arpeggio Resources as Mode IV of the 100100101101 Scale. If you like the sound of it you can also try its reflection, because of the close relationship between these two. If you take this to be the "inside" sound, one of the coscales can be positioned to give you the "outside" sounds.

Those two adjacent minor thirds are a bit much, but we can fill them in to make heptatonics in a few different ways:

s, t, s, t, s, mT, t     Super Locrian bb6 (p.218)
s, t, s, s, t, mT, t     Super Locrian bb5 bb6 (p.228)
s, t, s, mT, t, s, t     Natakapriya b4 (p.219)
s, t, s, mT, s, t, t     Phrygian b4 (p.201)

We can also fill them in to make octatonics by adding two notes; one of these is particularly interesting:

1 b2 b3 3 #4 5 6 b7

This is the Half-Whole Diminished Scale (p.72), one of the scales Coltrane liked to use over this tune (see here for a transcription).

Obviously, all the heptatonics mentioned above are just examples of the Half-Whole Scale with one note left out, but as a result they do all have slightly different characters. Try all five options and see which ones inspire you.

Scales Containing the b2 Dominant

Another way to go at this is to look for scales that contain the b2 dominant 7 arpeggio and play over C#7 with them, knowing that the arpeggio notes of D7 will be taken care of. We get four new scales to try out:

s, MT, s, t, s, t, s     Superaugmented b2 nat6 (p.241)
s, MT, t, s, s, t, s     b2dom + #3maj (p.347}
s, mT, s, t, s, s, t, s     1maj + b2dom + 6maj (p.299)
s, t, t, t, s, s, t, s     1m6 + b2dom (p.305)

The second and third scales are just octatonics formed by filling notes into the MT (major third) interval in the second scale. To my ears none of these sounds especially successful in context, but your mileage may vary.

Melodic Minor Modes

Another common approach is to use D Melodic Minor, which when the root is C# becomes the Super Locrian: 1, b2, b3, b4, b5, b6, b7. Lining it up with the notes in the seventh chords gives us:

1 b2 3 4 5 b6 b7 7
1 b2 b3 b5 b6 b7

As you can see, the relationship is fairly close but the scale contains the b3 and b5 of C#; these are blue notes against C#7 but rather dull against D7 (where they become 2 and 4). Another similar approach is to play C# Dorian b9: again, the sound is okay but needs care. I'm not a big fan of their of these sounds but you might enjoy them as a change from the more exotic ones described above.

Is It Sacrilege to treat Epistrophy Modally?

Not if you make it sound good!