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Developing Your Rhythmic Language

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Most young jazz musicians look at all the chords and scales they need to master and find it a bit intimidating. (I mean, what is an M# demented chord anyway?) They spend countless hours practicing so they will instantly know exactly what scales work over which chords, and how to create smooth voice-leading. That’s all great stuff—but what about rhythm?
The rhythm does as much, or more, to define a musical idea as do the pitches, so let’s look at ways to develop our rhythmic language.

  • One of the quickest ways is come up with a simple lyric, like “I’m swingin’.” That’s your rhythmic motif. Limit yourself to only three or four notes and play that over a blues. Experiment with your motif, moving it around in the bar. Then make up a “response” to the “call” you are playing. It can be as simple as, “I’m swingin’…” “Yay!”
  • Try singing along with some great soloists and notice how they develop a rhythmic motif. A great example is Sonny Rollins on “St. Thomas” from the album Saxophone Colossus. He builds a great solo by beginning with a two-note rhythmic idea.
  • Sing a solo, deliberately emphasizing different levels of the rhythmic netting. Check out Clifford Brown’s solo on “September Song,” from Sarah Vaughan, with Clifford Brown. Or listen to Lee Morgan on Art Blakey’s “Moanin’” (from the recording of the same name) or Wynton Kelly’s “Wrinkles,” from Wayne Shorter’s Introducing.
  • Try playing at the front of the beat, right in the centre, or slightly behind. Check out anything by Miles Davis, but you might start with “Blues by Five” on the album Walkin’.
  • Here is a Steve Kirby gem: take something you’ve played and move it back by half a beat. Think for a moment how square Sonny Rollins’ “Tenor Madness” melody would feel if it were played on the beat instead of emphasizing the up-count, as it does.
  • And of course, great advice for so many players: “Don’t just play something—sit there!” I’ve almost never heard someone complain about a player leaving too much space in their solos, but if I had nickel for every time someone fills up the glorious space with practiced patterns or runs that don’t say much, I’d be writing this from my condo in the Bahamas.

Jazz is at its essence rhythmic music, so enjoy developing that aspect of your playing.


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