Archives for November 23, 2008

Why I Love Playing “Rhythm” Changes

There are several reasons why, as a jazz saxophonist, I really enjoy playing the changes to “I Got Rhythm.” The most apparent reason is that, besides the blues, “Rhythm” changes are the most ubiquitous set of chord changes in the jazz language. The beboppers of the 1940s and 50s wrote a host of tunes over “Rhythm,” some of which I’ve listed in my earlier article on contrafacts, and the number continues to grow. So internalizing “Rhythm” changes is as useful and important as learning the blues: you expand your repertoire by not just one set of chord changes, but by as many “heads” to go with those changes as you can memorize.

Sound good? It gets even better. The tune is in reality a bunch of turnarounds strung together, so at its simplest, it allows you to get a workout on the I-vi-ii–V7 progression. With various chord alterations and substitutions, the progression becomes more sophisticated. Any number of variations exist for “Rhythm” changes, but the bottom line is still this: learn “Rhythm” and you”re also learning your turnarounds.

The nice thing about the “A” section is, you can cover it pretty well using just the parent major scale of the key you”re in. That’s a good place to start. You’ll want to go beyond that, particularly since the fifth bar flats the seventh, but if you’re just beginning to grapple with the complexities of bebop, then it’s nice to work with a tune tha”s as gracious as “I Got Rhythm,” which both accommodates beginners and challenges more advanced players.

The bridge section is another great exercise, this time on the circle of dominants. Work out your mixolydian modes here, concentrating on voice leading, with the seventh and third descending from one chord to the next by half-step. Or take it deeper and focus on chord substitutions and various alterations. The b9 is especially important in the bebop approach.

I work on my “Rhythm” changes frequently. Normally played in concert Bb, they’re a great way to get inside any key and master it. I will be addressing “Rhythm” changes in my upcoming e-book. Stay tuned and be patient. I’m writing the material in my spare time, and it’s not coming quickly, but it is coming.Don’t wait on me, though, to work on your “Rhythm” changes. They’re practical, challenging, accessible, and best of all, enjoyable to play.

ADDENDUM: Pianist, composer, and music educator Kurt Ellenberger is far less favorably disposed toward “Rhythm” changes than I. To read his provocative and well-written commentary in the first of a three-part debate between Kurt and me on the pros and cons of “Rhythm,” click here.