Guest Blog: Jazz Pianist Kurt Ellenberger Tells Why He Hates Rhythm Changes

"I’m attracted to sophisticated harmony, interesting voice-leading, rich chords and dense chord voicings, and tone color...None of that is present in rhythm changes, and the ornate weaving through the static changes is just not compelling enough to mitigate what is missing."--Kurt Ellenberger
Some time back, I wrote a post titled "Why I Love Playing 'Rhythm' Changes." Evidently not every jazz musician feels the same way. Judging from the following post, jazz pianist Kurt Ellenberger may be slightly fonder of rhythm changes than he is of leprosy, but it's a close contest. I'd be tempted to whap Kurt for taking a whack at my article, except that Kurt is one of those rare musicians who makes me want to put my saxophone down and just listen to him play. He is a truly amazing, well-rounded pianist and complete musician who, drawing from a huge array of musical influences, can sweep you away on an inventive, marvelously textural journey that will make you forget there's anything but the music you're listening to. Kurt is also a composer, the jazz professor at Grand Valley State University, the creator of Frakathustra's Blog (aka Also Sprach Frak), and the author of "Materials and Concepts in Jazz Improvisation." All of the above to say, Kurt is hugely qualified to express a conflicting opinion. He's also a great guy with a nutty sense of humor. So I guess I won't whap him. Instead, I'm featuring him here as a guest blogger, knowing that he has some valuable, thoughtful, and provocative perspectives to share. Naturally I'll be writing a rebuttal.* Ain't no Hatfield crosses a McCoy without there be a return salvo. For now, though, it's time for Kurt to share his thoughts in an article he calls...

Why I Hate Rhythm Changes

By Kurt Ellenberger In case the title isn’t clear enough, I’ll say it unequivocally: I don’t like rhythm changes at all, I have no interest in the form, nor any affinity for it whatsoever, and I know I’m not alone. I’ve heard many of my fellow jazz musicians say similar things, but we’ve done it in a sheepish manner, as if uttering some kind of sacrilege against one of the sacraments of the jazz church. Sacrament or not, I think it’s probably the most banal structure in all of jazz. That’s a provocative statement requiring some explanation, which I’m happy to provide. But first, some context and background. When I was listening to jazz for the first time as a teenager, there were certain tunes that I never (for the most part) liked very much. As I became more knowledgeable about form and harmony, I found there was a consistent pattern to my dislike: They were tunes based on rhythm changes such as “Moose the Mooch,” “Rhythm-a-ning,” “Shaw Nuff,” “Cottontail,” “Anthropology,” “Dexterity,”and others.  There were few that I liked, a very few.  In fact, I can name them specifically, because there were only two that I can remember being interested in: Bill Evans’ studio version of “Oleo” and some of Miles Davis’ recordings of “The Theme.” That’s not to say I didn’t appreciate the playing and the technical prowess in display in countless other recordings, I just didn’t enjoy listening to the form, regardless of how well it was played, and that hasn’t changed to this day. As a dutiful jazz student, I worked hard to learn the form.  I transcribed solos, studied them as jazz etudes, extracted licks and learned them in 12 keys, until I could make it through and play it in a reasonably convincing manner.  I say “convincing” because I always felt as if I was acting a part when playing rhythm changes. I had no passion for it and I couldn’t manufacture a musical love affair.  I’m sure that it came across as such, no matter how hard I tried.  I relied on clichés and formulaic licks, especially at faster tempos. I never felt like I was improvising; rather, that I was regurgitating my stable of licks in a form that was completely uninteresting to me in order to be employable as a jazz musician. As time went on, my emotional detachment from rhythm changes made it harder and harder to fake it. I just couldn’t force myself to play those licks as required to maintain the facade.  When someone called a tune based on rhythm changes, I tried to avoid a solo entirely if at all possible. I examined the form to see if I could figure out what I didn’t like about it, and it wasn’t hard to determine.  Rhythm changes is a 32-bar form (AABA). The ‘A’ section is eight measures in length, the first four of which are (as Bob writes in his post) a simple turnaround repeated. In the second four measures, the bass moves from tonic to dominant, highlighting the subdominant briefly, before moving back to tonic again(there are some minor variations there, but essentially this is what is found). The ‘B’ section attempts to generate some degree of harmonic “surprise” as it moves from tonic to V/vi (chromatic mediant). This transparent and trite interjection fails to surprise as it immediately decays into a string of very predictable secondary dominants leading to the dominant of B-flat, which then sets up the return of the ‘A’ section.   To summarize:

* There are three ‘A’ sections in the piece, comprising 24 of its 32 measures.

*The ‘A’ section is a prolongation of the tonic.

*The ‘B’ section is nothing more than a series of passing chords leading to tonic.

The form is therefore virtually static from a harmonic (granted, Schenkerian) perspective which is problematic for me. In general, I prefer music that has a higher degree of harmonic activity and direction, or, absent that (as in music of a more minimalist nature, much of which I enjoy tremendously), there must be some other complexity in play to retain my interest. These preferences have become more pronounced over the years. As a result, I’ve lost interest in a lot of tunes that are similar in construction. The primary reason that I pursued jazz was because of my love for the music of Bill Evans, which goes a long way in explaining what motivates and inspires me musically. To be precise, I’m attracted to sophisticated harmony, interesting voice-leading, rich chords and dense chord voicings, and tone color, all of which Evans excels in. None of that is present in rhythm changes, and the ornate weaving through the static changes is just not compelling enough to mitigate what is missing. Yet I really was attracted to Evans’ recording of “Oleo,” going so far as to transcribe it in order to learn what he was doing.** His recording is remarkable in that it eschews the original harmony almost completely, and treats the form in a very free manner, with implied new progressions (especially in the ‘A’ section), prolonged hemiolas and other polyrhythms, and surprisingly chromatic melodic figures; in other words, it’s barely recognizable as rhythm changes, which is probably why I like it. I write this with enormous respect and admiration for all of the great musicians who have done (and continue to do) remarkable things with rhythm changes. I can appreciate that on many levels, but I simply don’t respond to it emotionally, and without that, what’s the point? ------------------- * ADDENDUM: To read my rebuttal to Kurt's post, click here. ** It is interesting to note that, as far as I know, Evans recorded rhythm changes only once in a studio album (“Oleo” from “Everybody Digs Bill Evans”). I certainly don’t know the reason, but the fact that he didn’t record it again is notable for a jazz pianist of that era. I’ve wondered about it for many years, especially given my love for Evans’ music and my own dislike for rhythm changes.
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  1. I don’t mind rhythm changes, but I do dislike the tendency for players to quote other songs while playing over rhythm changes – especially the dreaded Flintstones theme.

  2. from what I’ve been told, by friends who studied with him, Jaki Byard had a whole segment on rhythm changes and on the different ways to play them. This really expanded the possibilities. I like the freedom of those changes and Jaki did too, I think, and he played them chromatically, up, down, and sideways.

  3. Thanks for that insight on Jaki Byard! I agree that rhythm changes can be reharmonized all kinds of creative ways. While I don’t wish to put words in Kurt’s mouth, I think his issue with them is mostly a matter of personal preference exacerbated by some unspoken dictates of jazz culture–i.e. you HAVE to love playing rhythm changes, and if you don’t, you’re a jazz heretic. Kurt disagrees with that thinking and so do I, even though I enjoy playing RCs immensely.

  4. People don’t realize how different piano playing is than horn playing. I’m a pianist, and I absolutely fucking hate playing rhythm changes. I’m sure if you equally polled pianists and, say, trumpet players, about RC, you’d find that a way higher percentage of trumpet players enjoy RC than pianists. That’s not to bash trumpet players or horn players; it’s just the nature of the instruments. I don’t want to write a novel here. But for just one example, the static harmony Kurt complains of is something that’s very conducive to playing “across” the changes – something that is harder to do when you are also responsible for playing those changes in the other hand. A horn player, if they are so inclined, can just get up and blast away on the Bb major scale for awhile, with no regard for the chords, and it will sound great. It’s easy to just emote, without worrying about running changes. Then they can run changes for contrast if they want. Of course pianists can do whatever they want harmonically, but RC aren’t exactly the place where people want to hear you go outside and get all intellectual. There are a lot of other reasons related specifically to the piano, as to why playing on RC can be a drag for us.

  5. Rich, that’s a most enlightening response. In my rebuttal to Kurt, I made a similar comment about the difference between horn players and piano players, albeit from the other side of the fence as a sax man. While I don’t have experience as a pianist, I felt that the purely linear, note-at-a-time approach of horn players created a different perspective from that of keyboard players, who deal with changes both melodically and harmonically. You’ve confirmed my hunch and helped me get a clearer view of a distinct hangup that pianists have with RCs. Kurt, I might add, also plays trumpet, though I’ve never heard him. If he’s half as good on that instrument as he is on the piano, then he’s gotta be a bitch! 🙂

  6. I’m pretty much in agreement here. Btw, Bill Evan’s ‘Five’ is based upon RC but with many substitutions/time signature changes in the ‘B’ section.


  1. […] June 7, 2010 · Leave a Comment My friend Bob Hartig kindly asked me to write a “guest blog” on his site,, so I visited his site (which has tons of content on a lot of different topics, including Bob’s very unique hobby chasing storms!) and immediately found my topic when I read Bob’s post entitled Why I Love Rhythm Changes. It gave me the perfect excuse to come clean on my lifelong dislike for rhythm changes, and respond with a contrarian guest post on his site, provocatively and rhetorically entitled  Why I Hate Rhythm Changes. […]

  2. […] on the venerable “Rhythm Changes.” (Bob’s original post here.  My response here.) Bob then responded with “Why I STILL love Playing Rhythm Changes” which left the door […]

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