Counterpoint: Why I STILL Love Playing Rhythm Changes

In his recent guest article on, my esteemed colleague Kurt Ellenberger explained why he dislikes–nay, loathes, abhors–soloing over rhythm changes.

By George, I enjoy calling Kurt that: “my esteemed colleague.” It sounds so dignified, so prawpuh, so…so pretentious. Hmmm…I relent, Kurt. That description is as cloying as some of the sacred jazz cows that I know you’d like to kebab. So I’ll retract the “esteemed colleague” bit and just call you my friend; a funny, thoughtful, and insightful guy; and, need I say, an absolute monster musician.

But I still disagree with you about rhythm changes.

To an extent, that is. I’ll begin my rebuttal to your post by agreeing with you. Given your musical experience and the high level at which you play, you get to hate rhythm changes to your heart’s content, along with any other musical formulae that you choose. You’ve attained, man. Once a person has mastered the rudiments of jazz to a world-class degree, there’s no need to keep rehashing them. The point of laying a foundation is to build something new upon it, not enshrine it.

This being said, foundations are important, and rhythm changes are an exercise in foundational material. Moreover, whether they’re banal is a matter of  perspective.

In his post, Kurt provides an analysis of rhythm changes that emphasizes their mostly static harmonic nature, with the exception of a temporary digression to the circle of fifths at the bridge section, which Kurt labels as trite. Overall, he is unimpressed by RCs.

But “trite” is simply a viewpoint, and viewpoints are personal. Some perspectives change as an individual accumulates experiences, while others deepen as time helps to clarify and reinforce them. This, I think, is the heart of the matter. As Kurt puts it, following his analysis, “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.”

Note the words “prefer” and “preferences.” They are personal terms. Everyone is entitled to his or her preferences, but one’s reasons for them are not necessarily a definitive yardstick for determining the value of a thing, particularly when other criteria can also be applied.

If I ever attain to Kurt’s level of harmonic and overall musical sophistication, then perhaps I’ll feel as he does about rhythm changes and the 32-bar song form overall. Probably not, though. Rhythm changes just never bothered me at the onset the way they did Kurt. But then–and this should come as no surprise–I see them in a different light.

For one thing, I’m a saxophonist, and as such, my concerns as they apply to my instrument are purely melodic. By this I don’t mean that I’m uninterested in harmony–I’m keenly interested in it, of course–but rather, that I’ve only got one note at a time at my disposal, not entire clusters. This alone creates a different outlook than Kurt has as a pianist.

For another thing, I’ve taken a different and slower developmental path than Kurt’s. For still another, I’ve worked on rhythm changes by choice, not because of an educational or cultural mandate. Finally, I’m me, with my own set of preferences and dislikes. And on both artistic and practical levels, I find playing rhythm changes to be enjoyable, valuable, and, yes, challenging.

On the practical level, rhythm changes are a great way to take rudimentary elements of improvisation such as turnarounds, cycles, and ii-V7s out of isolation and set them in an applied context. I’ve already addressed this matter in my original post on rhythm change, so I won’t rehash it here. The points I made then remain valid. From a developmental standpoint, RCs are–like that other even more foundational form, the blues–good for you. You don’t have to build your world around them, but learning how to play them well gives you some substantial building blocks which you can adapt in other ways that may interest you more. As a musical exercise, I view rhythm changes in somewhat the same category as scale work and etudes.

As a young improviser, I first began to make the leap from technique to musicality by memorizing a Charlie Parker solo based on rhythm changes. Today, I’m still finding RCs invaluable for helping me to build my chops in different keys. I’m convinced of their value. A raftload of Charlie Parker contrafacts can’t be wrong.

However, those same Charlie Parker tunes are now very old, and jazz has traveled in a lot of directions from its 1940s bebop watershed. Bird himself, in the final years of his life, felt that he had taken bebop as far as he could and was seeking a new direction. Which brings me to the artistic aspect of rhythm changes.

Rhythm changes, banal? I suppose they can be, but I don’t think they have to be. Listen to Michael Brecker ripping through “Oleo” and tell me that’s banal. The difference lies in Michael’s approach. He’s not merely regurgitating old licks; he has developed his own voice and is applying it masterfully to the changes. Michael certainly doesn’t seem disenchanted.

While I can’t say for sure, I suspect that the late tenor master had absorbed so much music of all different kinds that he didn’t much care whether he was playing a sparklingly contemporary, harmonically complex tune or an old chestnut. Like Kurt, I’m sure that Michael had his preferences, but that didn’t keep him from weaving magic with rhythm changes and, to all appearances, enjoying himself in the process.

Kurt mentions getting locked into a formulaic approach to RCs. I know what he means–I face that same challenge. But since I don’t have an innate bias against rhythm changes, I view the rote licks and patterns as just a framework which, as I master it, can ultimately enable me to move beyond it. Kurt knows, far better than I, that rhythm changes, like any tune, can be altered in creative ways that are only limited by one’s imagination.

And, I might add, by one’s level of interest. If a player isn’t motivated to explore the possibilities, then rhythm changes, like any well-worn standard in the American songbook, will indeed become banal through over-repetition of the same-old-same-old. I fully concur with Kurt that there has to be some level of complexity present, some kind of intellectual and/or technical challenge, to hold my attention.

However, I maintain that the potential for such complexity exists in any tune. I mean, how innately fascinating is a Dorian mode? But we understand that there’s a whole lot more to modal music than a single scale played ad nauseum over a single minor chord. It’s not a matter of what you’re given, but of what you do with it and, I should add, whom you do it with.

I could say more on the matter, but there’s no point in doing so since it really does boil down to a matter of personal preference. Instead, I have a couple observations to make with which I think Kurt will fully concur.

First, while I’m obviously a proponent of rhythm changes, I would emphasize that they’re just a stopover on a much larger musical journey. I think it’s wise for a developing jazz musician to go through them, it’s helpful to camp out on them for a season, and it’s fun to return to them and enjoy the view, but for goodness sake, don’t buy a house there. The neighborhood is already 80 years old and the heyday of its development in the bebop era is long past. Use what’s been done as a basis for finding your way toward newer, more personal musical directions.

Second, jazz traditions may be venerable but they’re not sacred, and this certainly applies to rhythm changes or to any musical form. It’s okay not to like them and it’s okay to say so.

Jazz culture has been a breeding ground for some affectations and norms that I don’t much care for. Some of them may have served a purpose at one time, but, as Kurt has done a great job of pointing out in a post titled “Jazz in Crisis” on his own blog, Also Sprach Frackathustra, they’re now outdated in a larger world that has moved far beyond the jazz era.

So let’s be real. If jazz is about freedom, as we say it is, then saying that one doesn’t care for rhythm changes shouldn’t require some sort of hush-hush, confessional tone for fear that Big Brother is listening. I’ve never been aware of such a cultural pressure, but I don’t doubt that Kurt has experienced it, and that bothers me. Good grief, we’re talking about a set of chord changes, not the Ark of the Covenant.

Many of us jazz practitioners need to distinguish between the true non-negotiables of the music we play versus the affectations and cultural mores that surround it. If we don’t search our own souls, believe me, the rest of the world doesn’t care enough to do the job for us. Many of us could start by dropping our smug, musicianly superiority and becoming just plain, down-to-earth, nice people who treat both our fellow musicians and non-musicians graciously.

With that, I think I’ve worked the rant out of my system. Kurt, I guess I’ll continue to enjoy playing rhythm changes, at least until, like you, I experience them as more limiting than beneficial. Until then, I promise, cross my heart, that if you and I do a gig together, I won’t call for rhythm changes.

However, if I catch you playing solo somewhere, I may request “Anthropology” just to see you wince.

ADDENDUM: Be sure to check out the final installment of this series, in which Kurt offers his own closing thoughts.

Sax Practice: A Chromatic Motif on the Cycle of Dominants

If you want to develop fluency at voice-leading and switching keys, cycle exercises are mandatory and the cycle of fifths is supreme. Taking dominant patterns and licks around the cycle of fifths is a longstanding habit of mine. As with a lot of musical disciplines, at first I delayed, I kicked, I resisted tackling this one for a long time because, well, it was work. Finally I decided to buck up and eat my spinach, and today the circle of fifths is a key component of my practice regimen, particularly for V7 chords.

After all, the dominant seventh, more than any other chord, defines the key center; it’s the chord that screams “resolve me!” So it pays for sax players and other jazz improvisers to consistently drill their ears and their fingers with exercises that can build their facility with dominant seventh chords.

Here’s one such exercise that I’ve been having fun with lately. Click on it to enlarge it. There’s nothing mysterious about this little motif; I could pull it off easily in a number of keys right where I stand without making a practice issue of it. I’ve practiced enough related material that my fingers already know the way. But spotlighting the figure makes it likelier that I’ll use it in my solos; it ensures that my technique will follow me into any key; and, as with all cycle of fifth exercises, it helps me hear how the pattern lays out in root movements by fifth.

For each dominant chord, the exercise ascends chromatically from the ninth to the third, and then from the root to the seventh. I’ve set it in triplets, but you’ll want to experiment with different rhythms.  I might add, this little motif sounds great in blues solos.

No need for me to say more–except, of course, to pester you to check out more exercises on my jazz page. Have fun practicing!

A Charlie Parker Lick Around the Cycle of Fifths

Okay, campers, listen up: Uncle Bob says it’s time again for another great sax lick. So gather round the campfire with your saxophones, and grease your fingers to keep them from igniting, because this lick comes to you from the immortal Bird. That’s right, Charlie Parker, the indisputable emperor of the alto sax–not merely a luminary of jazz, but one of its incendiaries. It pays to light your tinder with Bird’s flame, and this exercise will help you to do so. Click on the thumbnail to enlarge it to readable size.

bird_lick_cycle_of_fifthsThe lick comes from the first bridge section of Parker’s solo on “Thriving from a Riff,” which is one of the myriad contrafacts based on the changes to “I Got Rhythm” that were written back in the bebop era. An alternate and perhaps better-known name for this particular tune is “Anthropology.” Same head, same changes, just a different title.

While a number of variations exist on the chord changes to the Rhythm bridge section, the basic progression, and arguably the most frequently used, is four dominant seventh chords moving around the circle of fifths in two-bar increments. Since the cycle of dominants is the foundation for the Rhythm bridge, extending a lick written over the bridge so that it covers all twelve keys is a great way to develop fluency in every key. That’s the premise of the exercise on this page.

Note that I’ve done only half your work for you. Once you’ve mastered the written material, you’ll need to transpose the lick so that it starts on E7 instead of B7, and work your way through the remaining transpositions.

Parker played Rhythm changes in a number of keys, but the standard key of concert Bb is the one he used most often, and it’s the one that “Thriving from a Riff” was written in. It puts the Eb alto sax in the key of G, with B7 being the first chord of the bridge section. For Bb instruments such as tenor sax, soprano sax, and trumpet, the first chord will be E7. But for purposes of practicing the cycle of fifths, it really doesn’t matter which chord you start with–it’s all good, and it’ll all take you around the complete cycle through all twelve keys, which is the purpose of this exercise.

It’s de rigeur these days to offer analyses of transcribed solos that are so exacting they could split the hairs on a fly’s behind. I admire the insight and effort that go into such exhaustive examinations of an artist’s work, but I frankly find them a bit overwhelming. I do, however, appreciate having points of particular interest spotlighted, and I will offer a few such highlights here.

The opening figure, an arpeggio descending from the thirteenth of the chord, superimposes an A+(#7) over the B7. Bird couldn’t have more effectively avoided playing the basic triad tones. Note his use of the flatted fifth, creating a Lydian sonority. The parent scale at this point is a B Lydian dominant scale, but it’s only a temporary application. In the following bar, Parker clearly defines the B7 and his approach becomes purely diatonic up to bar 4, where he injects a touch of chromaticism in the form of a passing tone. Look closely and you’ll see a hidden chromatic line descending from the note D in bar 3 through C# and B# in bar four and landing on the note B. The final two notes, B and D, are chord tones, the fifth and flat seventh of the E7.

So much for the fancy analytical stuff. If it helps you, fantastic; if it just loses you, don’t worry about it. The main thing is for you to get the exercise drilled into your fingers and your ears. In other words, make a point of memorizing it. Doing so won’t make another Charlie Parker out of you, but it will make you a better player.

That’s the goal, right, campers? You bet it is. Uncle Bob has spoken. Now get your little butts back to your cabins–you’ve got some practicing to do.

Diminished Lick for Cycle of Dominants

The following pattern is nothing new. If you’ve worked at all on the diminished scale, you’ve doubtless encountered it. But have you worked it out in descending half-steps until it lies smoothly under your fingers from the top to the bottom of your horn? Because that root movement downward by minor seconds is what makes it, or any diminished pattern, particularly useful.

Let’s take a look at  why this is. First, here’s the lick:

Diminished Lick

Note that while each measure brings the diminished scale pattern progressively downward by a half-step, the corresponding chord progression is moving around the circle of fifths. Why?

Remember tritone substitution?

The diminished scale functions perfectly as a scale of choice for V7b9 chords and their tritone substitutes because of its symmetrical nature. Due to its structure, every diminished scale will accommodate not just one, but four possible V7b9 chords.

For instance, a half-step/whole-step diminished scale beginning on the note A will obviously work with an A7b9 chord. But it will also work equally well with C7b9, Eb7b9, and F#7b9.

Note that the A7b9 and Eb7b9 have roots a tritone apart, as do the C7b9 and F#7b9. In other words, tritone substitution is hardwired into the diminished scale.

Herein lies the magic of diminished scales descending by half-steps.

Look closely at the above diminished pattern and you’ll note that root movement downward by a half-step gives you the same scales that you’d arrive at with the circle of fifths.

For instance, in the first bar, the diminished pattern starting on the note C repeats itself sequentially a half-step down in the following measure, starting on the note B.

But what scale would you have arrived at if, instead of dropping a by a minor second, you had dropped by a perfect fifth to the note F, as you would do if you were moving around the circle of fifths? Guess what? You’d have the same scale–i.e. B, C, D, Eb, F, Gb, Ab, A. You’d just be starting on a different note of that scale.

Now, if you’re thinking…

…you’ll realize that because every diminished scale contains four possible roots, you can also achieve the results I’ve just described by moving upward by major seconds, another easy root movement.

You can also move down by a major third or a perfect fifth, but it’s easier to focus on the two root movements that are close at hand.

In summary

When woodshedding a diminished scale lick, it particularly behooves you to get it laying smoothly under your fingers in root movements of descending half-steps and ascending whole steps.

And that, Grasshopper, is that. The rest is up to you.

Using Angularity in Jazz Improv

If you want to add interest and color to your jazz solos, anglify them. “Anglify” might not be a real word, but it ought to be, and it is now as far as this post is concerned. Word coinage is one of my prerogatives as a word wizard.

Anglify. It’s easy to get caught up in linear playing, weaving scales up and down like a stock market graph, but that approach will get old fast unless you mix it up with other melodic devices. Angularity is a good one. Wide interval leaps grab attention; they stand out like bold letters and exclamation points in a sentence.

Writing about angularity forces me to consider exactly what it is. If I were to define it, I’d say it’s the use of two or more consecutive interval leaps of more than a third in any direction. Fourths and fifths are commonly used in angular playing, but any large interval qualifies. The point is, you’re no longer playing notes in a straight line; you’re breaking up the melodic terrain into hills and valleys, moving out of the flatland and into the mountains.

Pentatonic scales are a rich source of fourths and fifths when you start doing interval exercises with them. You can also do exercises on fourths and fifths, or on any interval, using any scale or root movement.

Starting a line with an angular approach is a good way to say, “Listen to this!” Here’s a little diminished whole tone lick I’ve been woodshedding lately. It begins with a leap of an augmented fourth followed by a diminished fourth (aka a major third) up to the raised fifth of the D7 #5, #9 chord. (For ease of use, I’ve shown that note on the staff as Bb rather than A#.)


Note how the arpeggio in the second half of bar two further breaks up the very linear, chromatic flow. The combination of linearity and angularity engages attention.

As always, take the above lick through all twelve keys. Try moving it through the circle of fifths to acquire facility in a lot of playing situations.