Rhythm Changes: An Etude to Build Jazz Technique

rhythm changes, jazz improvisation, jazz etude 001Here's a little bop-style etude I created to help build your chops for rhythm changes. No surprises here; I wasn't striving for cutting-edge ideas but for simple building blocks of jazz vocabulary. Me being an alto sax guy, I've written the material in the key of G, which is the alto transposition for the standard "Rhythm" key of Bb. Tenor players, flute players, and so on--sorry for the inconvenience, but you know how to transpose, right? Or just play it as written and hone your facility with the key of G. Click on the image to enlarge it and then have at it. And have fun! I've written in the past about my predilection for rhythm changes as a means of developing a fundamental jazz vocabulary. In their essence, the changes can be construed as simply a succession of turnarounds with a bridge based on the cycle of dominants. You can get as fancy with that as you want to, but the basics are just as simple as the word basic implies. For more on rhythm changes, click here. I also encourage you to read the point-counterpoint between Kurt Ellenberger and me which evolved out of that post. Whether you love rhythm changes or, like Kurt, hate them, you'll find food for thought. If you enjoyed this post, click here for plenty more articles, exercises, and solo transcriptions. Also, a quick plug for my book The Giant Steps Scratch Pad. If you'd like a practical, hands-on practice companion to help you master "Giant Steps," well...that's why I wrote it.

On Beyond Rhythm Changes: Kurt Ellenberger Addresses Underlying Issues of Jazz Culture

In a couple of recent posts, pianist and jazz professor Kurt Ellenberger and I traded salvos on the strengths and weaknesses of that ubiquitous jazz form, rhythm changes. In a nutshell, I enjoy playing rhythm changes and Kurt can't stand them. However, that summary is cosmetic; scratch below the surface and you'll find that Kurt and I think on a very similar frequency. Kurt is the one who came up with the idea for a point-counterpoint dialog on the topic, with each of us sharing opposing perspectives in the interest of exploring an issue from different angles. I really liked his idea and I'm pleased with how it has opened up a much broader conversation. Kurt has responded to my last post in a way that I think brings this particular discussion to a satisfying conclusion, albeit one that makes me want to find my stone axe (where on earth did I put it?). I feel, however, that the issues that have been raised may provide material for more exchanges in the future. Without further ado, here are Kurt's closing thoughts on...

Rhythm Changes: Looking Deeper Than the Form

I find myself almost entirely in agreement with Bob’s thoughtful and well-written response to my post on rhythm changes. As he points out, my dislike for rhythm changes is simply an aspect of my personal tastes, which run the gamut from Scarlatti to Skinny Puppy and all points between and beyond, but do not include rhythm changes. If you like the form, that’s great—love the music that moves you, and never apologize for any of it.  (The corollary of that is to never pretend to love or admire something that doesn’t move you.) Bob’s response identifies what (I think) bothered me the most about this form—namely, the tendency of many in the jazz community to be very doctrinaire in matters that should be left to personal taste. If you’re a “jazz musician” then you must publicly profess your love for all the sacraments of the jazz church,* which include the following:
  1. Louis Armstrong
  2. Dixieland
  3. Dance bands of the '30s and '40s
  4. Jazz vocalists
  5. Blues, rhythm changes, and Cherokee (all in 12 keys, of course)
  6. All Ellington (but not necessarily Basie, Kenton, or Herman)
Of course, I’m being somewhat facetious, but there is a kernel of truth in this list that most jazz musicians will recognize. There are elements of stylistic intolerance in the jazz community, which is not surprising given how marginalized it is in the modern world. The more unpopular a genre becomes (or the more ignored it is), the more important its mythology becomes to its adherents; nothing demonstrates this more than the romanticized history of jazz and the sacraments (as I call them) contained therein. That said, I’ll end my counter-counter-point post with one observation: When jazz is referenced in popular culture, it is generally used as a symbol of sophistication, detached coolness, and intellectual refinement. Rhythm changes, however, are not the chosen form for this highbrow signifier, but they are found in at least one prominent position. Where? As the theme song for The Flintstones! -------------------------------- * Lest I’m accused of exaggerating about the “jazz church,” I would point out that the term “jazz police” (which originates, I think, from a wonderfully odd tune by Leonard Cohen) is well-known to all jazz musicians. The Jazz Police are (metaphorically, I assume) the “enforcement arm” of the jazz church, desperately trying to maintain order and stylistic purity within the genre. As hard as it is to believe, there is even a Jazz Police website.

Counterpoint: Why I STILL Love Playing Rhythm Changes

In his recent guest article on Stormhorn.com, 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.

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.

“Oleo” a la Hancock and Brecker

How about a romp through Rhythm changes? I'm always intrigued to see the different ways that master musicians handle that most contrafacted of all chord progressions besides the blues. The tune in this case is "Oleo," and the band is Herbie Hancock, Buster Williams, Al Foster, Bobbie McFerrin, and Michael Brecker. The YouTube video you're about to see is a truly weird, creative, and delightful rendition, with McFerrin scat singing and acting a total goofball...and obviously having a blast. But I don't think there's any doubt that while these guys are just dinkering around, loose and laughing, the level of musicianship and interplay is monstrous. And need I say, Brecker delivers on the tenor sax. This is a funny, fun, and really insane musical excursion that I think you can only loosely call "Oleo." But you've heard enough from me. Give the band a listen.