In this post, I want to begin to tackle the challenge of playing in odd meters. I’ll start by zeroing in on 5/4 time here.

We spend so much time playing jazz standards in 3/4 and 4/4, so why bother with odd meters?

Well, as many of you have probably noticed, odd meters are becoming more and more common in modern music, especially within the contexts of modern jazz and “classical” styles. There is also a rich tradition of odd-meter jazz music stretching back at least to Don Ellis and farther back to Dave Brubeck and Max Roach. I have become more and more aware of the recent profusion of odd-meter music from personal experience, and I can attest that the majority of my original compositions employ odd meters and/or odd/irregular rhythmic phrasing.

So how can you practice odd meters effectively and efficiently?

The goal when practicing and playing using odd meters is to make them feel as natural and easy as the more common and basic triple and duple meters. Playing in meters based on groupings of five, seven, eleven, thirteen, etc. is easier than it may seem at first because all odd meters can be subdivided into groupings of the more familiar patterns.

In other words, you can break down odd meters into smaller segments based on groupings of two and three.

For example, 5/4 time can be broken down into a two-plus-three (2 + 3) pattern (i.e. a 2/4 bar followed by a 3/4 bar) or vice versa (3 + 2). You can break 5/4 down even further and think of it as two 5/8 measures for every one 5/4 bar, and you can break down the two component 5/8 bars into a 2 + 3 or 3 + 2 8th-note pattern.

Following this logic, there are a multitude of ways you can break down any odd meter into more manageable and common/comfortable rhythmic patterns, which will help you digest and conceptualize them more readily.

Here are some 5/4 rhythmic independence exercises to get you started. Try tapping the bottom line rhythm with your foot and clapping the top line (first with a metronome set to 5/4 time, then eventually without a metronome):

Take these various odd-meter rhythmic patterns one at a time and repeat them over and over again by tapping, singing, and/or clapping them. After you get more comfortable with the rhythms, trying improvising freely or over a jazz standard playing only one rhythmic set at a time until you become comfortable enough with it to start varying it.

Move through each set of odd meter rhythmic patterns one at a time until they become as comfortable and natural to use as more basic rhythmic elements.

Eventually, make it your goal to be able to play with the same amount of freedom and creativity in odd meters that you have in duple and triple meters. Accordingly, it is important to gradually move away from playing the repetitive rhythmic patterns over odd meters and to begin to play with more natural, free, varied, and unpredictable rhythmic phrasing (e.g. with “over the barline” phrasing).

To introduce melody and harmony into the odd-meter equation, here’s an example of an exercise featuring 2 choruses of a Bb blues in 5/4 with a different repetitive rhythmic subdivision (or “odd-time claves,” as I think of them) used every 2 bars (the melody is a bit boring and repetitive, but it helps to simplify the melody with an exercise like this so you can focus purely on rhythmic concerns).

Bb Blues 5/4 Exercise:

I hope you find these ideas helpful and inspiring – happy practicing!

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Josiah Boornazian is a saxophonist, composer, educator, and scholar primarily active in New York City, Miami, and California. He has performed with a wide variety of jazz artists including Jimmy Heath, John Faddis, Dave Holland, Dave Liebman, Diane Schuur, Dave Grusin, Arturo Sandoval, the New York Voices, Tom Scott, Chris Potter, David Binney, Wayne Krantz, Ari Hoenig, Donny McCaslin, and the Gil Evans Orchestra. As a composer, Josiah has been commissioned to write for groups far and wide, including ensembles in California, New York, Texas, and Istanbul, Turkey. Josiah holds a Master of Arts degree in music from the City University of New York's City College campus and a Bachelor of Music degree from California State University, Northridge. In 2016, he began pursuing a Doctor of Musical Arts degree at the University of Miami's Frost School of Music as a Henry Mancini Fellow. As an educator, Josiah has taught on faculty at the City College of New York and given masterclasses at various colleges and high schools across the country. He currently teaches at the University of Miami part-time as a graduate assistant. As a scholar, Josiah was awarded a Björn Bärnheim Research Fellowship at the Hogan Jazz Archive during the 2017-2018 academic year. For more information, please visit josiahboornazian.com.

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