Rhythm is one of the most important aspects of jazz. If you want to take your playing to the next level – no matter where you’re at in your musical development – you must constantly challenge yourself to improve the rhythmic aspects of your playing.
It’s important because the overall rhythmic content and feel (the “groove” or “time-feel” or “beat”) are one of the first things that listeners notice when they hear any style of music. You don’t have to be a trained musician or know anything about music theory or specialized terminology to know when music feels good rhythmically. You just feel it – usually on some guttural, physical level.
And, as jazz musicians, rhythm is especially important when you consider that the special and elusive rhythmic feeling we call “swing” has been an important element in many jazz styles for much of the music’s history.
Indeed, we want to be able to swing hard. We want to be able to make music with such a deep groove that people can’t help but move their bodies when they hear us play. As jazzers, we have all sorts of words and phrases we use to describe the special moments when our improvisations achieve an exceptional sense of time-feel and a certain rhythmic sparkle. We say the music “grooves,” is “in the pocket,” “swingin’,” is “locked in,” “clicks,” “dances,” “flows,” etc.
The rhythmic aspects that make jazz a unique and compelling style of music are incredibly elusive, elastic, variable, and dynamic. It’s notoriously difficult to pinpoint, describe, capture, teach, and learn the subtle shadings of jazz rhythmic concepts such as “swing.”
That being said, no matter how challenging it may be to define, conceptualize, and practice swing, the truth is you have the power to improve your sense of time, time-feel, rhythm, swing, and phrasing through concerted effort.
Don’t let myths like “you can’t teach swing” and “you either have good time/phrasing/rhythm, or you don’t” deter or discourage you from achieving your rhythmic goals.
So how can you improve your playing rhythmically?
Rhythm is a HUGE topic, and there’s no way I or anyone else could address all there is to say and practice in one post. However, I want to show you three practicing tools that, with work, can help you take your playing to the next level rhythmically.
One of the best ways to improve your sense of musical time is to practice polyrhythms and rhythmic independence exercises.
What are polyrhythms?
To refresh our memories, a polyrhythm is a musical texture in which there are multiple overlapping, interweaving, and contrasting rhythmic layers or elements occurring simultaneously.
Jazz is full of polyrhythms – in fact, polyrhythms are one of the defining rhythmic features of many styles of jazz music. For those with a healthy historical/social curiosity, most music scholars argue that the polyrhythmic aspects of jazz are the legacy of African-American musical practices and preferences that ultimately trace their roots back to Africa, especially West Africa.
How can you practice polyrhythms?
In order to address polyrhythms, you first must develop a good sense of duple and triple time-feels by themselves. A good exercise to start with is to put a metronome at a moderate tempo and switch back and forth between duple- and triple-based time-feels.
Here’s what I mean in musical notation (the 8th notes should be straight for the purposes of this exercise):
Next try these basic, foundational polyrhythms (try tapping the bottom rhythms with your foot and clapping and/or singing the top rhythms, then switch it around):
Start by playing, tapping, and/or singing simple melodic and rhythmic fragments over and over again based on the idea of switching between duple and triple time-feels. Then move on to improvising more complex rhythms with both a duple and triple time-feel once you feel more comfortable.
Here’s an example of what I mean over a 12-bar blues in concert F. Feel free to try it with both straight and swung 8th notes (I know the melody is kind of goofy and off-kilter, that’s the point: to emphasize the power of rhythm regardless of what’s going on melodically):
After you get comfortable performing these types of exercises with a metronome, try practicing without the metronome. For an added challenge, try performing these exercises while improvising over jazz standards. An additional useful exercise that combines playing with dance is to march while you practice by stomping out a pulse lightly with your feet while simultaneously improvising rhythms (switch time-feels at will).
The Next Steps
After you get comfortable with switching between duple and triple time feels, you can tackle some polyrhythmic exercises. Try the ones below, seek out other ones, and make up your own!
Here are three polyrhythmic exercises to get you started (try tapping the bottom rhythms with your foot and clapping and/or singing the top rhythms, then switch it around):
Note that the best part is you can practice these types exercises anywhere, anytime, with or without your instrument.