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.

Happy practicing!

30 Days to Better Jazz Playing
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Josiah Boornazian is an award-winning saxophonist, composer, and educator currently active in New York City, Miami, California, and Washington state. Josiah has performed with a wide variety of artists including Jimmy Heath, John Faddis, Mark Farina, Dave Liebman, Diane Schuur, Dave Grusin, Arturo Sandoval, Ignacio Berroa, the New York Voices, Tom Scott, Cyrille Aimee, Dafnis Prieto, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Shelly Berg, Chris Potter, Drew Gress, David Binney, Wayne Krantz, Tom Scott, Ari Hoenig, Dan Weiss, John Escreet, Jacob Sacks, Fima Ephron, Jonathan Crayford, Obed Calvaire, Will Vinson, Matt Brewer, Ben Wendel, Eivind Opsvik, Ferenc Nemeth, Alan Ferber, John Daversa, Donny McCaslin, and the Gil Evans Orchestra. 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, Josiah, who has taught on faculty at the City College of New York and given masterclasses at various colleges and high schools in California and Washington, began pursuing a Doctor of Musical Arts degree at the University of Miami's prestigious Frost School of Music as a Henry Mancini Fellow. Josiah also teaches at the Frost School part-time as a graduate assistant. In 2017, Josiah's ensemble was selected to participate in the Bucharest International Jazz Competition and he 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.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I enjoy your lessons enormously but I would like to ask you wether it would be possible to give the examples in F as well as G notataion. I try to learn reading in F and reading in a G key confuses me no little.
    Robert

    • Hi Robert, thanks for reaching out! We do try when there are examples that are shorter to do both, but unfortunately, it's impossible to always provide both. Our audience consists of so many musicians playing different kinds of instruments, so our default is normally treble clef. We'll try to keep in mind your request for the future!