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Creating Smooth Transitions When Improvising Over Odd Time Signatures

There is nothing scarier than coming to a gig, and suddenly the band leader pulls out a chart, and the first thing you see is a bunch of different time signatures all over it.

I remember the first time that happened to me, and it wasn’t fun.

After that day, I decided I was going to work on it. So I developed a series of exercises to help myself approach tunes with mixed time signatures, to ease those transitions and more importantly not to get lost.

One common problem when playing tunes with odd meters or mixed meters is that they don’t feel natural. Often the playing is tense and not creative.

The fear of losing the “one” causes musicians to play it safe.

They usually rely on rhythmic patterns, and after a while, the tune sounds repetitive and boring. That was (and still is at times), my problem.

But, I figured out a solution.

We are comfortable playing in 4/4 because we listen to it all the time.

But we can get equally efficient playing different time signatures if we spend enough time working on them. Music is a language, and if we immerse ourselves in this aspect of it, we’ll be able to play through intricate time signatures with ease and taste.

When playing odd meters, there are different ways we can approach them:

  1. Feel the meters out.
  2. Breaking the meters into smaller pieces.
  3. Counting 

Some people are going to tell you to feel the odd meter out so that you can play more natural over it.

Another way is to break the bar into smaller pieces, so you are dealing with more straightforward and familiar cycles.

Other people are going to tell you to learn how to count and play at the same time.

They are all right, and every approach has its pros and cons. However, I believe no single approach is going to give you the complete solution. Having an understanding and command of all the approaches above is going to give you a better chance to succeed.

So let’s begin:

As I’ve said before, when learning how to play odd meters the first order of action is to immerse ourselves in the meters we want to improve.

If we play and listen to those meters our brain is going to internalize how they feel, and at some point, you’re going to be playing over them without the need of counting. They will become as familiar to you as playing in 4/4 or 3/4.

I would say that working on 5’s and 7’s are useful since they are commonly used these days in modern jazz music.

But, what about if you find something like this:

When you face something like this, that “feel it out” approach may fall short unless you have enough time in advance to prepare for the gig.

Feeling out a chart like this the first time through or even after a few runs is not easy. And that’s when the “counting” approach comes handy.

There are a lot of people who would tell you not to do it because the music will feel stiff and the playing might sound tense. But, I think that if we develop that skill, the pros are much higher than the cons.

So let’s use that chart I provided above as a roadmap and do some exercises.

We’ll start very simple, but the exercise will get more challenging with every step.

1. Counting

The first thing we want to do is make sure we can count over the chart without making any mistakes.

First, we’ll count quarter notes, which means only the downbeats.

For instance, on the bar of 4/4 we’ll count 1 – 2 – 3 – 4, or if we are over the bar of 7/4 we’ll count 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7. Then we can add some subdivisions, like 8th notes.

In that case, we’ll count, 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and on a bar of 4/4. Or 8th note triplets and we’ll count as follow: 1 tri-plet 2 tri-plet 3 tri-plet 4 tri-plet.

2. Basic Rhythmic Improvisation

So now that we can count comfortably over the chart, let’s stick to the quarter notes count, and try to improvise rhythmically over the form.

You can clap, play with your hands on a table, or whatever you feel like doing. We can play straight quarter notes, 8th notes or a combination of both. I’ll give you an example.

I’m using simple rhythms and trying not to be obvious about the modulations by creating lines that play over the bar line in some places.

Start simple, and as you get confident counting and playing at the same time, you can get into more complex rhythms and subdivisions.

Remember, the idea is to become proficient at playing and counting at the same time. 

We want to able to play fluidly and effortlessly while keeping our place in a form as complex as this one.

The more you practice complex rhythms and subdivision on top of it, the more freedom you’ll acquire.

Hope this was helpful and informative.

If you wish to share your thoughts or ideas please do so below in the comment section. Or you can follow me on any of my social media profiles, (Instagram or Facebook)

Diego Maldonado
Diego Maldonado
Diego is a professional jazz drummer, composer, and educator. He is originally from Venezuela and currently living in New York City. He attended The Collective School of Music and The City College of New York where he earned, with honors, a Bachelor degree in Jazz Performance.Diego has become an active member of the exciting city’s jazz scene, both as a performer and educator, playing with artists such as Will Vinson, Doug Weiss, Kenny Werner, Tim Hagans, Mike Holober, Mimi Jones, Lukas Gabric, Josiah Boornazian, Antonio Mazzei, Brent Vaartstra, Coyote Anderson, among many others.Diego is an Agean Cymbals and Vater Percussion Artist.


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