5 Tips for playing jazz “Rhythm Changes” on piano

“Rhythm Changes” are a huge part of the jazz legacy, but can be a bit tricky to learn well. The chords are based on George Gershwin’s song “I Got Rhythm,” and hundreds if not thousands of jazz tunes over the years have been based on them.

Here are 5 tips to help you become comfortable playing “Rhythm Changes.”

1. Learn many melodies that use this chord progression.

“Lester Leaps In,” “Cottontail,” and Anthropology” are just a tunes that use “Rhythm Changes.” MY jazz piano teacher Billy Taylor advised me to learn and analyze melodies as a way to learn individual jazz styles. Billy pointed out that bebop melodies, for example, contained all the melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic elements of bebop soloing, in a readily accessible form.

2. Practice s-l-o-w-l-y

Chick Corea once stated in an interview that the way to become able to play fast is to practice slowly. I’ll often practice improvising at a tempo of 40 bpm, in order to clearly “hear” each individual note. And yes, the more I practice slowly, the faster I can ultimately play.

3. Learn “Rhythm Changes” in the various historical styles of jazz

Don’t limit yourself to bebop. Check out Count Basie’s Southwest swing piano riffs, the “horizontal” melodic improvisations of Lester Young, the bebop intricacies of Charlie Parker and Bud Powell, the reharmonizations of Art Tatum, along with the abstractions of Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. Then, when you play, let it all come out naturally.

4. Practice them in all 12 keys

Learning “Rhythm Changes” in the key of B major will give you a better understanding of the piano, period.

5. Have fun!

For years, I was so uptight about playing “Rhythm Changes” in the best possible way that I forgot to enjoy them. But then I discovered how much fun they can be. Even if you’re just getting started with these chords, have fun and enjoy what you’re playing!

These 5 tips will take you a long way with “Rhythm Changes.” Here’s my version of Duke Ellington’s “Cottontail,” in which I’ve put all 5 tips to use:

Cottontail: Journey Through The Real Book #73

Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”

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