The challenge of improvising over Rhythm Changes

If you’re like me, you didn’t fare so well the first time you improvised a solo over Rhythm Changes. In fact, I was unhappy with the way I played them for years. (But that didn’t stop me from continuing and I still had fun playing, even when it sounded terrible!)

Even now, I’m not exactly sure why Rhythm Changes are so challenging to so many jazz players. They’re the chords, or sometimes variations on the chords that George Gershwin used in his 1930 song “I Got Rhythm.” The musical form is a standard AABA, and during the A sections they kind of circle around the tonic chord of Bb major for 4 bars, before moving towards Eb and then back home to Bb. The bridge is a simple sequence of dominant 7th chords moving around the circle of 4ths.

On paper it looks easy.

But there’s something about the cyclical nature of Rhythm Changes that leads many players to play the same phrases over and over again, in the same places and with the same pacing. In fact, when I once asked my piano teacher, Billy Taylor, about his experiences as the house pianist at Birdland during the 1950s, he replied that he enjoyed it, except during jam sessions when sax players would play endless choruses of Rhythm Changes!

My Rhythm Changes journey has gone through 3 distinct stages:

1. When I struggled to get through them any way I could and usually sounded terrible.

2. After I incorporated Charlie Parker’s playing into my Rhythm Changes concept. This enabled me to sound pretty good on them, but I was still dissatisfied because my soloing felt stale to me and I always played similar phrases on the chord progression day after day.

3. Thanks to listening to Sonny Rollins, Keith Jarrett, and others including (believe it or not) Louis Armstrong, I finally learned how to free up my phrasing on Rhythm Changes and express something individual through my playing on them. I also learned, over time, to trust my sense of melody and not have a preconceived notion of how I wanted my solo to go ahead of time. I learned to listen, follow the melodic lines, and let the music flow.

Here’s a video in which I demonstrate a bit of how to incorporate Charlie Parker’s melodic and rhythmic vocabulary into your own playing over Rhythm Changes:


Good luck, and have fun with your practicing!

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