An aspiring jazz trumpet player's blog about jazz improvisation and ear training.

February 5, 2005 Jazz Improvisation 11 Comments

Learning to improvise - rhythm



"It's not what you play; it's how you play it." I don't know who first spoke those words, nor do I even know if they were initially spoken in the context of jazz improvisation (a Google search returns all sorts of things), but I do know that the quotation aptly describes the importance of rhythm and phrasing in jazz improvisation. You can take any series of notes and depending upon your choice of rhythm and phrasing you can play them with a ferocity that tells the world: look out, here comes one bad mother (shut yo' mouth!), or you can play those notes as ballad, with so much emotion that audiences hang on every note with tears in their eyes. It all comes down to rhythm and phrasing.

Another popular quotation, which I'm paraphrasing, says "If you play wrong notes with good rhythm and phrasing, most people won't hear them as wrong notes. On the other hand, if your rhythm is off, it doesn't matter what you're playing; it will immediately sound bad to just about everyone." As listeners, we have a pretty good tolerance for "wrong" notes as long as they're played with good rhythm and phrasing. One example of acceptable "wrong" notes are the passing tones that we hear in just about every good jazz solo. These are the notes that are not part of the chord being played, but the way they're placed and accented in the overall phrase makes them sound perfectly fine. In fact, they're often what make the solo sound hip in the first place. Another example of acceptable "wrong" notes occurs when somebody plays outside a given harmony. Players like Woody Shaw, Kenny Garrett, and Joe Farrell are masters of outside playing. When they play outside, it doesn't sound like they're playing wrong notes at all. That's because their rhythm and phrasing gives the outside lines the support they need to sound right! They also do other things to tie those lines in, such as chromatic modulation of motifs, but it's really the rhythm and phrasing that anchors everything together. Believe me, if you gave those same "wrong" notes to a person with poor rhythm and phrasing, all you'd hear are wrong notes.


My first experience with jazz improvisation was in middle school band. Our band teacher began by teaching us how to play notes in a swing style. As a group, we all played the familiar dotted-eighth/sixteenth note rhythm that you read about in every book on jazz improvisation. Actually, most books nowadays describe it as a triplet rhythm, where the first two notes are tied... In any case, I'm sure you know what I'm talking about.

After learning the basic swing rhythm, we were shown the notes to the C blues scale (C, Eb, F, F#, G, Bb). Once we played that through a few times, the teacher put on a play-a-long recording and soloed for a couple of choruses so we'd have some idea of what a jazz solo sounds like. Finally, we went around the class, each of us getting a chorus or two to try our hand at jazz improvisation. Naturally, after a five-minute introduction to jazz improvisation, none of us sounded good at all. But, the thing that really sticks out to me now is the fact that we forgot all about rhythm once it came time to solo. Instead, we simply ran up and down the blues scale, trying to get the notes right. Rhythm fell by the wayside and notes took over!

This approach to teaching jazz is echoed in quite a few jazz improvisation books. You start out with the basic swing rhythm. If you're lucky, you'll learn about basic the basic phrasing of eighth-note lines (offbeat accenting). But, inevitably you're deluged with chapter after chapter about scales, modes, and complex theory. Don't get me wrong, I don't have a problem with the study of theory or it's place in jazz education. But I do have a problem with the fact that many beginning players focus too much attention on learning theory without building a solid rhythmic foundation first. Without a solid basis of rhythm and phrasing, any note you play is doomed to sound lifeless and uninteresting.


When somebody asks me for advice on learning jazz improvisation, I suggest the following starting point:

Pick a jazz recording that you really like and listen to it over and over again. As your familiarity with the tune (or solo) increases, start singing along, using simple doo-ba-da-bop syllables. The goal is to mimic the rhythm and phrasing on the recording as you sing. This includes each accent, each inflection, and everything else that's happening in the realm of rhythm and phrasing. If possible, record yourself as you sing along, so you can compare your rhythm and phrasing to that of the recording. Don't worry about getting the pitches right, you can worry about notes later.

Continue the above process until you develop a basic rhythmic vocabulary (i.e. you know what jazz rhythms sound like and you can sing them on your own). Once you reach that point, try playing the same rhythms on your instrument with single-note solos. Isolating your solo to just one pitch/note gives you the freedom to focus entirely on rhythm and phrasing. If you can make one note sound good, just imagine how good you'll sound when you add in more notes! Or, another way of looking at it might be: if you can't play a decent one-note solo, what makes you think you'll sound good with more notes? I'm such a glass is half-empty sorta guy, aren't I?

Ok, now that I've got the introduction out of the way, let's get down to business!


In both of the following tracks, I'm playing nothing but a concert Bb over a Bb concert blues track. For the trumpet players out there, this means I'm playing a C over C blues..

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - ONE NOTE, TRACK 1 - I play a one-measure phrase followed by a measure of rest. During the rest, play back the same rhythm, matching the phrasing and attacks as closely as possible. Here's an example of me playing along to this recording: iwasdoingallright - audio clip. The muted part is what you should play.

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - ONE NOTE, TRACK 2- This clip lasts for two choruses. The rhythms also have a bit more variation.

Once you are able to mimic my rhythm and phrasing, try to improvise your own rhythms in response to mine.


In the following track, I'm also playing over the same concert Bb blues track, however I'm now playing both concert Bb and F (C and G for the trumpets).

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - TWO NOTE, TRACK 1 - As with the examples above, try to mimic my rhythms and phrasing. Use your ear to play the same notes that I play.


Once you get good at mimicking my rhythms and once you are able to improvise some of your own, you should try to improvise an entire solo with just a single note.

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - SINGLE-NOTE BLUES - Here's an example of what a single-note solo might sound like.

If possible, record yourself playing these exercises. When you listen back, compare your rhythm and phrasing to mine. Hopefully yours will sound similar. Ideally, yours will sound even better!


Each exercise above use the Bb concert blues track from Volume 1 - "How To Play Jazz & Improvise" of Jamey Aebersold's play-a-long series. I recommend this play-a-long, not only for it's audio tracks, but also for the accompanying book. The book has a lot of useful information on a variety of topics. It's also a good resource for learning jazz theory.

If you don't have the Aebersold play-a-long, you might try one of the tracks at jazzpracticeloops.com.

UPDATE 10/06/2006: My newest ear trainer, currently in BETA, has blues and other sequences that you can use a play-a-long. Give that a try if you have nothing else.

January 23, 2005 Jazz Improvisation 2 Comments

Rhythm and phrasing - introduction

In the study of jazz improvisation (both in books and schools), there are two major components that rarely get the recognition they deserve: ear training and rhythm. Instead, the bulk of jazz education focuses mostly on theory -- learning what notes to play over which chords. While knowing jazz theory will help you to become a better player, I think (much) greater advances are possible through strengthening ones ear and rhythmic skills.

I've built a couple of tools (main tool , simple songs) and written a few blog entries that focus on ear training. While I certainly haven't covered all aspects, I've at least covered some of them. Now it's time to focus on rhythm! Or more specifically, let's focus on the development of rhythmic interest and phrasing.


I've mentioned before that I was inspired to build this site after visiting some other player blogs. That's really only part of the inspiration. It wasn't until I attended a jazz combo recital at a nearby university, that I was finally motivated to put this site together.

As the student combos performed, I kept thinking of things that they could do to improve. One of the biggest issues, in my opinion, was the lack of rhythmic interest in many of their solos. The lack of interest might manifest itself as a solo with nothing but eighth notes strewn together, with no breaks. Or perhaps they did vary their rhythms, but they played everything with legato attacks and no dynamic interest (i.e. poor phrasing). In short, they didn't sound as good as they could have.

Generally speaking, the poor performances had nothing to do with note choices but everything to do with how they were playing those notes. I kept thinking: if I was their teacher, the first thing I'd do is focus on rhythm and phrasing. Since I'm not their teacher, and since I know there are many more players like them, I figured I could possibly reach them via the Web. As soon as I came to that realization, I started putting this site together.

I don't claim to be an expert (I certainly don't sound like one, just listen to my clips!), however I do believe the tools and exercises on this site are of value to anyone learning how to improvise. So take what you will, and leave what you won't ;-)


This post is really just an introduction to an upcoming series of exercises focusing on phrasing and rhythm. I hope to start putting together some exercises in the next week or two. Until then, keep working on theory ;-)

January 30, 2004 Jazz Improvisation 2 Comments

Jazz improvisation recordings, 2004

recordingEver since I put this site online, I've been recording my improvisation sessions at least once a week. After just a month of reviewing my playing, I'm already hearing significant improvements in my rhythm, articulation, and phrasing. I wish I had been recording myself this often all along.

I've decided to put up a few of these daily recordings on an ongoing journal entry. This way you can follow along as I (hopefully) improve. Feel free to offer comments or suggestions.

All of my jazz improvisation recordings: 2004 - 2005 - 2006 - 2007 - 2008 - 2009 - 2010 - 2011 - 2012 - 2014 - 2015 - 2016 - 2022

DECEMBER 1, 2004

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Aebersold #108, Mo' Joe by Joe Henderson

I recorded the track above, took a short break and then recorded the track below. When starting the track below, it occurred to me that this tune would make a good note limiting example. In my solo, I think there are only five notes (F, G, Bb, C, D). I guess that's a lot of notes for a note limiting exercise, but here's the twist: I only used first and open valves.

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Mo' Joe - first and open valves

As I've mentioned before, note limiting simplifies the task of searching for notes. This freedom can help you focus more on rhythm and phrasing. It can also help you to discover some new ideas by breaking your normal playing patterns. In this particular session, I think my note limiting solo is better than my *normal* solo...

NOVEMBER 22, 2004

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Aebersold #108, A Shade Of Jade by Joe Henderson

This is one of my favorite tracks from this recent Aebersold play-a-long. I'm not all that happy with my playing on this recording, but it's the best I could come up with.

This was a typical session where I picked up my horn to improvise. I played a solo that I really liked and thought: I should record this! Of course, once I hit the record button, the pressure was on and I struggled to play anything well. That's one of the main reasons that I continue to record myself. Eventually, I hope to play equally well whether I'm recording, playing in front of an audience (doubtful, but you never know...), or just playing for myself at home.

NOVEMBER 9, 2004

I just realized: we're nearly halfway through the fourth quarter and I don't have any new recordings online! I guess I've been more focused on other parts of the site (ear trainer and site redesign). In any case, here are a couple of new clips.

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Down By The Riverside

This clip is an example of the sort of thing you could play while working on simple song ear training. The recording begins as I play the song by ear, starting on a G. After playing the main melody, I improvise a bridge and continue to improvise until the end of the tune.

When practicing simple songs, it's important to remember that you can play anything you like. If you only know one part of the song, just play that. If you feel like improvising the rest... go right ahead!

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Freeform improvisation

After recording the "Down By The Riverside" clip, I thought it would be nice to try and play something unstructured. Naturally, I turned to some freeform improvisation. This clip still has some Dixieland elements to it, as I was still feeling the groove from "Down By The Riverside".

While this clip isn't anything special, I am pleased with the ending. Those octave leaps popped out of nowhere!

SEPTEMBER 27, 2004

I recorded a couple clips tonight, in an attempt to squeeze in some more recordings for the third quarter.

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Aebersold #56, Well You Needn't by Thelonious Monk

This a fairly long clip (for this site) at two choruses in length. After the first chorus I stopped playing but then got the urge to continue a phrase. Eight bars later, I jump in to complete the second chorus. Those eight bars are a great example of "less is more" ;-)

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Aebersold #25, Summertime by Hayward & Gershwin

Just a short clip. Nothing fancy. I do like the triplet run in the 5th and 6th bars. I *think* that's the first time I've ever tried something like that.

AUGUST 18, 2004

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Aebersold #44, After You've Gone by Creamer & Layton

This is my first recording on my new flugelhorn! It's just a short clip, but I've been anxious to get something online.

As you may be able to tell from the opening phrases, I'm still having trouble locking in some of the notes on this new horn. A note like an 'F' at the top of the staff is actually easier for me to play on the flugel than on my Bach trumpet (maybe it's the mouthpiece? maybe it's the horn?). Even though the note is easier to play, my embouchure needs to adjust slightly to account for the different setting/tension/etc. It's that adjustment that I'm still getting used to...

JULY 13, 2004

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Freeform improvisation... with Spanish flair!

Originally, I was trying to do some freeform improvisation based loosely on the tune "Witchcraft" (I had just listened to Donald Byrd's recording prior to picking up my horn). I was struggling for ideas, however, and I didn't care for anything that I played. Prior to putting down the horn for the day I figured I'd give it one more shot... this time playing whatever came to mind. This track is the result.

In the beginning of the track I was thinking about (and picturing) Miles Davis' "Sketches Of Spain" album and toward the end I was thinking about the "Return To Forever" album, by Chick Corea. I think both influences can be heard in my playing.

If you haven't already, be sure to read my journal entry on Freeform Improvisation to understand my goal/intention with this type of playing. This also happens to be a decent example of thematic development (taking a theme/phrase and developing it throughout the solo).

JUNE 30, 2004

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Aebersold #6, Confirmation by Charlie Parker

Yesterday was my first day playing again, after having my wisdom teeth removed (four days earlier). Everything seems to be working as usual, however it's a bit painful to play for more than 15-20 minutes at a time. Perhaps unwisely (get it? hilarious, I know...), I pushed through the pain today to get one more recording in for the second quarter. This is a fairly simple/restrained solo, perhaps due to the painkillers and antibiotics; who knows. I should also mention that I recorded this on my new Shure SM57 microphone. Can you tell? --neither can I...

JUNE 15, 2004

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Aebersold #25, My Funny Valentine by Rodgers & Hart

After recording "On A Misty Night," (see below) I was in the mood for some more ballads. "My Funny Valentine" seemed like a natural choice. The Aebersold version starts slow, then goes into double time, and then ends at the original (slow) tempo. This recording begins right before the double time. I'm not sure what visitors will think of it. You might think it sounds sloppy. I guess it might, but while playing I was totally absorbed in the moment. The fast bits were simply part of the expression. This is probably my favorite recording thus far --even with the 3 failed attempts to hit a G at the top of the staff...

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Aebersold #99, On A Misty Night by Tadd Dameron.

I bought this play-a-long recently, but I've only had time to use it a couple of times so far. Knowing I was due for a recording (I've got to have something to show for myself in Q2!), I figured I'd try to work the play-a-long into my evening improv routine. I played this tune through once while looking at the changes, to get a roadmap. When soloing, though, I just closed my eyes and let my ear guide me (ok, so I may have remembered some of what I saw...). [Added on June 17, 2004] The more I listen to this recording, the less I like it. I thought about taking it down, but decided it's probably better to just leave it online. This way I can come back to it years from now to see how much I've (hopefully) improved...

I've come to the decision that I MUST buy a new microphone. I'm tired of sounding like I'm playing through an overdrive pedal. I think I'm going to get the Shure SM57.

MAY 27, 2004

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Aebersold #61 (Burnin'), Keep It Up by Mark Levine.

I haven't been too happy with my playing lately. I'd pick up my horn to improvise, but I was having trouble playing the ideas in my head. Sometimes my ear is good, sometimes not so good... lately it's been letting me down. Hoping to get back on track, I skipped most of my normal routine today and instead focused on ear training (simple song playing).

At the end of the day I thought I'd try playing something off of Burnin'. I purchased this play-a-long a few weeks ago, but hadn't yet had a chance to give it a try. I randomly started playing a track and before I even had a chance to get the book out I realized: I know what key this is, and I know what to play. So, without seeing a single chord change, and without ever hearing this tune before, I picked up my horn and this is what I played. There are some rough spots (I got excited and my rhythm slips a bit), and it's not the most musical solo I've ever played (fast solos rarely are musical, at least for me) but overall I'm pleased with what came out, particularly the break that happens right before the cycle begins (about half way through). Anyway, this shows me that I should spend more days focusing on ear training...

APR 14, 2004

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Aebersold #108, Granted, by Joe Henderson.

And, because it's been a while since I've had a chance to record, here's a bonus clip from the same recording session: iwasdoingallright - audio clip --I'm playing too close to the mic, so the sound is a bit distorted.

This is the second track I've recorded with the new Joe Henderson play-a-long (see Mamacita). This is the most energetic play-a-long that I've heard. Its peaks and valleys are similar to those you'd hear from a real band. I highly recommend it.

I think the intensity of the play-a-long can be heard in my solo. Even though my chops were tired, I gave it all I had.

MAR 10, 2004

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Aebersold #56, I Mean You, by Thelonious Monk.

I like this solo, even though toward the end I was struggling to hold on to my idea. I eventually lost it a bar or two before the end of the cycle (I faded out the collapse).

FEB 24, 2004

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Aebersold #108, Mamacita, by Joe Henderson.

This recent Aebersold release has a lot of great tunes, with lively rhythm sections. I especially like 'A Shade Of Jade,' 'Jinriksha,' 'The Kicker,' and this track, 'Mamacita.'

This is the bluesiest (there must be a word for it...) recording I've done thus far. There a few weak spots, but I guess it's ok.

FEB 14, 2004

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Aebersold #40, Days of Wine and Roses

I tried to create continuity in my solo through the use of phrase linking. Where one phrase stops, another begins with a similar melody and/or rhythm. In the end, it should all sound like it goes together. While I try to do this in every solo, I find it's easiest to practice in slower tunes, like "Days Of Wine And Roses."

Another thing worth mentioning is the use of space between phrases. Rather than overwhelm the listener with continual playing, the pauses create a conversational flow. Say something. Let people think about it. Say something else.

FEB 4, 2004

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Aebersold #34, Just Friends

After the lead-in, you'll hear me play a simple phrase, which I repeat towards the end of the solo. This is an example of thematic development: play a phrase, and continually develop it throughout the solo. When done well, the phrase evolves into a new tune, and the solo can stand on its own. My phrase didn't get very far in this example, but hopefully you can hear the attempt ;-)

For some reason, fatigue set in early today and you can hear it in my range. I'm using too much pressure to hit the high notes --in this case, just a G at the top of the staff. *sigh*

JAN 30, 2004

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - Aebersold #106, Zambia, by Lee Morgan. The tune was originally released on "Delightfulee," but I've never heard it.

I really like the way I played in the beginning of this clip. About half-way through, I started thinking to myself: "Don't mess this up. This is great... and then I messed it up. After cracking a couple of notes, I fell out of the groove and never got back on track.

January 26, 2004 Jazz Improvisation 7 Comments

Exercise - note limiting

Update 4/15/06: For better examples of note limiting, please check out my LEARNING TO IMPROVISE: RHYTHM article.

iwasdoingallright - audio clip - note limiting clip.

I'm playing a solo to an Aebersold recording of Jordu. As you listen, you may notice that I'm NOT playing a wide variety of notes. In fact, I'm just playing four notes (in varying octaves) throughout the solo: D, F, A, Ab.

I have a few improvisation exercises that I do from time to time. This one, I call "Note Limiting." It works particularly well with blues-based chord progressions. The concept is simple: pick a few notes and play ONLY those notes during your improvised solo.

This exercise has the following benefits:


Since we're only dealing with a few notes throughout the solo, you don't have to worry about which notes to play over which chords. This is especially helpful to beginning improvisers who may stumble through chord progressions. Once you pick your notes (I'm using 1, 3, 5, and 5b in this clip - iwasdoingallright - audio clip), the focus shifts from theory, to creating music.


Even though I talk a lot about ear training on this site, the fact remains: it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing. Interesting and well-phrased rhythms are crucial to a good sounding solo. I find that beginning players (and experienced players too!) often get so caught up with notes that they don't even think about rhythms. That's the beauty of this exercise: you can't get hung up on notes. Try to play one or two notes, and make them sound cool. Rhythm is your key. I suggest short punchy rhythms.


I'm not a great improviser. Sometimes I feel like I'm in a rut. Either I can't think of anything cool to play, or I think I'm playing the same licks over and over again. When these issues arise, I turn to an exercise like this. It creates a natural change in my playing. It basically forces me to think differently about my solos. Typically, after a few "Note Limiting" exercises, I approach regular improvisation with renewed excitement and creativity.

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