Developing Time Feel: A Guide to Rhythmic Concepts for ‘Comping Instruments in the Jazz Rhythm Section

Originally published in Canadian Musician Magazine, March/April issue 2012

This article is written for the late beginner/early intermediate pianist in the jazz rhythm section.

The importance of rhythm can often be unintentionally overlooked by ‘comping instruments in the jazz rhythm section. Usually, beginning jazz students are overloaded with information on what to play (no easy task) rather than when to play. As a result, ‘compers often have a fairly good knowledge of chord voicings but a fragile time feel and a limited rhythmic vocabulary. It is extremely important that the harmonic instrument in the rhythm section understands the same rhythmic language as the drummer and bass player. Too often the harmonic instrument forces the bass and drums to be time-keepers rather than spontaneous and creative musicians. The following exercises are designed to help harmony players become more integrated with the bass and drums, and to help develop a more confident and solid time feel overall.

Exercise #1 on the beat, long and smooth:

Quite often beginners and early intermediates rely on frequent, extremely short, and rhythmically imprecise ‘comping on the off beats. This approach can interfere with the groove that the bass and drums are playing, especially if the drummer is doing a lot of rhythmic commentary on the snare drum. One of the most effective ways to develop accurate playing on the off beats, is to learn how to play exactly on the strong beats of the measure. This may sound paradoxical, but you will find that your off beat playing will be more relaxed and accurate when you are feeling the strong beats exactly where they fall in the measure. Exercise 1 is a i7-VI7alt-iiø7-V7alt chord progression in half notes. Practice this with the metronome at 40bpm feeling the clicks on 2 and 4. You may use the voicings given or those of your choosing. Use legato fingerings whenever possible.

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This exercise is designed to give you the opportunity to play softly and smoothly, with extreme precision and clarity, on the strong beats of the measure. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with playing short notes, but they are often rhythmically vague and frequently detract from the music, rather than add anything meaningful. Non-verbally externalizing the beat, such as tapping your foot is not recommended. Counting out-loud in quarter notes or eighth notes is a much better option. In doing so you are now practicing 3 different pulses in 3 different ways: the click of the metronome, what you are saying, and what you are playing. Once you are comfortable playing on the strong beats, move on to exercise 2.

Exercise #2 playing on the off beats:

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In the first example of this exercise we have moved the chords to the and of beat 1 and the and of beat 3. The second example demonstrates playing on the and of beat 2 and the and of beat 4 anticipating the chords by half of a beat. These are both extremely common jazz rhythms. Loop each exercise, varying the voicings but keeping the rhythm exactly the same. Stay relaxed when you play and keep feeling the downbeats strongly as you breathe in the rests and play on the offbeats. Both of these exercises may seem excessively simple on the surface, but it will yield almost immediate improvements with time feel with as little as 15min per practice session.

Exercise #3 mixing it up, combining exercises 1 and 2:

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The example above is a combination of the rhythms found in exercise 1 and 2 using both long and short notes. Loop these four measures varying the voicings, but keeping the rhythm exactly the same. Create and write out your own ‘comping rhythms. Doing so will enable you to comfortably play a wide variety of patterns with extreme accuracy. Do not neglect the rests! Rests are often when time can go off the rails. It is extremely satisfying to be able to come in confidently and accurately after leaving space.

These exercises are just the beginning of developing a solid time feel. They should enable you to comment very thoughtfully, confidently, and accurately in any ensemble. Developing your time feel is a long-term process, and can be frustrating at times. It is, however, one of the most rewarding aspects of being a musician. Some of the best moments that you can experience as a rhythm section player are when you are completely tuned in and locked with the bass and drums, working together equally to shape the music. Have fun, and good practicing!