Rhythm Changes, part 2

In part 1 of this series, we got familiar with rhythm changes in several guises.
Now let's talk about how to play over the changes.
(If you don't know how to spell chords or don't know what a ii or V chord is, you may need a bit more
background before this stuff makes complete sense.)

For starters...

When a rhythm changes tune is going to be played at a jam or a gig,
you generally won't hear the players talking about what version of the changes they're going to use.
Among experienced players, it's understood that there's more than one way to harmonize rhythm changes;
everybody listens intently, primarily taking their cues from the soloist or the melody.
Since all the versions are essentially reharmonizations of the same changes,
it usually doesn't matter whether everyone's thinking of exactly the same variation.

I'm about to go off on a description of how to play lines that 'detail' the changes;
in other words, the improvised line calls attention to the things that change as the harmony moves.
Before we go there, I must mention that it is not always necessary to detail the changes!
Lester Young and Charlie Parker, for example, did not always play every chord change.
(For a look at a Lester Young chorus, click here.)
Sometimes they just treated the A section as though it were one long Bb chord!
Sometimes they just played the blues over the changes.
These methods can be effective if you're hearing something that's melodically strong,
so strong that it doesn't matter whether it always matches the changes.
But part of the challenge of playing rhythm changes is being able to stay on top of the fast-moving harmony;
creating lines that 'speak to' the changes.
It's a tough challenge, too; there are many great jazz guitarists who never recorded 'rhythm changes' tunes,
so don't feel bad if it takes you a long time to become comfortable on these changes!

'Detailing' the changes

From this point on, we're going to be talking about what's basically a bebop-style method of playing on rhythm changes. The object is to make lines that have the sound of the chord changes 'built in'. I often ask my students to practice this with only a metronome for accompaniment; I should be able to hear the harmony moving in their lines.
Start working at a relaxed tempo (these examples are recorded at mm=120);
then gradually work it up as your skill increases.
The first move you need to get down is going from the I chord to a VI7. As you change from a Bbmaj7 to a G7b9, listen to the voices moving. Two sounds should jump out at you: one is the sound of the root (Bb) of the Bb chord pulling to the 3rd (B) of the G7 chord. The other is the sound of the 7th (A) of the Bb chord pulling to the b9 (Ab) of the G7 chord. [I think of these things as being 'currents' in the harmony of a tune. Your lines can follow the currents; that results in what some folks call 'guide tone' lines.] Note also that the tones D and F are common to both chords; that's useful as well. This little bit of knowledge gives us the option of either playing up the differences between the two chords or emphasizing the common tones. Or we could do both! Here are some examples, some simple, some not-so-simple.
Look them over to see how they use common tones and 'guide' tones.
(To hear each example, click the 'play' button below the music.)

bar 1 above

bar 2 above

bar 3 above

bar 4 above


bar 1 above

bar 2 above

bar 3 above

Once you've got the I - VI7 move wired, the ii - V isn't too bad.
A key sound here is the 7th in the ii chord pulling down to the 3rd of the V chord.
Altering the V chord is definitely bop-approved!
Here are some written lines on the first two bars of the changes, using material from above as a point of departure:

bars 1 + 2 above

bars 3 + 4 above

bars 1 + 2 above

bars 3 + 4 above

The stuff you'd play on the first two bars will basically work on the third and fourth bar.
As the 3rd bar often begins with Dm7, you'll be better off not emphasizing the note Bb there.
The rest of a Bbmaj7 chord (D-F-A) is also a Dm triad, so play up those notes instead.
Here's a line on bars 1 - 4. I altered all the dominant chords;
check out how the altered tones change the sound of the line:

bars 1 - 4 above

Now let's try a whole A section. Here's a sample line. Notice how notes that don't "look right" over the changes
sound good when used to surround a chord tone (the Ab and F# on the Dm7 in bar 3, for example).
Unlike the earlier examples, all the lines from this point on are actual improvisations of mine, transcribed.

bars 1 - 8 above

There are scalar explanations for all this stuff, but I prefer to think of lines first when I play!
To me, scales are what happen more or less naturally when you start hooking up chord tones;
I rarely think about them when I'm playing this kind of music.

The bridge changes

The most obvious way to play on the bridge would be to take each chord at face value,
treating each one as an unaltered dominant chord.
While theoretically correct, this will result in a pretty dull 'vanilla' sound, at least to 21st century ears.
I couldn't resist slipping in some chromatic approach tones...

"Vanilla" bridge

Another commonly used method is to treat every other dominant chord as an altered chord.
The easiest way to do this is by imagining the progression as a series of chromatically descending chords;
this results in tritone subs for every other chord.
In this example, I'm thinking D7 - Db7 - C7 - B7 as I improvise;
this gives me the sound of D7 - G7alt - C7 - F7alt:

"In - Out" Bridge

Or you could just treat every chord as altered.
In this bridge, I'm thinking Ab7 - Db7 - Gb7 - B7 against the changes,
which sounds like D7alt - G7alt - C7alt - F7alt:

"Out" bridge

Yeow! Sorry about bars 5 - 6; I got into a little chromaticism on the C7alt (Gb7).
Rhythmically, the four-note groups in bars 1 + 2 starting on the "ands" give the lines an off-kilter feel,
heightening the 'outness'.

Wrapping it up

Since the last 8 bars are just another A section, there's really nothing more to discuss.
I hope this'll give you some ideas about how to attack the dread "rhythm changes".
The first eight bars are usually the hardest part to get wired;
most folks don't have too much trouble with the bridge changes.

Remember to listen to lots of recordings to soak up the methods of the greats;
if you've got an ear and enough desire, that's really all the 'schooling' you need.
A few tunes featuring rhythm changes:
Charlie Parker - Anthropology, Chasing the Bird, Cheers, Moose the Mooche
Bud Powell - Celia, Bud's Bubble, So Sorry Please, Wail
Sonny Rollins - Oleo
Dizzy Gillespie - Dizzy Atmosphere, Salt Peanuts
Thelonious Monk - Rhythm-A-Ning
Duke Ellington - Cottontail
Count Basie - Lester Leaps In

(To hear my tune "Watch This", based on rhythm changes, click here.)

Also remember that whatever you play, the time has to be happening!
It won't matter how hip your chord substitutions are if the groove flops like a ruptured goose!
So take care of the rhythm first!

Learning to play on these changes is hard work, but you'll feel really good about yourself once you start getting it down.
Don't let the sax players have all the fun!