Improvisation for the Rhythm Section

Some ideas for involving the rhythm section in improvisation lessons.

RhythmsectionIt can be frustrating being a young rhythm section player in a jazz band. Most rehearsal time is spent focusing on the “horns”. After all, if they can’t get past the first three bars of an arrangement, then the band is in trouble. For us band directors, so long as the rhythm section can play more or less in time when they are needed, and keep quiet the rest of the time, we are pretty happy.

Of course, this is the wrong thing to do. To have a good rhythm section, the director needs to spend time working with them, not ignoring them and hoping for the best. I am going to post a few ideas on how to involve the rhythm section in band rehearsals and in improvisation lessons.

Rhythm sections improvise most of the time. The improvisatory nature of the jazz rhythm section is one of the things that sets it apart from those of other genres such as rock. Even when the horn players are soloing, the rhythm section is improvising too. As well as this, they all have to be able to take solos too. It is important to remember that the rhythm section isn’t there just to accompany the horns, they are an integral part of creating fully realized arrangements in performance.

The first ideas are about teaching drummers to solo. I will not be talking about technique, only about concepts.

1. Drummers

Improvising for the melodic members of the rhythm section is just the same as it is for all the other horns, so they can and should be taught in the same way. Scales, arpeggios, licks, whatever you generally do.

Drummers obviously don’t have scales to work with in the same way. However, they do have to deal with time, phrasing, structure, motivic development, timbre, repetition, contrast, dynamics, texture, and even harmony. They have an enormous palette of sounds and timbres at their disposal, usually on at least seven different instruments, and often more.

Phrasing: play phrases of different lengths. Two bars, four bars, eight bars, six plus two, odd numbers of bars, etc. Experiment with using a “question and answer” structure: Play a two bar phrase that somehow sounds unfinished. Then complete it with a following phrase which seems to resolve.

Experiment with improvising within the usual or natural phrases of the tune, and then across or through those phrases. For instance, in a blues there tend to be three phrases of four bars each. The drummer can play ideas within those phrases, or as a contrast can play six bar phrases instead.

Comping: while other musicians in the group are improvising, the drummer can practice comping. For a novice player this might be repeating some patterns set by the director as a way of introducing the concept and developing independence in their limbs. For a more experienced player, this might involve improvised interactions with the soloist and/or other members of the rhythm section.

Longer solos: Consider repetition vs. change; taking a motif and developing it various ways; developing a number of contrasting or complimentary motifs; space vs. sound; phrase length and structure; try creating contrasting palettes of sound and using them to follow the harmonic structure of a tune; use dynamic contrasts; consider how the solo fits into the overall arrangement – how it should start, what happens immediately after it.

2. Pianists & Guitarists

Pianists and guitarists can be involved in improvisation lessons on exactly the same basis as any horn player. They should be leaning and practicing the same skills as students on any other melodic instrument. Just because they can play chords, doesn’t mean that they have to. It is a mistake to relegate the pianist/guitarist to the role of accompanist for everybody else.

For novice players, as a general rule, playing chords and comping are more difficult than beginning melodic improvisation. If they can do it, fine. But if they have little experience playing chords, it may be best not to waste too much time in a rehearsal on teaching them this. Of course they have to learn, but maybe another time would be better.

Comping: If the guitarist/pianist is able to play jazz chords, then involve them in improvised ensemble interactions in the same way as the drummer. Start with easy, set rhythms and voicings. For more experienced players move towards ad-libbed, interactive rhythms and voicings.


3. Bassists

Like guitarists, bass players should learn all the same material as any other horn player in an improvisation lesson. This includes scales, concepts, arpeggios, or whatever it is that the group is working on. If a novice bassist isn’t up to providing a strong accompaniment for other players yet, don’t ask them to. You can give them a simplified accompanying role, if that is appropriate, but it is often better to look for a better short-term solution. This can include using backing tracks, playing bass yourself (it is a great idea to for any jazz teacher to learn at least some bass), or bringing in a more experienced player for a while.

Bassists should also be involved in all the same ensemble/soloist interactions as the rest of the rhythm section.

If you have more than one bassist, or if the one you have isn’t experienced enough to play a reliable bass line, then they can still participate just as a horn player. There is no need for a bassist to have to just be a bass player all the time. The bass is a melodic instrument playing in the bass clef: it can play melodies, just like any other horn.

4. The Rest of the Band

Horn players should, before too long, be made aware of techniques they can use for consciously interacting with the rhythm section. Here are a few possibilities accessible to even less experienced players:

  • Play phrases with spaces in between for the comping instruments to fill in
  • Use repeated ideas that the rhythm section can imitate
  • Imitate ideas presented by the rhythm section and incorporate them into the solo
  • Use development in the solo so that it has a climax or climaxes and soft sections too.

In summary

Don’t ignore the rhythm section during rehearsals or improvisation lessons. Teach the rhythm section players how to improvise, in just the same way as your horn players. They are entitled to it, and it will help them to become much better players, all around, in the long run. It will also be enormously beneficial to the sound, presentation, time, and style of your band.


Saul Richardson

Jazz Workshop Australia 2013


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