A recent trend in jazz improvisation seems to be playing in odd meters.  I.e. 5/4 – Brubeck’s Take Five, 9/8 – Brubeck’s Blue Rondo ala Turk, 7/4 – Woody Shaw’s Seventh Avenue, 10/8 – Pat Metheny’s First Circle to name a few.  Perhaps, we have Dave Brubeck to thank for this movement dating back to his groundbreaking album, Take Five.  Two of my favorite player/composers using the idea of layering melodies over complex rhythmic structures are Dave Holland (the Dave Holland groups) and trumpeter Alex Sipiagin.  Not only are their compositions fresh and evocative but they improvise over these complex meters as beautifully and easily as anything you could imagine.

I’ve had the great fortune to work with saxophonist, Tom Gullion the last few years.  Learning his book of compositions has been a great challenge for me because some of his tunes also dip into the odd-meter realm.  An improviser works on many facets; scales, transcribing solos, patterns and licks, to name a few.  Unfortunately, most of these ideas come in four-bar phrases or in 4/4 or occasionally ¾ meters.  Playing in 7 can be disconcerting to a “traditionally” schooled improviser.  I know it was/is for me.  You have to put aside all the “tricks” and formulas that you have practiced and truly improvise in order to stay in the groove of whatever meter you find yourself.  I am including a couple tracks for a CD I played on one of Tom’s CDs called “Carswell”.  You can read a review of Carswell at All About Jazz.  You can purchase a copy of Carswell on CDBaby.

On “Monkey’s Tale”, listen for the odd-meter ostinato, or vamp set up by the Rhodes, then the different melodies are layered in by the trumpet and then sax to create a wonderful tapestry of layered counterpoint.

Monkey’s Tale excerpt

“Futureproof” has the horns playing a very complex melody in unison over continually changing meters of 4, 7/8 and 6/8.  The great thing about Tom’s music and these tunes in particular is they sound groovy, tuneful and at times perhaps even simplistic.  (Well, “simplistic” is not particularly apt for these two particular Gullion compositions, but others that I play on his album fit this description.)  However, from the player’s perspective they are quite challenging.  (and very rewarding.)  Tom has actually created a pdf Carswell Fakebook.

Futureproof exerpt

Currently, I am playing a tune with another group where I am to improvise in 4 then 5 then 3 in seemingly random patterns.  Well, it only seems random when I look at the chords by themselves.  They actually follow the contour of the tune and when I improvise with this in mind I think my solos are much more successful.  This means of course that the structure of the tune actually contours my improvised solo.  This feels a little weird at first, but once I allow myself to give in and not “force the issue” of the direction of my solo, it can be very rewarding.

Practice Tips

Aebersold has an odd-meter volume out but I think you can get even more benefit from using your metronome.  Some metronomes allow you to set different pitches to particular beats.  Another thing to try in the beginning is to practice your scales in particular rhythmic patterns.  Here are some very basic examples.  (click a staff to enlarge.)

Jazz Improvisation-related links


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Juggling Versatility


The Phone Book Method

Tom Harrell Interview #1

Tom Harrell Interview #2