Jazz Up Your Rhythms – Rhythmically Rephrasing Melody Lines

This time around I would like to tackle one of the more important elements in playing a jazz tune, that is, to rhythmically rephrase an existing melody.

If you play from lead sheets, you will often notice that the melody line to a number of jazz standards usually consists of quarter and half notes, e.g. Autumn Leaves. This is because these lead sheets were mainly conceived for the singer, who is given the basic shape of the melody, without constraining how the singer would like to phrase the line. Likewise, other instrumentalists are free to explore the rhythms and contours of the melody.

This is how Autumn Leaves sounds without any rhythmic enhancement:

When we start interpreting the piece, especially in swing style, we need to “jazz up” the rhythmic aspect of the melody. The most basic approach to this would be to apply anticipations and delayed attacks. [For a thorough discourse on anticipations, please go to my previous posts here and here.]

A delayed attack (DA) is just the opposite of an anticipation. Instead of pushing the beat ahead, you pull back, according to the rhythmic feel of the song, i.e. in 8ths or 16ths, straight or rolled, or even laying back as long as a quarter note sometimes.

With that in mind, let’s jazz up the melody of Autumn Leaves!

Take note of the analyses — how I mix the bag up by using anticipations and delayed attacks, and also shortening or holding on to notes.

On this first take, I maintain the 4-to-the-bar left hand comping pattern as in the earlier example,  so you can hear how the melody line now differs with the application of a few rhythmic tweaks here and there 🙂

On the second take, I play a simple walking bass line in my left hand, while playing the melody and light chord-comping in my right.

Rhythmically rephrasing melody lines is an essential part of interpreting jazz. Remember you don’t have to constantly anticipate or delay the attack of a note — as the example shows, some notes are played as is while others get rhythmically modified. Sometimes singing or vocalizing the melody helps us make the phrasing of the line much smoother and less mechanical. Give it a try!

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