Rhythm Is More Important Than “Right” Notes

“Time and rhythm are king! Number one! All notes seem to sound good when they are played with good time.”

Jerry Bergonzi, Inside Improvisation: Melodic Rhythms

Jazz is rhythmic music. Groove, swing, and time-feel are by far more important than playing the “right” notes. Here is my entertaining attempt to prove it:

Chorus 1: “Right” Notes, Bad Time
I improvise a chorus of B-flat blues and play all the “right” notes. I nail the changes and add some chord extensions. However, I play with bad time and with a bad sound.
Chorus 2: “Wrong” Notes, Solid Rhythmic Feel
Next, I play the changes to the tune “Solar” on top of the B-flat blues. There are “wrong” notes everywhere (I even end on a B-natural over a Bb7 chord). However this time, I am playing with a solid time feel and a better sound.

I’ve performed this demonstration dozens of times, and there is never any question that the “wrong” note solo sounds way better.

Jazz players and educators obsess over the notes because they are easy put on paper. We can find countless resources about modes, chord/scales, substitute scales, licks, patterns, etc. Although rhythm is impossible to capture in words, it needs to be the centerpiece of our studies. This is why I advocate for a rhythm-first approach for teaching jazz, which in my experience is more effective and engaging than starting with theory.

The takeaway shouldn’t be that theory and pitches don’t matter. Any serious jazz player needs to have a deep relationship with harmony, but rhythm is by far more important.

So let’s start a conversation. What jazz musician or band do you think has the most grooving time-feel? Post a link in the comments.

– ST

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