One fix to your jazz playing that will make you swing

My last couple of posts have been dedicated to time and rhythm.

So much of jazz education literature is obsessed almost exclusively to showing you the 'right' notes and scales to play over changes that we lose sight of the more important aspect of jazz and improvisation: time and rhythm.

Anyway, in an earlier post I asked for playing samples from readers that highlight their sense of time. I've received a bunch of submissions from a variety of skill levels and instruments.

One theme that runs through many of them is something I want to highlight in this post. It's a characteristic of people's playing that prevents them from swinging, and the good news is that it's something that can be fixed.

When listening to playing that doesn't swing, the culprit usually is the player's emphasis on the downbeats rather than the offbeats. And this is what I'm hearing in many of the submissions I received.

Listen to the difference.

In this track I recorded a simple eighth note pattern with the downbeats emphasized.

By emphasizing the downbeats on these eighth notes, what is your first impression of the time?

It sounds rushed, right? It certainly doesn't sound anywhere near the pocket. When I hear someone not swinging or sounding rushed, this is the first thing I hear. NOTE-note-NOTE-note-NOTE-note-NOTE-note.

But jazz lives in the offbeats and syncopation so we need to shift that downbeat emphasis to the off beats. Listen to the next audio track where I exaggerate the offbeats.

Because I'm no longer aiming for the downbeat, the time is more relaxed. It sounds a little contrived because I'm exaggerating to make a point, so this next track is a more natural version of emphasizing the offbeats.

What I've played in the above more natural-sounding track is a little more complicated than simply an emphasis on offbeats. There's a bit of rise and fall of dynamics with the phrases. But there is no bouncing from one downbeat to the next like there was on the first audio track above. In fact, certain notes are almost ghosted.

This raises another element of time, and that is articulation. I'll spare you an audio sample of what it would sound like if I articulated every note the same. It would sound like a robot playing a stream of notes.

When you listen to your own playing, listen not only for the offbeat emphasis but also for a variety in articulation. And that goes for any instrument, not just trombone or wind instruments.

Here's one last sample in which I played around with the articulations. It still swings but in a different manner.

So, record yourself and listen for these somewhat subtle aspects of your playing. You might be surprised by the difference you'll hear after making a tweak or two to your note emphasis and articulation!


  1. Jan Zentler on October 29, 2021 at 9:02 am

    The audio samples were illuminating, but would be more helpful for me if they were done at a slower tempo. Your ear is trained so you immediately pick up on the nuances. I am somewhere beginner/intermediate so this requires more concentration on my part.

    • Michael Lake on October 29, 2021 at 10:02 am

      That’s a fair comment. I wanted to play the samples at the same tempo so you can hear an ‘apples to apples’ comparison, as the notes are being played at the same rate as the original. I’m not sure that giving you a comparison that was slower than the original would make the same point more obvious. Let me think about how I might illustrate my point about swing and time in a more obvious way to less experienced players. Thank you.

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