Your time as a saxophonist is one of the most important things you can work on. Having good time is necessary in order to play with other people and properly execute your ideas as an improviser. Having good time is what helps your improvised solos “feel” good. For the musician or educator who is not familiar with the concept of “time” in jazz, I define it as how the notes you play or improvise line up with the underlying beat or groove, whether it is a metronome in a practice room or a rhythm section at a concert. There are many, many different ways to practice your time, and I’ve included just a few ideas that have helped me over the years.
1. Use of a Metronome
One of the easiest things you can do to improve your time is to use a metronome if you don’t already use one. The metronome always has perfect time, and it will very easily tell you if you have good or bad time. It keeps you honest.
There are a lot of exercises that use a metronome that go beyond the usual every beat or 2 and 4 click. One of the first things you can do is have the metronome click just once on the first beat of every measure. By increasing the amount of time that goes by between clicks, you rely more on your internal clock and time keeping. To make it more interesting you can have the metronome click every 2 measures or even every 4 measures. This requires you to have a metronome that can go very slowly (i.e. 10-20 clicks per minute) in order to play at comfortable tempo. Most older click style metronomes do not go that low but newer digital and app-based phone metronomes do. You can practice licks or phrases or parts of solos with the metronome like this, as well as playing through tunes like this as well. This type of practicing will very quickly tell you if you have a natural tendency to rush or drag as you play.
Another way of using the metronome is similar to the previous exercise but instead the metronome is now clicking on a different beat in the measure. For instance, you could improvise through a tune with the metronome clicking on beat 2 instead of on 1. You can repeat this having the metronome click on beats 3 or 4 as well. To make it even harder, you can play so the metronome is clicking on the “ands” of beats like the “and” of 1, 2, 3 or 4.
Both playing with the metronome clicking every few measures or on different parts of the beat are more advanced practicing concepts. If you are new to this I would suggest starting more simply and working your way up to this level.
2. Playing with a drummer
Playing duo with a drummer was of great help to me when I was younger and trying to improve my time. I would play tunes or free improvisation with them for hours at a time. In addition to the obvious benefit of helping you to clearly delineate chord changes and forms, concentrating on playing with the time of the drummer and “locking in” with him will also help to improve your own time. Plus it’s fun!!
3. Playing another instrument
Playing a different instrument is a great way to work on your time. It gets you focusing on your time within a completely different sonic context. You also get away from inherent idiosyncrasies or quirks that come out of playing the saxophone. For the past several years I’ve been practicing drums and I feel that my experience with that has really helped my time. In addition, many musicians I know have secondary instruments they play and study, like bass or piano which besides helping them with harmony and melody, also benefits their rhythm and time.
Transcription is easily one of the best things you can do as an aspiring and improving saxophonist. While initially difficult for most students, it is the fastest, most all-encompassing way of getting better. In addition to working on sound, solo material (ideas, licks), and the articulation of a certain player, you can also transcribe and analyze their time. Try to notice if they play behind, in the middle, or on top of the beat. Does their time feel change depending on what type of tune it is? (swing, straight 8th, ballad, etc.) Does it change depending on who they are playing with or are they consistently playing with time one way? Does the time feel change depend on what register they are in or their articulation? Once you think you have good handle on a player’s time feel, you can try to improvise with that same feel either over the tune you’ve been transcribing or different song, trying to keep the other player’s time feel consistent.
Again, these are just some of the many ways you can practice your time. All of these exercises were given/shown to me by great musicians and teachers I had the good fortune of working with over the years. Seek out great players and teachers in your area and ask them for a lesson!