Developing Your Rhythm Changes Approach to Improvising

By Eric Koppa, Saxophonist and Jazz Educator

One of the most used song forms in the jazz idiom is the AABA song form. Rhythm Changes is a 32 measure form that adheres to the AABA formula, also known as the "Standard American Song Form," and may be the most well-known jazz progression, after the popular 12-bar blues chord progression. There have been countless melodies written over this song form, dating back to the early 1920s. "I’ve Got Rhythm" may be one of the more memorable and widely recognized melodies and is a good place to start when learning melodies to play over Rhythm Changes. We’ll be focusing on two modern melodies for the April 7th Madison Jazz Jam, Lester Young’s (1940) "Lester Leaps In," played often by Charlie Parker, and Sonny Rollins’ (1954) composition "Oleo," made famous by Miles Davis.

From a theoretical perspective, Rhythm Changes presents an excellent improvising exercise, illustrating fundamentals like ii-V7-I chord progressions, circle of 4th patterns on the bridge, and many chord substitution variations, as well as ‘quoting’ opportunities. As a practice exercise, solo instrumentalists can benefit from playing the bass line and outlining the chords with a metronome. The repeating I-vi-ii-V bass line pattern on the "A" sections of the form is a common chord progression in most jazz standards, and outlining the chords in a diatonic fashion in either quarter notes or eighth notes is a good exercise for a beginning or advanced improviser.

The most common key to play Rhythm Changes in is the key of Bb (the keys for "Lester Leaps In" and "Oleo"). Following are a few examples to work with to practice the bass line and outline the chords. Though there are a multitude of substitution and chord alteration opportunities over Rhythm Changes, I’ve presented a basic harmonic approach to understanding and internalizing the chord progression. Example 2 demonstrates what can be done by incorporating diminished passing chords as well as a chord substitution on the "A" section. Remember to practice slowly and with a metronome for maximum effectiveness. Practicing with another horn player and taking turns covering the bass line and improvising is a fun improvisational exercise and will help both of you develop a better sense of time and where beats 2 and 4 are.

Click the exercise image below to view a downloadable pdf.jpg of p2 koppa exercises

Mr Pc this Sunday, March 17

performance notes by Dan Wallach

Mr. Pc is a minor blues composed by John Coltrane in 1959 as a tribute to his long time friend and band bass player, Paul Chambers. Coltrane recorded it that same year on "Giant Steps," considered by many to be one of the greatest jazz recordings of all time. As always, listening to the recording is where our exploration should begin.


Mr. Pc is a standard 12-bar minor blues. The changes we will use are:

||: C-7 | C-7 | C-7 | C-7 |

| F-7 | F-7 | C-7 | C-7 |

| Ab7 | G7+9 | C-7 | G7+7 :||

The Blues Scale is: C , Eb , F, F# , G , Bb , C

Starting with the blues scale as a point of departure in your improvisation is fine. Please challenge yourself to move beyond the blues scale and start to play on the actual chord changes the moment you feel comfortable.

See you all Sunday,


Madison Music Collective, Mad Toast Live, the Improvisational Music Workshop,

Janus Galleries, Isthmus, WORT-FM, and The Brink Lounge



Johannes Wallmann and the Sweet Minute


Johannes Wallmann on piano 

David Cooper on trumpet

Darren Sterud on trombone

John Christensen on bass

Devin Drobka on drums

Marty Erickson on tuba


Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Brink Lounge, 701 East Washington Avenue, Madison, WI


Concert (2 sets): 3:30-5:30 PM

Improvisational Music Workshop: 6:00-7:00 PM


General public: $12.00 advance, $15.00 at the door

Students with ID, Members of Madison Music Collective and Madison Jazz Society:

$8.00 advance, $10.00 at the door on day-of-show

Workshop Admission: Free

Purchase tickets at

 or at the door on day-of-show






UW Jazz Studies Professor Johannes Wallmann has updated the membership of his six-piece brass-oriented ensemble. This is their premiere performance, and it will feature many of Wallmann's original compositions.  The format provided by Mad Toast Live offers a unique opportunity to listen in on a conversation with the musicians.


Improvisational Music Workshop Director Laurie Lang hosts the post-concert workshop which will include an interview with Johannes Wallmann and his band-mates about their approach to music-making, a Q&A with the audience, and an invitation to musicians in the audience (both amateur and professional) to join the band on stage to make music together.




Pianist and composer JOHANNES WALLMANN is the inaugural holder of the John and Carolyn Peterson Chair in Jazz Studies at UW-Madison. Wallmann studied jazz piano and composition at Berklee College of Music (B.Mus., 1995) and New York University (M.A., 1997; Ph.D., 2010). He taught jazz piano, improvisation and music theory at NYU and the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. He relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area in 2007 where he developed a robust Jazz Studies program at California State University East Bay.

In 12 years in New York and 5 in the Bay Area, Wallmann established himself as an active performer in a diverse array of styles, performing or recording with the Dennis Mitcheltree Quartet, Harlem Spiritual Ensemble, tubaist Howard Johnson, drummer Donald Bailey, saxophonist Gary Bartz, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, trombonist Josh Roseman, operatic tenor Dr. Francois Clemmons, the Billings Symphony Orchestra, and Canto-pop star Faye Wong. As a bandleader, Wallmann has released four critically acclaimed CDs. His latest, The Coasts, (2010) was the recording premiere of his Brasstet, an innovative ensemble of trumpet, trombone, and tuba plus the piano trio Wallmann founded in 2001, and he has composed three concert-length suites for this instrumentation.

Shortly after arriving in Madison in Fall 2012, Wallmann began a Saturday night residency at The Fountain, where he performs primarily original compositions with many of the region’s finest jazz musicians, often featuring musicians from “The Sweet Minute” band. Named for a New Orleans-tinged composition from The Coasts, “The Sweet Minute” is a continuation of Wallmann’s original Brasstet concept.

In his first year at the UW, Wallmann has expanded the jazz theory and ensemble offerings and is working to establish a comprehensive degree in Jazz Studies. For more information about jazz studies at the UW, and upcoming ensemble performances, please visit


DAVID COOPER is a highly versatile trumpeter, with affiliations that have included the Madison Symphony and Wisconsin Chamber Orchestras, Art Blakey Tribute Band, Isthmus Brass, Tim Whalen Nonet, Wisconsin Brass Quintet, Cleveland Jazz Orchestra, Walt Disney World, the Aspen Jazz Ensemble, and New Breed Quintet. His eclectic performance credits include Kurt Elling, Bob Newhart, Doc Severinsen, Andre Watts, Joe Williams, Marie Osmond, Bobby McFerrin, and Robert Goulet. His recordings include Petite Monde, a jazz album of original compositions and re-imaginings of the music of Thelonious Monk and Bela Bartok, and the Bach Cello Suites on Trumpet.

Cooper received his Doctorate of Musical Arts from UW-Madison and is Associate Professor of Trumpet and Jazz Studies at UW-Platteville. He has lectured and performed at the International Wind and Percussion Festival in Beijing and the International Trumpet Guild Conference, and is an active soloist/clinician with regional schools, jazz festivals and community ensembles.


DARREN STERUD has been a freelance trombonist in Wisconsin and Minnesota since 2001. He began playing with Mama Digdown's Brass Band while in high school and studied music performance with Maynard Ferguson alum Steve Wiest at UW-Whitewater, where he played in classical and jazz ensembles, directed jazz groups at the UW-W Band Camps, and taught Jazz History and Improvisation classes. He has given improvisation and jazz clinics at schools throughout Southern Wisconsin.

Locally, Sterud has performed with the Tony Castañeda Latin Jazz Band, Grupo Candela, The Jimmys, Clyde Stubblefield Blues Band, and the Madison Mellophonium Jazz Orchestra. He has taken the stage with Twin Cities bands like Seven Steps to Havana and Charanga Tropical, and shared the stage with B.B. King, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Trombone Shorty, Los Lobos, and Chris Potter, among others. His touring has taken him to New York City, New Orleans, Orlando, Memphis, St. Louis, and across Europe.


JOHN CHRISTENSEN began his bass studies with Chris Wood, and continued his formal education at the Berklee College of Music and the University of North Texas. Looking to pursue a more personalized education, he moved to San Francisco to begin gigging and studying with renowned educator and pianist Dick Hindman. In the Bay Area, Christensen performed and recorded with pianist Mark Levine, Victoria Williams, Slide Five, Scott Amendola, Hal Stein, and The New Morty Show, as well as his own band, Dam East.

Since moving to Madison in 1999, Christensen has played with groups such as Alison Margaret, Jan Wheaton, Harmonious Wail, Patrick Breiner, Dave Stoler, Kyle Henderson, and Gerri DeMaggio. In 2012, he formed The Landscapers and toured with The Deconunisms (with Devin Drobka and Luke Polipnick) and Unnecessary Bells (with Devin Drobka and Paul Hastil). Christensen performs frequently as part of the Johannes Wallmann Group at the Fountain.


DEVIN DROBKA has been playing drums for the past 20 years. A Milwaukee native, he received his B.M. in Jazz Performance from Berklee College of Music in 2009, where he studied with Terri Lyne Carrington, Kenwood Dennard, Ralph Peterson Jr., and Bob Moses and performed with jazz luminaries like Joe Lovano, Greg Osby, and Cecil McBee. For three years, Drobka performed with the world famous Jerry Bergonzi Quartet with pianist Bruce Barth and bassist Dave Santoro. After finishing at Berklee, Drobka moved to New York City where he performed at venues such as Kitano's, Way Station, and Branded Saloon. New York quickly became a springboard for tours that took him across the US and Canada.

Recently, Drobka returned to Milwaukee, where he composes for and leads a group consisting of a rotating cast of improvisers. He can be heard locally on Saturdays at the Fountain with the Johannes Wallmann Group.


MARTY ERICKSON is Lecturer of Tuba, Euphonium and Chamber music at the Lawrence University Conservatory of Music, and performs with the faculty’s brass quintet. Erickson was principal/solo tubist with the US Navy Band in Washington, D.C. for 26 years, and has been principal Eb tubist with the Brass Band of Battle Creek for the past 20 years. He has performed on over 50 recordings of orchestra, concert band, brass band, dixieland jazz, folk, and children's music, and has released jazz CDs as a leader with artists such as pianists John Sheridan and Frank Mantooth, trumpeter Marvin Stamm, and trombonist Wycliffe Gordon.

As a tubist/bassist, Erickson has worked with Grover Washington Jr., Sammy Davis Jr., Ray Charles, Louis Bellson, Pearl Bailey, among others. Among his many performance credits are the Boston Pops and Chicago Symphony Orchestras, Baltimore Opera Orchestra, and the Smithsonian Masterworks Jazz Orchestra under the direction of Gunther Schuller.


Madison Music Collective’s 2013 Winter-Spring Series is made possible by 

grants from Dane Arts (with additional funds from theW. Jerome Frautschi Foundation), and the Wisconsin Union Theater, 

our Presenting Sponsors Janus Galleries and Wardbrodt Music, membership dues and charitable gifts from members and supporters of the Madison Music Collective, 

in-kind support from The Brink Lounge, and the UPS Store-Fitchburg,, and promotional support from Isthmus, WORT-89.9 FM, and the Capital City Hues.