Kiefer: The Unspoken Magic of “Time Feel” in Jazz (Video)

+ This lesson is presented courtesy of Kiefer’s in-depth course on Soundfly, Kiefer: Keys, Chords, & Beats. Sign up to bridge the worlds of theory, improvisation, and jazzy hip-hop, and improve your piano chops.

Having a deep harmonic and melodic vocabulary is essential to being a great improviser, but if you really want to break into the “elite” levels of improvisation, you have to develop your touch and your time feel. Strangely, these elements are often overlooked when people are studying solos or piano technique. 

By touch, we mean how someone plays the notes. Are they soft and sustained or quick and punchy? Are they lyrical or robotic? Your touch can drive so much of the musicality of your performance. 

By time feel, we mean the way someone chooses to interpret the rhythms they’re playing. Rhythm and time feel are certainly related, but there is an important distinction between the two. You can think of rhythm as the “what” you play and time feel as “how” you play it. For example, you may play a phrase made up solely of eighth notes (the “what”), but you play them swung and behind the beat (the “how”).

Let’s get deeper into what it means to have great time feel by looking at some legendary examples, courtesy of Kiefer’s course, Keys, Chords, & Beats.

Kiefer: Keys, Chords, and Beats

Oscar Peterson

Oscar Peterson was known for his virtuosity on the keys, but his time feel might be an under-appreciated aspect of his playing. While he was able to shift his time feel depending on context, he also had certain patterns that felt unique to his style.

For example, a fair share of his playing could be heard as swung and ahead of the pulse. Just listen to his solo at around 1:41 on his recording of “Night Train:”

You can hear the swing very clearly in his phrasing. When asked to define swing, pianist Fats Waller famously quipped: “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.” Despite that, there are some ways we can attempt to describe it. You can hear how Oscar accents certain notes within the beat, or holds them for slightly different lengths.

This creates a little bit of syncopation that drives the groove forward. It’s not something you could notate, but it’s there, and is most obvious if you tried to play the same phrase straight ahead with every note having equal pressure and timing.  

There is also a crispness to his playing that deserves attention. It’s subtle, but you can feel his playing just on the front part of the pulse — never rushing, yet always propelling his phrases forward. You can really hear it at the end of the melody in the example above.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “Elijah Fox: How to Create Simple Piano Patterns That Sound Complex (Video)”

Dexter Gordon

The tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon had one of the most identifiable time feels in jazz. His phrases got delivered with a straight feel placed behind the pulse of the rhythm section, or as Kiefer aptly refers to it “straight and late.” 

Check out this example from his solo starting at 0:43 on “Second Balcony Jump” from his seminal album Go:

Listen to how the phrases of his solo sit against the time feel of the ride cymbal. They almost seem to glide over what drummer Billy Higgins is playing. Some of the phrases are swung, but others are almost robotically straight and unaccented. Listen to the phrases around 0:54, for example. There’s also a distinctly laid back vibe in Gordon’s playing, which comes from playing slightly behind the pulse.

As Kiefer mentions in the video, he loves this time feel and regularly uses it over more pocketed grooves. This example from his solo on “Superhero” perfectly captures that approach, and we’ll look at it in more detail in a future lesson. You can hear it starting at 0:50 in the track below: 

+ Read more on Flypaper: “Breaking Down Sonny Rollins’ Catchiest Tune.”

Erroll Garner

Kiefer thinks Erroll Garner might have the most intricate time feel of any pianist in the twentieth century. Just listen to the way he’s playing almost every note in this performance of “She’s Funny That Way.” 

This recording from 1949 is so far ahead of its time. There’s a deep pocket to Garner’s playing here that would fit on far more modern recordings and an intricacy in the feel that is nearly impossible to replicate.

The lines are mostly straight, but with just a touch of swing to them, played with a very punchy touch and placed way back on the beat. 

Practice time feel by learning a phrase or two from the examples above. 

Let’s explore Kiefer’s approach to developing time feel.

  1. Select a phrase or two from any of the solos above and sing along with them. While you’re singing, focus on the feel of the rhythm.
  2. Use a metronome and set it to around the tempo of the excerpt you’ve selected. If you’ve selected any of the swung examples (i.e. the Dexter Gordon or Oscar Peterson options), set the metronome to hear the clicks on beats 2 and 4. This article from Jazzadvice will be helpful if this concept is new to you. 
  3. Record yourself singing the excerpt or phrase several times while the metronome plays. It can also be helpful here to record yourself singing the phrase “normally” as a contrast. 
  4. Listen back to your recording and really focus on the time feel of each note and phrase. How does it feel in relation to the pulse of the metronome?

As you do this exercise, consider the sorts of time feels that you want to build into your playing. Great improvisers have the ability to employ different feels at will, but it’s absolutely alright to have a preference. Seek out solos and playing that embody that time feel and transcribe and learn from those examples.

Feel free to post your practice notes for the community to read on Discord if you’re a Soundfly subscriber.

Don’t stop here!

Keep learning about theory and harmony, composing and arranging, songwriting, improvising, and so much more in Soundfly’s course with Grammy-winning pianist and producer, Kiefer: Keys, Chords, & Beats.

Join our Mailing List

We offer creative courses, articles, podcast episodes, and one-on-one mentorship for curious musicians. Stay up to date!


Metronome Games: How to Improve Your Time While Having Fun

Most musicians associate the metronome with boring practice exercises, but here are 3 ways you can improve your timing that are actually fun!


How to Recognize Chords Faster

Being able to recognize chords, tonalities and intervals quickly can help improve your ability to perform, improvise, write and arrange music.


Three Examples of Dilla Swing

In this lesson from Ian Chang’s course, “Warped Rhythms & Abstract Beats,” he explores three ways Dilla inspired his sense of time and feel.