Latin Jazz Piano Techniques
Want to learn some Latin jazz piano techniques that will get booties
shaking and audiences smiling? Read on!
Latin music covers many cultures and countries, rhythms and dances. When most of us think of Latin music,
especially salsa and Latin jazz, we find that the Cuban rhythms are the most commonly used forms. The heart of
Cuban music has always been the clave, both as an instrument and as a pattern.
The clave (pronounced clah-vay) rhythm is usually given in one of two forms: either 3/2 or 2/3. These both have
a way of going “over the one”. That is, when we count a 4/4 rhythm, “One, Two, Three, Four”, the clave rhythm often
skips the “one”, which you won’t often find in western music.
I should also note here the biggest difference between Latin jazz and “standard” jazz rhythm: While Latin jazz
is a highly danceable, exciting form of music, it does not use the “swing” rhythm of western jazz. The swing that
we hear as “one, and-a-two” in western jazz is not present in the Latin form, and this is something that may take
even the most advanced jazz pianists a bit of time to get used to.
There are different forms of rhythm for the many differing latin jazz piano playing styles, which include
rumba, timba and others.
Even when the clave instrument is not present in a band line-up, the clave pattern is imbedded in the music,
affecting how all the instruments relate to each other rhythmically, harmonically and even melodically. For
example, the piano has a standard two bar structure called the montuno. The way this montuno is played is going to
affect the other instruments in the band, and vice versa.
So what are some Latin jazz piano techniques you can use to introduce this
style of playing into your repertoire? As always, it begins and ends with practice, practice, practice!
Firstly, it would be best to acquaint yourself with as many different Latin jazz artists as you can find when
you teach yourself piano.
These are many and varied, but some big names in the field are Tito Puente, Chuco Valdez, Michel Camilo, Monty
Alexander, Elaine Elias and Gonzalo Rubalcaba. With the exception of Tito Puente, these are all great Latin jazz
pianists, so you should be able to draw plenty of inspiration from their style.
The next step you want to take in learning to play Latin jazz, is to get away from the piano! Don’t worry,
you’ll get back to it soon. What you have to do is learn how to play the clave rhythms just by clapping your hands
together, in order to get the patterns down. You need to be able to recall these patterns not just intellectually,
but to feel the rhythm in your body so that improvisation within the rhythm is possible.
As you might guess, this is no easy feat! But practice tapping out some simple clave patterns and you will soon
enough start to get it. Next, play a simple montuno rhythm on your keyboard or piano, and try to continue tapping
the clave rhythm with your feet.
The next and final step is to try and introduce this playing into an actual rehearsal situation with other band
members. If this is something the band is completely new to, don’t be discouraged! It may be some time before you
can get the exotic rhythms down, but once you do, your audience will be mesmerized.