Making Your Montunos Sound "Jazzy"

January 11, 2017

For many jazz pianists, interpreting a chart with the ambiguous “Latin” style suggestion often results in a go-to approach of a pseudo Brazilian bossa nova, perhaps because of the perceived notion that an Afro-Cuban montuno will sound less harmonically rich.

Cuban montuno-playing is certainly founded in triadic concepts, mainly given the emphasis on syncopation and groove, but there are endless ways to spruce up your montunos to make them more contemporary. The pianistic evolution from traditional Cuban dance music, through salsa and Latin jazz, and on to the more aggressive sounds of timba, has undergone constant rhythmic and harmonic innovation. Here are a few techniques to apply to various standard chord changes that will help you create jazzier montunos.

1. Simplify the Montuno Rhythm

While there are literally hundreds of different patterns you can play in a montuno context, the first example has become the most standard (Ex. 1a). At faster tempi, this may simply be too busy and distracting to lock in the groove. Simplifying the rhythm not only frees up more space, it allows you to experiment with two-handed voicings (as opposed to playing everything parallel, which is common in traditional Cuban son and salsa). Ex. 1b uses the same progression, but is less rhythmically dense.

2. Just the Accents

Playing in clave is a critical aspect to authentic Afro-Cuban piano playing that can be daunting to many jazz players. The general rule is to accent the downbeat of the 2-side of the clave, and emphasize the upbeats on the 3-side (Ex. 2). We tend to add more intensity to the downbeat and the “and” of the 4th beat of the 2-side measure, and a bit to the “and” of 2 on the 3-side (known as the bombo). Using this approach, you are essentially playing only the accents of the typical montuno pattern. The challenge for many players is maintaining a comfort level with this much syncopation. Note the use of quartal voicings here, along with some upper structures.

3. Contrary Motion

If J. S. Bach had been born in Cuba, he would likely be the most in-demand piano player on the contemporary timba scene today. While contrary motion is not unheard of in earlier genres of popular dance music, montuno playing still tends to rely on a parallel approach. Example 3a highlights one of the signature patterns created by pianist César “Pupy” Pedroso, former member (and founder) of Los Van Van. While the harmony is fairly simple, the rhythm demonstrates a highly syncopated, one-measure pattern that incorporates contrary motion. The pattern in Example 3b uses quartal harmony and is reminiscent of the montuno stylings of Eddie Palmieri, one of salsa music’s “jazziest” interpreters.

4. Beat Displacement

Nothing excites fellow rhythm section players more than trying to figure out where the “one” is when the pianist starts to displace the beat! Not for the faint of heart, this technique often involves taking an odd-meter phrase and cycling it within a 4/4 passage, which may take several iterations before the cycle returns to the “one” again. Couple this approach with a slightly more challenging 3-2 clave groove, and you can begin to understand why it is that ’90s-era Cuban dance music became synonymous with turning the beat around (Ex. 4).

5. Closed vs. Open Voicings

The minute extended voicings are added to your montunos (such as 9ths, 11ths or 13ths), there is an opportunity to move away from the simplistic son-derived approach in classic salsa. One-handed, closed voicings with lots of minor and major 2nds may not have the range of the right-hand octave typically used in salsa piano playing, but it can create a richer texture, whether you are “toggling” the chord (Ex. 5a), or blocking the chord in a comping style (Ex. 5b). Combining a left-hand closed voicing with a right-hand open voicing (Ex. 5c) can generate a full sound and also allow you to explore myriad ways to build jazz-inspired textures in your montunos. For further exploration and ideas, listen to legendary Cuban pianists Chucho Valdés, Emiliano Salvador, and Gonzalo Rubalcaba.


Pianist Rebeca Mauleón is the author of several books and articles on the subject of Afro-Cuban music, including the Salsa Guidebook and 101 Montunos (both available from Sher Music). She is Director of Education for the San Francisco Jazz organization (SFJAZZ) and has recorded and performed with Tito Puente, Carlos Santana, and many others. When not teaching, producing, or writing, Mauleón fronts her own band. More examples of her work can be found on her blog and at her website at

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