I've always been fascinated by the percussive elements of Latin jazz, so it was natural for me to adapt the ideas emanating from its potent percussion section to the piano. These concepts help to harness and reinvigorate the often-neglected percussive nature of the piano. Puerto Rican pianists like Eddie Palmieri and Papo Lucca, as well as Cuban artists like Lily Martinez and Lino Frias, developed much of the language that so strongly influenced me and most other pianists playing Latin jazz today.

Most Afro-Cuban music is structured around a two-bar rhythmic pattern called the Clave (pronounced “clah-vay”) which has either three hits in the first bar and two in the next, (3/2 Clave) or the reverse (2/3 Clave). Many tunes start with 3/2, only to switch to 2/3 for an improvised section through the addition of an uneven number of bars—often one, three, or five—as a transition. In these examples, you’ll see the Clave pattern above the piano staff. Here are some concepts to incorporate Afro-Cuban piano concepts into your own Latin and jazz explorations.

1. Quarter-Note Triplets

In Ex. 1, I employ the genre-typical elements of arpeggiated chords, alternating single notes, and accent-stressing octaves. This style would typically be played using eighth-notes, but here I am using quarter-note triplets, accentuating with the octave every fourth note. I’m also advancing an interesting harmonic approach to the underlying bass line. All instruments here start on the fourth beat, known in the Latin scene of New York as “el afinque.”

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2. Groups of Five

Ex. 2 uses the same principle as Ex. 1, but it employs groups of five, adding an extra octave before each group. This polyrhythmic concept is particularly effective in relatively long harmonic progressions.

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3. Cha-Cha ii-V Chords

Ex. 3 uses a typical Cha-Cha, a ii-V half-progression, where the seventh of the ii minor chord resolves in the third of the V7 chord. The third bar nonetheless brings a surprise element in that the third of the V7 resolves to the flat sixth of the ii chord, only to go back to the same path. Note that contrary to common use, the octaves in the right hand don’t mirror the lowest note in the left hand. This enriches the color of the chords, as well as the inner voices of both hands, adding tension and color to the whole phrase.

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4. Groups of Three

Ex. 4 reverses the concept developed in Ex. 1, developing a simple but very percussive motif of regular eighth-notes in groups of three. This displaces the rhythmic center of gravity by a quarter-note every bar. The figure arises from a chord in the left hand followed by two octaves in the right. The first octave tends to stay the same while the other moves ever upward for dramatic effect. In the second half of the example, using the same rhythmical device, I alternate two chromatically neighboring notes in the octave movement, shifting that binary group up and down, thereby creating a third level of rhythmic and harmonic interest.

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5. Melodic Motifs

Ex. 5 uses a melodic motif of irregular length, wrapping up in the turnaround at the end in the iii minor-VI7-ii minor progression. Here I employ the key-foreign ninthof the iii minor chord, descending chromatically as an augmented fifth of the VI7 chord, to the ninth of the ii minor chord.


Practice Tip

“Given that Latin jazz is, in general, barely harmonically distinguishable from ‘straight ahead’ jazz, I’ve always differentiated the two by applying complex rhythmic concepts to both my harmonic and melodic statements,” says New York-based, Colombian born pianist and composer Hector Martignon. His last two solo releases Refugee and Second Chance were nominated for Grammy Awards, and as a sideman, he has performed with Paquito D’Rivera, Gato Barbieri, Steve Turre, Don Byron, and Tito Puente. Martignon also penned the acclaimed book, Salsa Piano. Visit him at hectormartignon.com.