Contemporary Cuban Piano Masterclass

A lesson from the October 2014 issue of KEYBOARD
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I’d like to talk about two styles of Cuban music - the Danzón and the Guaguancó, how they can be adapted to jazz, and how to improvise and internalize their rhythms. Many New York musicians and composers like Yosvany Terry, Dafnis Prieto, and myself with the New Cuban Express, have been working on the concept of adapting folkloric Cuban musical styles to jazz. The result has been a refreshing take on Cuban music that goes beyond your typical “Latin jazz.” I grew up listening to Cuban pianists like Emiliano Salvador and Bebo and Chucho Valdes, but also to jazz pianists like Bill Evans, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, and Wynton Kelly. So it was only natural that I wanted a way to blend these two styles together. Below are some of the concepts I’ve used over the years to merge Cuban music with jazz. As with any musical style, the more you listen to Cuban music and the Clave (the standard rhythmic pattern used in Cuban music), the more comfortable you’ll feel playing it.

1. Traditional Contradanza

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Ex. 1 is a traditional type of Cuban piano playing called the contradanza that later evolved into the Danzón. The Danzón is Cuba’s national dance, and improvisation is an integral part of this style. Contradanzas were typically performed solo, while Danzones were typically performed with a ballroom orchestra. (Look for compositions by composers like Ignacio Cervantes and Manuel Saumell, two of the main exponents of this style. Ruben Gonzales and composer Ernesto Lecuona also popularized it.)

2. Modern Contradanza

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Ex. 2 is a representation of the modernization of the contradanza.Cuban pianists like Emiliano Salvador, Chucho Valdes, and Gonzalo Rubalcaba have pushed the envelope of this style into the 21st century. It’s important to play these examples slowly at first using a metronome. This will not only help you feel the beat, but it will also help you understand the syncopation and coordination needed between both hands here. By not having both hands play at the same time (block chord style) you can fill in some of the subdivisions, propelling the groove a bit more. You can hear an example of this type of playing on my composition “Danzon,”from my 2013 album New Cuban Express.

3. Jazz Meets Contradanza

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Ex. 3a is an adaptation of a McCoy Tyner-type line over the figure from Ex. 2. Note that this line starts on the “2 side” of the Clave (the beginning of the phrase/bar).A good rule of thumb as you begin to deal with playing over a clave is that if a song is in 2-3 Clave(two pulses, then three), you should start your lines on the downbeats. If a song is in 3-2 Clave (vice versa), start your lines on the upbeats.

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Ex. 3b is a line that starts on the “3 side” of the clave (the middle of the phrase/bar). This is very elementary , but as you feel more comfortable with these rhythms, you can adapt other types of phrasing to them.

4. The Guaguancó

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Another style of Cuban music is the Guaguancó, which uses mostly percussion and voice and is shown in Ex. 4. This style actually helped me understand the Clave on a much better level. (For further study, listen to groups like Los Muñequitos de Matanzas and Los Papinesto get a better sense of this kind of playing). Start by tapping the Clave with your left hand and then try to play the figure with your right hand only. After you feel comfortable with the right hand part, try to incorporate the bass part with the left hand. Feel free to loop each bar as well. Later on, you can change the notes using the same rhythmic cells as a foundation.

5. Upbeats and Syncopation

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Ex. 5 continues the merging of Cuban and jazz styles with a more complex line that uses only upbeats. Try it slow with the Clave in the left hand until you feel the syncopation naturally. Then introduce the bass line. The second part of this example is a variation on the first that fills-in the subdivisions, thus creating more of a jazz line with the feeling of the Guaguancó.