Jonathan Feist


Insights into Latin Jazz Piano: An Interview with Rebecca Cline

Jonathan Feist

Rebecca Cline is author of Latin Jazz Piano Improvisation (Berklee Press, 2013). She is an associate professor in the ensemble and piano departments at Berklee College of Music.

How is playing Afro-Cuban/Latin jazz different from American jazz?

For me, the biggest difference is the language I speak with my colleagues. Usually, when I play Afro-Cuban or Latin jazz with a band, the band members are native Spanish speakers, so we generally speak Spanish to each other. When I play straight-ahead jazz, even though the band members can be from countries other than the U.S., the common language is English. I usually laugh more hanging out with my Spanish-speaking colleagues!

What is the role of clave in a Latin groove?

The rhythmic pattern called “clave” determines the rhythmic patterns that are played by all of the instruments in the ensemble. For more details, check out the first half of my book!

Does the piano have any different kinds of role in Latin music, compared to other genres?

Let’s limit our discussion to Afro-Cuban popular music instead of trying to address the broader category of Latin music. The roots of the piano in Afro-Cuban popular music can be traced to the traditions of danzón and son montuno. In danzón, the piano often plays arpeggios and elegant runs, which can be rhythmically vague. By contrast, the son montuno demands a stronger rhythmic role from the piano by way of the typical piano guajeo (or montuno or tumbao).

Many arrangements of popular Afro-Cuban music begin with a romantic section that calls for fills, comping, and/or arpeggios from the piano. But as the arrangement progresses into a more driving, danceable section, the piano plays a very percussive tumbao.

What struggles or misconceptions are commonly shared by students who come to Latin jazz from outside that culture?

I find that students are sometimes intimidated by the terminology and by the preponderance of sub-genres of Cuban popular and folkloric music. There are often three words for a given item, such as the montuno (also known as tumbao, also known as guajeo). Similarly, a single word can signify more than one thing. Again, the word, “montuno.” It can refer to a pattern played by the piano, a section in an arrangement, or a sub-genre of the Cuban son, as in “son montuno.”

In addition, students often think that in Latin jazz, they should accompany by playing a montuno all the time. While there are some bands that might have the pianist play a montuno from start to finish, it is more common to progress from comping with a sense of clave to a climactic montuno.

The rhythms in this music can be complex, and particularly at up-tempo grooves, it is easy to lose your place in the form. Do you have any tips in finding beat 1?

The main thing to know is that beat 4 can sound like beat 1. This is because the typical bass line anticipates the harmony by a quarter note. If you are used to hearing the root of the chord on the downbeat, as in rock or funk, it can take some practice to recognize beat 4 in Afro-Cuban music as beat 4 instead of mistaking it for beat 1. Chapter 5 in my book addresses this topic. In the book, there is a transcription of a bass line and a piano montuno from one of the tracks on the recording. The reader is encouraged to follow (read) the written-out bass line while listening to the performance in order to see and hear how the bass anticipates the harmony.

Are there differences in how solos are structured or shared, such as how many choruses are typical for a single player, or how many players solo in a tune?

Just as in jazz, this varies according to each bandleader’s taste, and according to context, such as whether the performance is live or in the recording studio, and how big the band is. Players tend to stretch (play longer and with a strong sense of exploration) when playing live, while sometimes players are encouraged to play shorter and/or fewer solos in the studio, in the interest of creating shorter tracks and/or variety between tracks.

Some bandleaders take a traditional approach by presenting the melody, having everybody solo, and playing the head out, and continue to adhere to this formula throughout the set. By contrast, some bandleaders try to achieve variety and an element of unpredictability by featuring different soloists throughout the set.

What issues of ensemble etiquette are there to keep in mind?

One of the most important aspects of ensemble etiquette in the performance of a clave-based tune is to maintain an awareness of the clave throughout. Implying “the wrong clave,” or clave in a different place than where it is, feels like a jazz drummer suddenly playing the hi-hat on beats 1 and 3 (instead of 2 and 4).

Another important consideration is balance. Pianists are rarely offenders in this area, but each musician should listen for how his or her sound balances with the rest of the ensemble. No one instrument should drown out another.

As a pianist, another thing to keep in mind is the level of activity in one’s comping. Be careful not to start off comping with a montuno if the soloist is trying to tell a story with some sort of arc. It’s probably better to start comping with more subtlety and gradually build up to a montuno, if that’s what the music calls for.

One situation in which comping with a montuno is almost always a bad idea is during a bass solo. The montuno is one part of a musical machine, of which another key part is the bass line. If that bass line is absent, the montuno can sound out of context, and it can rob attention from the bass solo.

How did you learn to play Latin jazz piano?

I will always be learning how to play the piano, and how to play Latin jazz piano. But I have learned a lot from transcribing pianists and playing along with recordings, from watching pianists at live performances, and from playing gigs with great players who know more about it than I do.

I did study with the great Jesús “Chucho” Valdés in Cuba in 1996, but I was such a beginner in both jazz and Latin jazz at that time that the main thing that I took from that experience was a sense of the breadth of possibility that awaited me once I got the basics together.

I also had a teacher for a short time toward the end of my years living in Puerto Rico. Pianist Luis Marín generously shared his vast musical knowledge with me.

Were other musicians welcoming?

Perhaps surprisingly, yes! I started playing popular (non-Classical) music shortly after moving to Puerto Rico when I was 22. I was terrified to sit in on a regular gig in Old San Juan that I attended faithfully, week after week, month after month. But the musicians were very encouraging. They assured me that I would never feel ready and that I just had to dive in. They were right, and eventually I did.

For several years, I gigged a lot as a side musician in Puerto Rico and enjoyed a genuine sense of camaraderie with my fellow musicians. That was a wonderful, nurturing environment for my musical growth, and I’m very grateful to those fantastic musicians/human beings.

Did you struggle to find the authentic Latin jazz, rather than more Americanized adaptations?

Not in Puerto Rico or Cuba. Once in a while, I run into that stylized stuff on the Web and I just can’t stand it, so I turn it off.

Who were your most important mentors?

Luis Marín, Bill Gordon and Charlie Banacos.

Do you remember any particularly helpful tips that they shared that revealed to you something profound about the music?

Luis Marín impressed upon me that Eddie Palmieri is great because of his superior sense of time. I had performed for Luis a solo of Palmieri’s that I had transcribed. It was “Bomba de Corazón” from Palo Pa’ Rumba. Luis told me that while the solo was indeed great, it really was not the point. Palmieri’s time was what it all came down to. That was revelatory for me because until that point, my perception had been the complete opposite: that time playing was secondary and that soloing was the real business. I think that is a typical misconception among young players.

What first inspired you to learn to play Latin jazz?

Michel Camilo! I know I am not alone in that.

Could you recommend an inspiring recording? What should we listen for?

A track that has really inspired me lately is Osmany Paredes’ “Tumbaíto Pa’ Tí” from his 2013 album, Trio Time. The track is pure joy from start to finish. I love how Osmany plays with the clave as he improvises, then how he grooves with a funky two-handed clavinet-like rhythmic thing before the band enters. And his tumbao behind the drum solo is killing.

Here the track “Sombras” from the accompanying recording to Latin Jazz Piano Improvisation, which includes a transcription of Rebecca’s piano solo (beginning at 3’30”).


Jonathan Feist
Jonathan Feist

Jonathan Feist is editor in chief of Berklee Press, where he has been bringing hundreds of music education products to a worldwide market since 1998. He is the author of "Project Management for Musicians," among other Berklee Press books and Berklee Online courses. He holds a bachelor's and master's degree in composition from New England Conservatory of Music, and tends to various farm animals and a sweet little orchard in his backyard.