Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Q&A: Cuban for jazz

I got a surprisingly tough question from a reader the other day:

What's a good book for playing Cuban styles in jazz?

Part of the difficulty with answering this is, what do we mean by Cuban styles in jazz? Unlike with Brazilian music, there aren't many tunes from the Cuban literature in the standard jazz repertoire. Some tunes have a Latin section as part of the stock arrangement (e.g, A Night In Tunisia), or are commonly played with alternating swing and Latin feels (e.g. The Night Has A Thousand Eyes, On Green Dolphin Street), or any tune can be played with a Latin feel— whatever that means to the players present. In normal Salsa arrangements, the entire thing is based on clave— the melody and arrangement rhythms, and the percussion and rhythm section parts. With the jazz tunes, there is usually no special effort to follow clave in the arrangement or accompaniment.

Without the clave element, we can't really say we're playing a Cuban style. What we're more doing is playing straight 8th tunes with a quasi-Latin flavor. What is done on many recordings— especially from the 50s and 60s— is that the drummer plays a repeating groove, maybe with some basic fills. There may be very little else done stylistically to make the performance “Latin.”

The books on Cuban drumming don't address that situation— they are typically about how to play Cuban/Salsa music correctly with Salsa musicians, which is a different set of concerns. The advice and even the rhythms given won't necessarily apply to a normal jazz setting, where the biggest challenge may be adapting your parts to fit with the Latin style as your bandmates (mis-?)conceive it.

Frankly, many or most jazz drummers* do not make a serious study of Cuban percussion. Just like a lot of jazz musicians don't study Cuban music as it pertains to their instrument. Probably most drummers could just learn my Mozambique-related blog items, and whichever Afro-Cuban related items seem applicable, and be covered for most jazz applications.

That doesn't excuse us from learning more about Cuban music, and Salsa more broadly. It's a major percussion art form, which should be interesting to any drummer. And it would just be nice to not embarrass ourselves when playing with good Salsa musicians... or when teaching it... or writing about it...

So here are the major books I recommend:

The Essence of Afro-Cuban Percussion and Drum Set by Ed Uribe
Big, scary book. Read my review of it here.

Afro-Cuban Rhythms for Drum Set by Malabe/Weiner
This was the first serious Cuban music book I was aware of in the 80s. Still good, though I find the notation hard to read, and it's generally difficult to draw a concise drum set lesson from it.

Rhythms and Techniques for Latin Timbales by Victor Rendon
Good book, and it's free. And since the bulk of what's played on the drum set in this music is derived from the timbales, it's extremely useful for drummers.

Afro-Caribbean and Brazilian Rhythms for the Drums
by mulitiple authors, released by Drummer's Collective
Concise introductions to a number of Latin styles. Maybe a good place to start.

Conversations in Clave by Horacio Hernandez
Popular book, with an actual method for improvising. Includes interesting studies for acquiring the correct feel.

There are other books, notably Clave Matrix, and the Beyond Salsa series, that are worth looking into. Except for the Drummer's Collective book, none of these are designed for quick study. It's a hard subject to write about and notate, and I find most of the books difficult to work with. It's such a large area of study that, if you're not dedicating your entire life to it, you have to proceed on faith that your playing will benefit from spending a lot of time learning any part of it.

* - Myself included.

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