The first steps into an unfamiliar musical style can often be the most difficult ones for a musician to take. The technical demands of the style remain unknown, making it hard to focus your practice time. Every style contains its own set of artistic aesthetics that guide its performance practice; these elements can’t be understood without direct involvement in the style. Listening can even be a challenge at first – you’re not sure who the major artists are and where to look for their recordings. More often than not, there are elements of the music that you just don’t get, requiring you to either make uninformed choices or remain stuck. It almost seems like you’re an island at first; there’s no one to help guide you towards the necessary information that moves forward. All of these unknowns can be tremendously overwhelming, leaving you wondering where to start.
The ideas below are meant to make those first steps into Latin Jazz a much easier journey to begin. These are the essentials towards learning the style, and healthy moves towards a strong foundation in the music. Take the time to consider each of these recommendations in your musical life, and see how you can integrate Latin Jazz into your artistic palette. Once you’ve gotten started, the Latin Jazz world is an exciting, inspiring, and completely addictive place to inhabit. So don’t waste anymore time, get started with your first steps now!
1. Listen, Listen, Listen
The best advice that I ever got as a developing musician was “drown yourself in the music that you love.” Jumping headfirst into a style, in this case Latin Jazz, will give you the background you need once you pick up your instrument. Find as many different Latin Jazz artists as possible, and then locate as many of their recordings as you can. Jump into the LJC archives and explore the album reviews – there’s a wealth of high quality recommendations there. Find your favorites and indulge yourself in their recordings, but don’t close any doors – the Latin Jazz world is a big place with many approaches; check them all out! Take every opportunity to listen to Latin Jazz – morning, noon, and night. You may need to alter your listening routine a bit, but it will pay off in the end. You don’t need to give up other styles completely, but you can’t expect to understand Latin Jazz by only listening occasionally. A full Latin Jazz listening schedule will quickly move you closer to a fuller understanding of Latin Jazz.
When you listen, take an active approach; insist on learning something new with each listening. Isolate one musical element with each listening and concentrate on following that element throughout the song. There are plenty of possibilities for musicians new to the style – follow the clave, try to identify the rhythmic genre, focus upon the bass, investigate the piano’s use of comping and montunos, or see how the soloist builds their statement. You’re most likely going to need at least a few runs through each song to accomplish this; maybe even more listens for complex recordings. Once you’ve isolated individual elements, try to hear how the elements interact. Find connections between the percussion and the bass, see how changes in the rhythm section inspire new directions for a soloist, or discover how groups of instruments outline the song’s form. This will take some time; you may want to reserve dedicated parts of your practice routine for focused listening. In the end, you’ll have a stack of learned strategies in your head, gained from your listening sessions – once you apply those ideas on your instrument, you’ll see you Latin Jazz concept quickly come together.
2. Start With a Tipico Approach
The modern Latin Jazz world contains a number of artistically advanced musicians pushing the style in new directions. Their recordings reference Latin styles, traditions, culture, and aesthetics, but they don’t always makes these connections blatantly obvious. In most cases, these artists have studied Latin styles thoroughly and performed them extensively. They are looking for new frontiers while staying connected to their style, so they alter the genres based on their creative voice. These recordings make the essential listening list for the Latin Jazz musician; its important to stay connected to modern trends. At the same time, beginning Latin Jazz musicians may find the lack of clarity around Latin rhythms to be confusing.
Beginners may want to start with recordings that follow a more “tipico” approach. The word tipico refers to a more straight-ahead sensibility and a “typical” approach to Latin music performance. These recordings approach Latin genres with textbook performance examples that would allow beginning Latin Jazz musicians to examine the essentials of the style. Recordings by musicians such as Cal Tjader, Mongo Santamaria, Tito Puente, or Poncho Sanchez all provide a straight-ahead, barebones approach to Latin Jazz. Listeners can clearly find clave direction, stylistic differences, tumbao changes, and percussion variations with little background knowledge – these recordings make great starting points. By all means, check out the cutting-edge Latin Jazz musicians – their music is exciting and thought provoking; just realize that you may need to review some fundamental background information to gain a complete understanding of their music.
3. Get Some Good Books (and DVDs!)
Learning Latin Jazz during the early days of the style required close study with one of the genre’s veterans; the modern musical world presents a very different story. Today’s Latin Jazz leaders recognized the struggles that they endured to study the style, and the opportunity to help a younger generation avoid that same struggle. A variety of comprehensive books have arrived, covering everything from jazz improvisation to Cuban rhythms and Brazilian guitar. Most books contain detailed musical examples and some even include play-along CDs, providing an essential practice tool. Just take a quick perusal of the jazz books in your local music store and you’ll see that the options for learning Latin Jazz have exploded recently. Some artists have even taken the educational process a step further and recorded educational DVDs covering both basic and advanced concepts in Latin Jazz. DVDs act as a repeatable private lesson, allowing you to rewind the tape and not only hear, but also watch the execution of musical ideas.
There are a variety of books and DVDs that will help you understand the Latin music world and the jazz idiom. The widely accepted “bible” of Latin music is pianist Rebeca Mauleon’s Salsa Guidebook; this must-have book is full of practical and accessible information about Afro-Cuban music. Pianist Mark Levine’s Jazz Theory Book breaks down the essentials of jazz theory, from beginner information to advanced concepts – it’s very thorough and expresses the concepts in an easy to understand fashion. The Latin Bass Book by Oscar Stagnaro includes detailed examples of Latin bass styles and a play-along CD, providing hours of detailed practice for bassists. Years ago, drummer Robby Ameen and bassist Lincoln Goines developed the book Funkifying the Clave, applying Latin styles to the drum kit and electric bass; they’ve recently updated the book into a DVD presentation. A wealth of famous percussionists including Giovanni Hidalgo and Changuito have created instructional DVDs, helping drummers get a firm grip on the style. There are so many opportunities to learn about Latin music and jazz these days, you just need to find them and start studying!
4. Take A Look Outside The Cuban & Brazilian Genres
Cuban and Brazilian rhythms have formed the foundation of US-based Latin Jazz for many years, and certainly your study should start there – it just shouldn’t end there. Take the time to gain a complete understanding of Afro-Cuban genres – son montuno, rumba, danzon, cha cha cha, bembe – they serve as the backbone of the style, and any Latin Jazz musician should know them well. Your next step should be a journey through Brazilian styles, including samba, bossa nova, partido alto, and baião. For most straight-ahead Latin Jazz gigs, these genres will serve as the bulk of your repertoire; on the more adventurous gigs, you’ll need to know more. Afro-Peruvian rhythms are becoming a regular part of the Latin Jazz world, with rhythms like festejo, lando, and valse becoming essential pieces of knowledge. Puerto Rican bomba and plena have always shown a small presence in Latin Jazz, but modern groups dig deep into the folkloric traditions behind these styles. Argentinean tango makes an appearance in the Latin Jazz world often, but other styles from Argentina, such as the chacarera, are also becoming common. The contemporary creative Latin Jazz musician needs a strong background in a variety of South American and Caribbean styles.
There’s a wealth of great jazz recordings that draw upon a variety of Latin influences; these will be your best bet to understanding these styles. Peruvian trumpet player Gabriel Alegria brings together traditional Peruvian rhythms and jazz into an organic mixture. Pianist Pablo Ziegler follows the lead of his former boss, Astor Piazzolla, performing a potent version of the jazz filled Tango Nuevo. Vocalist Lucia Pulido builds upon her unique voice with a thoughtfully constructed blend of Columbian rhythms, jazz forms, and free improvisation. Puerto Rican bomba and plena drives the arrangements behind albums by Papo Vazquez as well as Puertorican Folkloric Jazz. Miami musician Kiki Sanchez has released an instructional DVD that covers both the basics of Latin Piano and Afro-Peruvian rhythms. At this point, not many instructional materials exist that focus upon Latin genres outside the Cuban and Brazilian realms; until this need is filled, recordings serve as the best study materials.
5. Find Mentors In Your Local Scene
Recordings, books, and DVDs all serve as wonderful learning tools, but nothing beats the power of good old-fashioned human interaction. Hearing a recording of a song illuminates rhythms, notes, and patterns, but seeing that song performed shows you a whole different set of information – you can only get physical technique, band interaction, and individual styles through a live performance. Even more insight can be gained by talking to these musicians with Latin Jazz performance experience. This is an essential step to building your understanding of the music – get to know the musicians with experience. Offer to carry equipment, help them organize their mailing list, bring loads of friends to their gigs . . . just clearly express your desire to become a part of the experience. Once you build a relationship with an experienced musician, you get to know the human side of the music. They’ll expose you to more artists, show you different instrumental approaches, and generally share their knowledge with you – you may even end up with a gig. It’s probably the most important step in becoming a well-rounded Latin Jazz musician.
Regardless of the size of you local Latin Jazz scene, you should be able to find someone with a background in Latin music. Every local scene will have musicians with varying experiences in Latin music; the “mecca” areas will have more musicians, but even small scenes will hold mentors. If you live in New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco, you’re probably going to have your choice of musicians and groups to hear and meet. In other areas, you may find only a small number of musicians with an interest – get to know them well. You don’t always need to connect with the best-known Latin Jazz musician, see what everyone has to offer. You’ll be surprised how the most unsuspecting musician will know another musician with connections in the Latin Jazz world or even have a secret passion for the style. If you can’t find any mentor figures, make sure that you attend every possible concert by a visiting Latin Jazz artist – you’ll get a lot from that too. Just make sure that you maintain a human connection with Latin Jazz.
These are some good starting points, now what do you think? Experienced musicians, what did you do to learn the style? Beginning Latin Jazz performers – what do you wish that you had access to? LEAVE A COMMENT and let us know!
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