Road Map to Latin Jazz Style Interpretation

September 6, 2016

By James Dreier

“Latin.” How often have jazz musicians and educators opened up a big band score or lead sheet only to see this vague and impossibly broad style indicator at the top of the page? It can mean so many things and can often be more confusing than helpful. This article, a revised excerpt from a chapter of my book, Latin Jazz Guide, A Path To Authentic Percussion and Ensemble Performance,1 intends to offer a step-by-step method for finding a more specific Latin style solution from the jungle of possibilities. This in turn will manifest a more cohesive, authentic, and musically satisfying experience for musicians, students, and audiences alike. First, let’s lay out some very brief and basic concepts that will be referenced in this article.

Three Spheres of Latin Jazz Influence

In my book, I organize 12 of the most common Latin jazz styles into three spheres of influence:

  • Cuban, Clave-Based (mambo, cha cha chá, rumba, songo, Afro Cuban 6/8, bolero)2
  • Brazilian-Based (samba, bossa nova, baião, partido alto)
  • Caribbean Sub-Sphere (merengue, calypso/soca)

By placing a chart or a tune in one of these three categories, additional decisions, such as Latin percussion choices, specific rhythms and unifying rhythmic cells can then be made. It has been my experience that clues exist, even in the most generically arranged chart or bare bones lead sheet. I present these steps so that a path to a specific Latin style can be embraced. It can sometimes be tricky (especially when dealing with music that is not stylistically consistent), but looking for the clues to make informed decisions can lead to successful style-solutions.3

Organizing Rhythmic Cells

Each one of theses spheres of influence have unique rhythmic cells that help to organize the music. Very briefly described here to provide context for rhythmic examples below.

Clave. “Son” clave, as shown below in a “forward,” 3:2 setting, is one in a family of two-bar clave patterns that organize and inform music from Cuba. This two bar pattern can also be found in any style that shares historical roots with Cuban musical traditions (New Orleans second line, funk, hip hop etc.). This pattern can also be “turned,” so that the 2-side is first, and the 3-side is second (2:3).4


Brazilian Two-Bar Pattern: This term, a utilitarian but admittedly awkward one fashioned by the author, describes a common Brazilian rhythmic cell derived from the agogô (or cuíca) parts from the partido alto rhythm. This pattern shares some structural characteristics with Cuban clave, but does not share the same codifying role. Like clave, it can appear in reverse, with the second measure first and first measure second.


Caribbean-Based Big Three Pattern: This two-bar ryhthmic cell (the name coined by my UI colleague John Rapson) is a common figure with direct West African roots. In this context, this common “Latin” pattern would best coincide with calypso/soca style.


Now that some basic concepts have been established, the steps to identifying and establishing a coherent Latin style can be followed.5

Step 1.  Look at the Bass Part 

Check out the section of the chart where the bass is playing consistent time and analyze the part as shown in the example below.6 If the bass is pointing to a style from one of the three Latin jazz spheres, then percussion and even other rhythm section parts can be easily changed to adhere to that style.7

Example I-1: Bass Part Excerpts 


A: Bass line A above suggests a Brazilian-based approach (bossa nova, samba).


B: Bass line B above suggests a Cuban, clave-based approach (mambo, cha cha chá).


C: Bass line C above suggests a Caribbean-based approach (calypso, soca).8

If the bass part is not conclusive enough, then continue to the next step.

Step 2. Look at the Drum-Set Part 

Look for any evidence of a style-specific rhythm cell in the drum parts, as given in the example below:9

Example I-2: Drum Set Excerpts from Three Different Styles


A: Drum set pattern A above has both a conga imitation — cross-stick and tom tom — as well as a cascara-like hi-hat pattern, which suggests a Cuban, clave-based approach.


B: Drum set pattern B above features the tell-tale Brazilian bass drum part found in bossa nova and samba, which suggests a Brazilian-based approach. Brazilians would write the two-bar pattern in 2/4 meter using 8th notes and 16th notes, so a strong use of 16th notes would also be a clue that it is Brazilian in nature.


C: Drum set pattern C above outlines the “Big Three” rhythm between the bass drum and the snare, and therefore would suggest the Caribbean-based approach.

If the drum-set part, along with the bass line, is not conclusive enough, then continue to the next step.

Step 3.  Look at the Other Rhythm Section Parts

Look at the piano and guitar comping patterns. These rhythmic patterns may suggest one of the following:

Example I-3: Rhythm Section Excerpts


A: Piano part A above would suggest a montuno pattern, therefore it would be a Cuban, Clave-based approach.10


B: Piano or guitar comping patterns similar to the one shown in B above, suggest a variation of the Two-bar Brazilian Rhythm and therefore a Brazilian-based approach.11


C: Comping patterns in the rhythm section that outline the “Big Three” rhythm, as shown in C above, suggest a Caribbean approach.

After following these suggested steps and using the information presented here, a specific Latin-jazz style should be found. From this point, using reference books, recordings and other widely available publications and online information, other musical and instrumental considerations can be made.

On a final note, here is a simple rule of thumb: when in doubt, try calypso. Experience dictates that when a chart is written in a genetic “Latin” style, the bass line will often be closer to a Caribbean style, and therefore moving the percussion and RS to calypso will make an otherwise divergent chart have some continuity and authenticity.

Latin jazz is a vast and dynamic musical landscape that can encompass as many styles as there are plants in the Amazon forest. Those presented here are a mere sampling. All deserve thoughtful research, concentrated listening and when possible, body motion (it’s all derived from dance music after all). But every journey begins with the first step. Here we can begin the process by turning the generic “Latin” chart into the joy of playing more authentic Latin jazz.


1. James Dreier, Latin Jazz Guide, A Path To Authentic Percussion and Ensemble Performance (Distribution by Hal Leonard, Milwaukee, WI, 2015)

2. The music of Puerto Rico is included in this sphere only because of the importance of clave as a unifying rhythm cell. Indigenous Puerto Rican styles, such as plena and bomba, as well as countless other styles from around South America and the Caribbean are not included here for purposes of efficiency and focus. This has no reflection on the importance, substance or quality of those styles

3. The following examples are meant to show parts that might appear in published scores and are not necessarily meant to be examples of authentic style parts 

4. For a comprehensive exploration into the history and science of Cuban clave, see David Peñalosa, The Clave Matrix: Afro-Cuban Rhythm: its Principles and African Origins, (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, paperback 2012)

5. For a more thorough description of these rhythm cells, see Dreier, p. 24, 94, 132

6. Sometimes a chart will have mixed signals. For example, it might show a Brazilian bass line, but Cuban-based percussion parts. In this circumstance, it is best to change the percussion parts to fit the rhythm section parts

7. Please see for a complete list of Latin jazz resources, method books, recommended Latin jazz arrangers and other resources

8. Often times a bass line for calypso/soca styles, as well as merengue from the Dominican Republic, will feature prominent disco-like half note bass lines. This is also a current popular feature in Latin dancehall music

9. Remember, any of these patterns presented here can appear in the opposite direction — first bar second, second bar first. Keep your eyes and ears open to the direction of the clave or any two-bar rhythmic cell. See Dreier, pp. 153, “Where’s the Clave, Finding the Proper Clave Type and Direction” for more information on this topic

10. The Cuban montuno attern is a clave-based harmonic arpeggio figure in Cuban music usually played by the pianist (or guitarist) in mambo, cha cha chá and other popular and jazz styles. This pattern is derived from the guajeo pattern played by the Cuban string instrument, tres from the son music tradition

11. Brazilian styles such as samba and bossa nova are often written in 2/2 meter in commercial published charts, using eighth notes and quarter notes to make them easier to read. However, Brazilian musicians almost exclusively write music in 2/4 or 4/4, using sixteenth notes and eighth notes

James Dreier is a drum set-Latin percussion specialist, educator, clinician, and performer. He holds a Bachelor of Music degree from Berklee College of Music and a Master of Arts degree in music theory from the University of Iowa. As a full time lecturer at the University of Iowa, Dreier’s duties include teaching Jazz Improvisation for Drum Set, Jazz Cultures in America and Abroad, directing the Latin-jazz Ensemble and the Hawkeye Big Band. Dreier published his book, Latin Jazz Guide, A Path To Authentic Percussion and Ensemble Performance (Hal Leonard Corp.) in October, 2015.

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