A Personal Perspective on Afro-Cuban Rhythmic Integration in Contemporary Jazz Composition.

AuthorZaldivar, Rafael
PositionPersonal account


As an Afro-Cuban composer and pianist myself, I have always felt a strong passion for cultural linkages since the time I became involved with rhythms in my native country. Since then, I have also felt attracted by the critical circumstances in which African, Spanish, and Cuban identities developed together in the same territory and created a multicultural form of expression. From this idea of cultural hybridization, I learned to play Afro-Cuban rhythms by imitation, repetition and memorization, which according to John Blacking and Patricia Campbell are the basic processes that define learning through oral tradition (1). In addition, I always felt a deep passion for Afro-American popular music since the time I became involved with jazz, and I also felt a special attraction to jazz stylistic in terms of instrumentation, form, and touch but did not clearly conclude how the melodic and harmonic systems could work together.

While modern jazz compositional practices embrace a large number of styles and approaches, form is at the first level harmonically driven. Afro rhythms in contrast create circularity at odds with this forward moment. The term circularity refers to repeated sequences of a cyclical pattern, which can be repeated in loop to create interaction. With this work, I intend to emphasize this potential and revitalize the role of the piano in the rhythm section. In addition, I use the piano as a percussion instrument to superimpose harmonic and melodic rhythmic displacement, syncopation, and polyrhythm accentuations within the orchestration, which categorizes rhythmic functionality within different jazz devices and instrumentations.

By retaining the circularity, I also enable the original Afro rhythms to convey the holistic character of their original spiritual roots through the physicality of the rhythm, which is the distinctive aspect that constructs my contemporary vision from Afro-Cuban roots.

The Challenge of Composing Overture

The challenge in composing Overture was to integrate the 2/3 clave in such a way that this rhythm would remain true to its original accentuated pattern reflecting its circular effect that its repetition creates (2). This piece written for piano and 2/3 clave follows a moderate tempo in 4/4 (3) and shows the 2/3 clave used by the composers from the ensemble Munequitos de Matanzas (The Matanzas Dolls) in their piece Homenaje a Cha Cha (Tribute to Cha Cha, 1994) (4). I integrated the clave and the bass line in the left hand (LH) of the lowest register of the piano. I used the clave as a complement to the bass line (5). Later on, I developed the bass lines from the rhythmic contour of the clave to establish a metronomic pattern to support the harmonic base, which I used to develop the melodic statement in the right hand (RH) (6). In addition, the clave pattern helped me to accentuate the syncopated character of the bass line and also reinforced the depth of the lowest register in terms of timber.

The clave pattern also helped me to create a counterpoint effect from its juxtaposition with the bass line, which increased the level of rhythmic displacement. Nevertheless, the integration process required two preliminary steps before I started to work on the compositional process of Overture.

This preliminary process helped me to learn the 2/3 clave from inside out and gave me a better understanding about its relationship with 4/4 meter. (7) Personally, I also think that this preliminary practice was very revealing to me.

It helped to assimilate accents from the 2/3 clave as much as its syncopated figures. It also provided me with the rhythmic base to support the thematic elaborations as well as the harmonic motions, which served me as preliminary ideas for orchestrating the piece (8).

First, in order to learn to internalize the 2/3 clave part (Figure 1), I wrote the rhythmic pattern on a chart and read it several times in a loop. (9) I played it with my hands and kept repeating it a few more times in order to feel the rhythm internally in my body. (10) After becoming familiar with it, I noticed that I was creating some new rhythmic variations. (11) However, needing to deeply understand this pattern in relationship to its 4/4 metric, I clapped the clave with my hands and accentuated the four beats of the 4/4 metric with my left foot.

Then, I kept clapping the clave with my hands and put an accent on the first beat of each bar:

After I practiced the exercise shown in Figure 2, I then practiced the clave with an accent on beat two of each bar, and then beats three and four as showed on (Figures 3 and 4):

Because I realized the accents on beats two and four were not easy to maintain, I practiced the exercise in Figure 5. I was now able to maintain the propulsion of the internal cyclical momentum:

The combination of exercises also developed a high level of concentration in terms of feeling.

Compositional Process and Form of Overture

After I had concluded the internalization process, I started the compositional process of Overture. This piece follows an AABA form, which is a very common form in the standard American jazz repertory (12). First, I established the key of E minor to develop the bass line, which followed the syncopated figures of the clave as showed on (Figure 6). In bar two, the second sixteenth note of beat three and the second eighth note of beat four both match in both lines. However, the really interesting harmonic aspect about this line is its harmonic motion (13). My harmonic choices from bars one to four allowed me to create an internal motion by moving the flat 6th of the Emin7(b6) chord to the natural 6th of the Emin6 chord followed by the flat 7th of the Emin7 chord. I think this is a very useful technique to enrich harmonic progression over a pedal point (14).

Then, I used the rhythmic figures and the harmonic movements suggested by the bass to develop the main melody in the RH. I placed the main melody on the top of the line and harmonized it in three, two, and five note chords. Thus, I created a contrast between the RH chords, which allowed me to enrich the harmonies' color over the E pedal note. In bar one, I used only an Emin7(b6), and then I used the colors of EMaj7(#5), Emin7 and the poly-chord EbMaj7/E in bar two. Even though this section is a pedal point progression in the key of E minor, I also used an EMaj7(#5), which is called poly-modality (15). This technique enabled me to use chords from both modes of the E minor and E major keys to enrich the harmonic progression. As for bars five, six, seven, eight, and nine, I constructed the chords' voicing in a parallel motion following the E Lydian mode (16). I organized this parallel with closed intervals as well as minor and major thirds and a perfect fourth, which left more room for the principal melody to sound clearly at the top of the chord:

Section B evolved from the same type of syncopation of the bass line. Harmonically, I developed this section from the chord Eb13(b9)/Emin(b6) with the omitted third. This poly chord helped to produce a high level of harmonic density, which contrasts with the very light sense of section A. When I returned to section A, I balanced the omnipresence of the clave part and the E pedal by moving the chords' extensions in section A and combining chords and poly chords from different modes in section B (17). In addition, the clave also serves as a metronomic line to support the highly interactive polyrhythm between the RH and LH melodies. It also helped me to create new thematic elaborations through rhythmic transformations.

I chose to improvise my solos on the B section. I used its short statement as a point of departure from which I could extend my lines. I also used the concept of thematic variations to improvise new ideas with the main theme. I tried to build several melodic lines based on rhythmic cells from the 2/3 pattern and then to develop them into block chords.

In that way, I made sure that I was able to relate my improvisations to the main theme. In terms of harmony, I built my lines from a particular set of scales: E Lydian, E natural minor, E harmonic minor, E melodic minor, as well as E flat Lydian augmented. The E flat Lydian augmented scale also served as a point of tension that allowed me to move out of the E pedal point sound.

The Challenge of Composing Distortions

The primary challenge of the solo piano piece Distortions was to integrate the 3/2 and 2/3 claves together in such a way that these two patterns would remain true to their source while allowing more harmonic freedom than the first piece (18). This piece written for piano and two claves was inspired by the rhythmic syncopations of the work of Cuban composer and pianist Emiliano Salvador who integrated the 3/2 clave in his piece Para Luego Es Tarde (So it's already late) (19). First, I practiced the 3/2 clave with my hands and added the four up-beats in 4/4 with my foot. This exercise helped me to keep the clave in a loop without losing my pulse and to be able to feel it from its up-beats instead of having the strong beats as a reference:

This first exercise was highly demanding and required a lot of concentration to feel the pulse in the up-beats. Then I retook the clave and combined it with up-beat one:

After having experimented with the clave and up-beat one, I next combined the clave with upbeat two:

Then, I combined the pattern with up-beat three to increase the level of difficulty regarding the pulse:

To complete the cycle with the up-beats, I practiced the 3/2 clave with up-beat four:

Once I had completed the cycle with the four up-beats, I combined the 2/3 clave up-beats one and three:

Then, I practiced the 3/2 clave with up-beats two and four, which demanded more concentration on my part to keep the pulse stable:

Compositional Process and Form of Distortions

To compose the Introduction-AB form of Distortions, I first traced the rhythmic figure of the 3/2 clave in...

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