When jazz enthusiasts use the term "Latin jazz," they're usually referring to a blend of jazz and Afro-Cuban rhythms. But while salsa and Afro-Cuban music are a valuable, important part of the Latin musical experience, Latin music is also everything from Columbian cumbia and Dominican merengue to Argentinean tango and Mexican mariachi -- Latin music is quite vast, and jazz improvisers have numerous options if they're looking to Spain and Latin America for inspiration. On Special Friends, percussionist Annette A. Aguilar and her big band, Stringbeans, get their inspiration from hard bop and post-bop as well as Afro-Cuban and Brazilian music -- and they bring these elements together in a tastefully coherent fashion. The use of strings (including violin and harp) is a big part of the arrangements -- that's where the clever Stringbeans name comes from -- and they give the CD a certain refinement and sophistication whether Aguilar is interpreting Herbie Hancock's "Dolphin Dance," Heitor Villa-Lobos' "Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5," or Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo's "Guachi Guara." That isn't to say that the performances aren't funky or swinging; Special Friends underscores the fact that polish and soulfulness are not mutually exclusive. Special Friends isn't a classical CD, but some of the arrangements have hints of European classical music -- and at times, the violin playing brings to mind the Cuban charanga bands of the '50s (such as Orchestra Aragón). In Afro-Cuban music, charanga bands are known for their use of strings and flute; there is no flute playing on Special Friends -- strictly percussion and string instruments and piano -- but the violins do suggest charanga when it's appropriate. Illustrating her talents as a musician, producer, and arranger, Special Friends is a fine CD that fans of jazz, Afro-Cuban, and Brazilian music should make a point of hearing.