Singer and bassist Richard Bona has it all at his fingertips: jazz, blues, funk, fusion, bossa nova, Caribbean rhythms and the African beats of his native Cameroon. On this, his first, visit to Australia, Bona wooed and won his Melbourne audience with a perfectly paced performance, segueing between musical styles and guiding his band from angelic melodies to killer grooves and much uncharted territory in between.
The music pours out of this man. Bona’s five-stringed bass is so much part of him that even when he takes it off to sing acapella, his hands shape chords and finger invisible strings. And singing is second nature to him, rooted in the traditions of his family. He favours the higher registers, in a delicate African falsetto that thrills and resonates. One of the highlights of the show was his solo vocal number where he sang harmonies, looping them with one of his many foot pedals.
No electric bassist since Jaco Pastorius (one of Bona’s many influences) has sounded so smooth and melodic. And Bona is not just an instrumentalist: he is leading the band and singing at the same time. Mostly the songs act as counterpoint to the bass lines, but on some of his most energetic bass passages he will scat along, having fun with his instrument and with his audience. Bona is a cheeky showman and a born storyteller, ready to spin a yarn, tell a joke or play a trick on us.
Bona, now based in New York after some years in Paris, has gathered an international group of musos around him. Most impressive was Cuban drummer Ernesto Simpson, who matched Bona in powerhouse rhythms and dexterity. They could fire up a groove between them that put a smile on everyone’s face. Only the dreadlocked guitarist Jean Christophe Maillard, from Guadeloupe, remained cool and stony-faced throughout. I found Maillard’s attitude distracting, although I could not fault his playing, which ranged freely from the delicate to the all-out psychedelic.
Dutch keyboard player Etienne Stadwijk provided rich lyrical textures and jazz sensibility. Right at the beginning, he and Simpson set the mood for Bona’s uncanny opening vocals. One of many magic moments. Young New Yorker Tatum Greenblatt completed the five-piece – a one-man horn section on his blistering amplified trumpet.
The band was on its way to the Adelaide International Guitar Festival, directed by Slava Grigoryan. Watch out, Adelaide, if Sydney and Melbourne were just a warm-up! It is rare to see musicianship of this calibre performed with such joy.
The Melbourne support act, Alex & Nilusha, was a good choice to open the show. Also drawing on many cultural sources for inspiration – jazz, Indian and Brazilian – the group had a similar lineup to Bona’s and fine musical versatility, although complexity often won out over groove.
Richard Bona Group
Venue: Melbourne Recital Centre | Cnr Southbank Boulevard & Sturt Street, Southbank
Date: Thurs 25 November, 2010