Richard Bona QuintetLeft – Richard Bona. Photo – Richard Dodson

Fresh from having won Cuba’s Premio Internacional award for their album Tales to Tell in Havana last month, Melbourne based Alex and Nilusha (with local muso friends Geoff Hughes and Frank DiSario) opened for The Richard Bona Quintet at The Coopers Malthouse. And what a treat – a double dip of deliciousness this night. Sri lankan born Nilusha Dassenaike is a vocal virtuoso, and she captivated the audience with a stunning display of technique, ranging in style from the most delicate of ‘loungie’ seductive vocal zephyrs to gentle African lullabies to gut-renching dirges for lost worlds, all set against Alex Pertout’s intricate percussion. An exqusitely drawn out classical Middle Eastern lament was the highlight of their set, moving and atmospheric, conjuring ancient times. 

Richard Bona was born into a Cameroonian musical Griot storyteller family tradition, mastering the local xylophone-like instrument balafon and forming his own jazz band at the age of 13, going on to work with diverse luminaries such as Harry Belafonte, Mike Stern, George Benson and Paul Simon. The New York-based maestro bassist and singer’s international quintet (from the US, Cuba and Europe) provided a sophisticated and irresistible musical smorgasbord of jazz-fusion, Afro-Latin and sublime solo acapella. There were touches of Miles Davis, with (the occasionally muted) trumpet playing, with moments where the influence of Paul Simon and George Benson was evident. Tributes to Bona's bass hero Jaco Pastorius were exquisitely rendered, with rich, creamy tonal shifts of Bona’s electric bass thrilling in the slower ballads. Even without instruments you're in the hands of a maestro: Bona used his voice as an instrument, employing a loop machine to chant, sing, beat box and kind of-rap in the African tongue, Doula.

The Richard Bona Quintet's show was a fizz of showmanship, playing to a hugely responsive audience who stood for an ovation at the end of the set, leadiong into an encore and an audience boogie. There was even an audience sing-along of Afro-Latin favourite O Sen Sen. This musical degustation would have been completely at home at Womad but headlining an International Jazz Festival might raise questions for jazz purists. Is it jazz, Afro-beat, funk or Latin American? When it’s this good, who cares?

Melbourne International Jazz Festival
Richard Bona Quintet

Venue: Merlyn Theatre, The Coopers Malthouse, 113 Sturt Street, Southbank
Dates: 29 May, 2015
Tickets: $30 – $79
Bookings: 03 9685 5111