Review: Richard Bona at Ronnie Scott's

Michael Tucker enjoys some primal and mesmeric music from the charismatic electric bassist, plus impressive support from Emilia Martensson

The charismatic Richard Bona (pictured right) sold out both of his two nights at Ronnie's but an appreciable part of the appeal of the magical evening I caught was the contrast provided to Bona's hot take on Afro-Cuban grooves by an often lyrical introductory set from the trio led by London-domiciled Swedish singer Emilia Martensson, featuring Italians Luca Boscagin (g, elg) and Fulvio Sigurta (t, flh). All three have led quality recordings of their own: here, they meshed extremely well, bringing both chamber music sensitivity and (courtesy of a discriminating use of electronics) arresting sonic invention to a programme that offered refreshing new perspectives on jazz.

Singing chiefly in English, Martensson evinced engaging rhythmic élan, excellent intonation and a soulful way with lyrics as diverse as those of Jim Webb's The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress and Paul Simon's Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover. There were also some affecting originals, now meditative, now up­tempo and with Boscagin and Sigurta sensitive to Martensson's every move. This most talented multi-­lingual singer has a stage presence as pleasing as it is commanding. I learned from her afterwards that she played the Ystad Sweden festival some years ago and on the evidence of this performance a return visit is long overdue.

I heard – and very much enjoyed – Richard Bona at last year's Ystad event, so had some inkling of what to expect from his new Mandekan Cubano band (pictured left) with Osmany Paredes (p), Dennis Hernandez (t), Rey Alejandre (tb), Ludwig Afonso (d), Roberto Quintero (pc) and Luisito Quintero (pc). In the event, and like many in the club, I was simply blown away by the overall tightness, power and dynamic authority of a band featuring some of the most electrifying exponents of Afro­-Cuban music on the planet. Now and then, Hernandez and Alejandre augmented their razor­-sharp horn lines with some smoothly turned dance moves, while Paredes shone in both percussive and spaciously reflective modes, the last including elegantly turned walking passages with the leader.

Apart from being one of the key post­-Pastorius bassists, and a compelling vocalist – as mellifluous as he is melismatic – in all manner of register and range, Bona is the sort of consummate performer who is able to make immediate soulful contact with his audience. “I practise every day, and hard – but I would rather touch hearts than knock people out with technique”, he told me afterwards. Making his five­-string fretted electric sing, he showed an ever­-engaging command of the psychology of performance, sometimes inviting the audience to contribute sustained vocal harmonies in a set which covered a lot of ground.

Now digging deep into the story-­telling territory of the African griot tradition in which he grew up as a young boy, now teasing (it would seem) both himself and the audience with various cryptic vocal asides and side-­slipping notes, Bona brings a special take to the age-old question of the authenticity of the performer and his/her persona. After a hot couple of introductory numbers Bona introduced everyone in the band – except himself – to the “noble lords and ladies of London”. “Who else is there?” asked one wag in the audience. “Why, don't you know ... Mick Jagger?!” replied Bona quick as a flash, eliciting the first of many warmly appreciative responses from the packed house.

A fair portion of the programme was drawn from Heritage, Bona's new release with Mandekan Cubano. The glossy sheen which is at times wrapped around that attractive disc's diverse grooves gave way to a far more primal feeling, including some mesmeric passages where Bona played a distilled root riff against the collective power of a rhythm section absolutely on fire, with percussionist Luisito Quintero especially helping raise the proverbial roof. After a steaming hour and half set, Bona signed copies of his new disc, agreeing graciously to many a request for a photograph, before returning for a final half hour of magic. The evening concluded with one of his patented, intimate solo rubato meditations, with that extraordinary voice of his gliding far up into seemingly celestial realms. Stay beautiful, Mr Bona.

Photos by Rebecca Meek

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