Richard Bona & Mandekan Cubano – Heritage
(Qwest QR234245, CD Review by John Walters)
To catch a fragment of Richard Bona’s music on a chilly autumn day is to down a neat shot of pure summer happiness. Bona, born in Cameroon, is one of the world’s best fusion bassists, working in the fretless electric bass tradition established by Jaco Pastorius. Like Jaco, Bona was very good from an early age, moved to Europe and US and soon played with the best: listen to his playing on the Zawinul Syndicate’s World Tour album (1998). He is also blessed with a golden voice, and has played and/or sung with Mike Stern, George Benson, Pat Metheny, Regina Carter, Bobby McFerrin and Huong Thanh.
However Bona’s solo albums, such as Munia (The Tale) in 2003 and Tiki (2005) have been more about songwriting than jazz performances. Heritage, his latest album, made in Paris with Cuban sidemen, is not so much a tribute to Cuba as a cheerful experiment to see how well his songs fit within the brass-heavy, montuno-driven performances of a quality Cuban dance outfit. And the experiment is a complete success. And of course Bona remains entirely Bona throughout Heritage’s twelve tracks – this is a good value album with no duds.
Bona has written most of the songs, but pays tribute to the Afro-Cuban tradition by covering Guillermo Rodrígeuz Fiffe’s classic Bilongo, to which he has written new words. Jokoh Jokoh is an exultant chant packed with instrumental hooks and an exquisite verse melody, and Cubaneando is a mid-tempo with endlessly cycling chords, ingenious brass punctuation and tireless piano.
As the title suggests, Bona’s intention is to explore the heritage of Afro-Cuban music, some of whose roots, via the slave trade, lie deep in the Mandé culture of West Africa. Bona has used Cuban rhythms before, as on the track Ekwa Mato (featuring Edsel Gomez and Luisito Quintero) on his 2001 album Reverence, but Heritage provides more space in which to explore the possibilities, with a consistent band. The line-up comprises Osmany Paredes (piano), Rey Alexandre (trombone), Dennis Hernandez (trumpet) and percussionists Luisito and Roberto Quintero, Venezuala-born cousins.
One of the outstanding tracks on Heritage is a new, ‘Cubanised’ version of Muntula Moto, a song that appeared in smoother form on Reverence (2001). Meaning ‘The Benediction of a Long Life’, this muscular, lilting song exemplifies Bona’s light touch. As the mellifluous bridge comes to an end (around the three-minute mark), Bona nonchalantly inserts a dazzling, four-second bass cadenza before returning to the groove, the verse and a couple of fine solos (trumpet and trombone). He ends on a restatement of that super-smooth bridge. It’s a master class in integrating jazz musicianship with accessible, commercial songwriting and production.
Bona also revisits his song Kivu, which on Tiki lasted less than a minute and a half. On Heritage, he gives Kivu an old-school Cuban flavour, slow and courtly, that makes the most of the song’s yearning romanticism, with concise solos from Hernandez, Paredes and Alexandre.
Bona hints at the limitless horizons of his music by bookending Heritage with two atypical, multitracked solo creations: Aka Lingala Tè, the vocal-dominated, opener; and Kwa Singa, a dramatic coda, packed with ideas. Someone should give this guy a whole film score to write!