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REVIEW: Roberto Fonseca Trio plus Enemy at the 2018 Ronnie Scott’s International Piano Trio Festival

Roberto Fonseca
Publicity picture from

Roberto Fonseca Trio plus Enemy
(Ronnie Scott’s International Piano Trio Festival, 4 August 2018, First House. Review by Sebastian Scotney)

Roberto Fonseca’s recent work has been on an ambitious scale. The 2017 album Abuc, so warmly reviewed by John L Walters has endless variety with an impressive array of production values. And the live show derived from it was very much at home in front of a vast crowd in a large space – for example like the Roman amphitheatre in Vienne in 2017 (video link below).

So, I was wondering: how would Fonseca function in the more intimate setting of a club and with just a bassist (Yandy Martínez) and a drummer (Ruly Herrera) for company. Might one miss the punchy interjections of a top-flight horn section? How would he fare without all the rollicking paraphernalia of latin percussion? Maybe some of the buoyancy and kick would be lost?

Not in the slightest. As Fonseca himself has said in an interview, “I think that you can also create a harmonious atmosphere and find a very active and responsive audience in small venues.” And that is precisely what he did.

He may have started the set by letting bass and drums establish a groove over which he could solo freely, but it was not long before the the essence of what he is about emerged: Fonseca is such a complete and versatile musician, such a good and thoughtful set-planner, such a source of energy and vitality, this trio experience turned out to be self-contained, thought-through. It was, and he is, the whole package. With variety, shape and and an abundant sense of purpose, the trio kept interest alive throughout its set. Fonseca was presenting what he described as “all new music” for the trio; if there is an album in the pipeline, then please will someone point me to where the end of that pipeline is.

The sense that Fonseca is at home and completely at home in a broad variety of idioms was predominant. When asked recently to name his musical heroes, the first he mentioned was Herbie Hancock, and he and his bandmates can settle into a four-bar fusion groove and keep cycling it for as short or as long a time as they feel like it.

Fonseca first came to wide attention through his involvement in Buena Vista Social Club, and there was a brief and perfectly-formed nostalgia moment when the three settled comfortably into the smiling groove of Quizás, quizás, quizás. But just as interesting as the tune itself was how they got there, how they built up to it. It was preceded with a section of what I can only call anti-groove, as all three in lockstep delved into an unsettled, angular and a-rhythmic language – from which the gentleness of Osvaldo Farrés’ 1947 song would come as a blessed relief.

And then there are Fonseca’s classical chops. He has a left hand which can be as emphatic as Baremboim’s, and there was one daemonic Lisztian section where I wondered if Fonseca had ever come under the influence of that master of clarity Jorge Bolet.

And more variety still: the agility and velocity of Fonseca’s right hand are forces to be reckoned with (he has also declared Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum as among his heroes). His variety of touch is beguiling, and he has the perseverance to hold on to an idee fixe motif and re-iterate it and keep it going without limit, say as the fundament for a bass or drum solo.

And then there is the sheer range of effects he can dig out of a Nord keyboard, either as an unadorned Rhodes sound, or the synthesizer and an extra keyboard There was also a lot of variety from introducing recorded sounds of speech (eg Winston Churchill’s 1941 Masters of Our Fate speech) and song. Before the final number Mambo para la niña he repeated almost forlornly that “normally people dance,” but he adapted and achieved a call-and-response with the Ronnie’s audience which was as impressive as they come.

Enemy (L-R: Kit Downes, Petter Eldh, James Maddren)
Photo courtesy of Edition Records

This was the fifth Ronnie Scott’s piano trio festival, and its underlying principle, to show the range of different dimensions that are currently available, was provided by the support act. Enemy is the trio of Kit Downes, Petter Eldh and James Maddren. They were playing material from the album Enemy recorded in late 2016 and issued in May of this year.

Enemy has its declared purpose as (“we want this music to be fierce, vital and to have and give energy – and to do so whilst never sacrificing its intricacy and its integrity.”). The tunes are not simple, and yet they drew the audience in – as often happens at Ronnie’s – by taking the volume down, making the textures sparse, particularly in a tune like Fogo, with its oft-repeated catchy melodic hook.

All three musicians play in several other contexts all over Europe, but this is a trio which has found its own balance, its ways of providing a context for sophisticated interaction. If they choose to set up a flexible tempo, they will always move together as one. Bassist Eldh has his way of throwing out challenges with his strong sound and emphatic way of playing, particularly on a tune like Brandy. And with James Maddren one has the sense that he doesn’t just hear everything, he makes sure that he has exactly the right response ready. He also proved to be a genial MC, doing all the announcements.

The opening set was not the context for fireworks or shock tactics; Enemy judged the mood well, to the extent that quite a few on-the-spot Enemy converts were to be seen about the club clutching their newly-bought CD or vinyl.

LINK: Roberto Fonseca at Vienne in 2017

Categories: Live reviews

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