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Stunning Versatility From Richard Bona

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What would you have if you could combine, say, the virtuosic bass playing of Jaco Pastorius, the fluid vocal style of George Benson and the voice/instrument interplay of Joao Gilberto? Something pretty special, obviously. But take it a step further. Suppose all this was filtered through an African cultural consciousness.

That’s exactly what was on display Wednesday night at the Conga Room in the work of Cameroonian bassist Richard Bona, a stunning talent with skills that reach easily from powerful jazz playing to infectiously melodic, pop-oriented world music. Bona, 32, has surfaced at various times, working impressively with both Harry Belafonte and Joe Zawinul--already a clear indication of his versatility. And his first album as a leader, “Scenes From My Life,” has just been released.

But neither his prior appearances nor his album were adequate preparation for Bona’s performance. Leading a six-piece ensemble with musicians whose backgrounds range from Cameroon and Suriname to Puerto Rico and Seattle, he generated music filled with a passion and intensity not always present in his gentler, meticulously produced studio outing. Heard live, his enormous diversity was on full display.

There was, first of all, his sweetly pliable vocals. On one number, for example, he began with an astonishingly rapid-fire solo line on his bass, delivered in unison with a driving scat vocal. On another, he sang completely alone, accompanied only by his quietly intense accompaniment on a small mbira (thumb piano). And in yet a different change of pace, he sang songs while playing acoustic guitar rather than bass.

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At the center of everything, his bass was a turbopowered force, not only propelling the music forward, but also serving simultaneously as a foundation for the soloing of the other players. And each offered a few stellar moments--passionate saxophone work from Seattle’s Aaron Heick; rock-guitar licks from Bona’s countryman, J.C. Dookingue; jazz-energized drumming from Florida’s Jonathan Joseph; rich and fluent keyboard playing from Suriname’s Etienne Stadwijk; and ambidextrous conga work from Puerto Rico’s Urbano Sanchez.

So why, given this extraordinary performance, given Bona’s clear capacity to emerge as a major world music star (Newsweek already has noted that “even the hippest of the hip give it up when the subject turns to Richard Bona”), why was there such a modest crowd in attendance at the Conga Room? Good question, and the virtual nonexistence of promotion surrounding his appearance can only suggest that Columbia Records doesn’t get it. Too bad, because Bona’s got the real stuff.


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