"So this is Seattle. Tuesday night. Feels like Saturday night.”
Richard Bona’s Tuesday Jazz Alley show took on a poignant glow when the Grammy-winning, Cameroonian bassist and vocalist announced midway in that this was probably his last time touring the States.
“I decided today this is my last U.S. tour,” Bona, 48, told the near-capacity crowd. A few fans asked why and if he could retire in Seattle, but he never explained, just smiled, and launched into a tender ballad, featuring his trademark West African folk vocals and a shimmering wall of sound behind him, the Mandekan Cubano band.
Bona and the six-piece Mandekan Cubano band stopped in Seattle for two shows Tuesday and Wednesday to promote their new and first album together, Heritage, which was made available to those in attendance. This was his eighth album and first time recording with Mandekan Cubano, although not their first time performing.
They kicked off their U.S. tour Sept. 2 in Boston, with subsequent dates in D.C., New York City, L.A. and the Sept. 16 Monterey Jazz Festival. Next month, Bona and Mandekan Cubano visit South America, and in November they’re off to Europe.
Heritage features Bona and Mandekan Cubano in an exploration of the best of Afro-Cuban music, with inspiration from as far back as the Mandekan’s 15th century empire — before slavery and colonization split the united Sundiata kingdom apart.
The Mandekan Cubano band delivered authenticity and a freshness to the show. The band consisted of the traditional Cuban horn and percussion section, with a kind of American twist.
Trombonist Rey Alejandre and trumpeter Dennis Hernandez filled up the room with far-reaching, bold Cuban strokes, making up a full big band for just the two of them.
The percussion section featured the typical Cuban congas (Roberto Quintero) and timbales, with salsa legend Luis Quintero Jr. from Caracas, Venezuela turning up the volume on a variety of surfaces, even what appeared to be a box he sat on. Ludwig Afonso, from Havana, augmented and sustained the polyrhythmic dance beats on his regular drum kit.
They fired off two high-energy, rhythmically exciting salsa numbers to get the show rolling, showcasing the Afro-Cuban music audiences from Seattle to New York love on the dance floor.
Santa Clara, Cuban pianist Osmany Paredes straddled the line between Afro-Cuban and American jazz like a boss, often surpassing the role of accompanist. Makes sense; Paredes has played with outstanding Cuban and American jazz musicians, including drummer Antonio Sanchez, singer Eugenia Leon, drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, and soprano saxophonist Jane Bunnett.
Bona led his Mandekan Cubano band through several of their Afro-Cuban songs, as well as back into the West African folk vocals he’s known for.
Bona mostly held back as he revealed the Mandekan Cubano sound in loud, raucous stages, encouraging the dancers in the audience to continue a conga line throughout the night. Occasionally, he’d step in, smile mischievously, and flick on shades of his big booming artisan vocals and that funk-dripped bass, harmonizing impossibly on several octaves as he played.
As pleasing as the Mandekan Cubano were in bringing forth those hot Havana nights, the best part of the show came after Bona engaged the audience in a call and response on the fifth salsa number, while giving the spotlight to almost every member of the band. That lengthy extravaganza compelled people to move in and out of their seats.
Bona gave the band a break for the sixth song, joking about how Cubans loved to take long breaks. All alone on the stage, he proceeded to completely improvise on his “Black Voodoo Magic Machine,” joking, “Don’t be scared.” He tested the looping machine out by singing, “Made in Seattle,” and meowing first, making even the test pattern sound like a track from a future recording.
His improvisational looping showcased ridiculous musicality, as he carefully layered different instrumentals with his voice — from the bass and percussion, to the cello. Then, he sang above the layered music he himself created with the looping machine. His fans went wild.
The audience seemed split into two camps: Those who loved Bona for his Cameroonian folk singing, and those who rallied around his surging Afro-Cuban interest.
Bona’s mostly known for collaborating with heavy-duty jazz-rock-funk stars, touring and recording with the likes of guitarist Mike Stern, another vocal magician, Bobby McFerrin, drummer Steve Gadd, the Jaco Pastorius Big Band, and the Pat Metheny Group.
The entire opening night show felt more like a prolonged goodbye than just an introduction, especially in his poignant, drawn-out solo encore, where it was just him, his “Black Voodoo Magic Machine,” his bass, and his captivated audience.
He totally improvised the encore, the ninth song in his set, fooling around briefly on the piano, then singing in that near-falsetto folk voice, “Don’t wanna bore you,” and moving to his bass and his magic machine to loop the audience in, holding onto their one, precious, note, “Improvising for you,” “so many buttons,” “sing one note, keep the note, keep holding the note…”
He replayed the one note from the audience with the looping machine, and sang over it hauntingly, fiddling around with his own special language — in and out of touch, in and out of English and his native tongue.
Finally, before the audience could bear it no longer, Bona trailed off, “Good night,” “sleep,” “How to end a song,” before he did end it, pretending to sprinkle his water bottle around like holy water.
He said he would keep the note, as if he would keep the voices of the audience in that magic box and in his heart forever. It was his parting gift to us.