Perth International Jazz Festival: Richard Bona Band
A man in the crowd in front of me was telling his friend some facts about jazz bassist Richard Bona, who we were about to see perform. Not being familiar with Bona's music myself, I thought it prudent to listen in. "He never listens to the tape before he goes onstage," the man said. "He says it makes him too nervous, hearing what the music's meant to be like, so he never listens to it." I was feeling nervous myself. The little of Bona I did know was an impressive list of accolades - he's been labelled one of the best bassists in the world, and called one of the planet's five revelations, as if he were a human Great Wall of China, or something - and a few songs searched on YouTube before last night's gig. I was going in with so little background knowledge because I was invited by the Perth International Jazz Festival to attend the show - an opportunity I can just see my more knowledgable friends wringing their hands for my poor preparation over - but don't worry, guys: I've emerged a convert, and I'm certain there's going to be a lot more YouTubing in my future.
The Perth International Jazz Festival is the brainchild of local jazz maven Graham Wood (he's part-owner of the Ellington, and a prolific composer, lecturer and performer, too). I heard last year that the festival's about celebrating our world-renowned jazz scene, and welcoming home the local musicians who have been making names for themselves on the global stage. They appear to bring friends back with them: Bona's an African musician from Cameroon, whose band, I'd discover, is made up of four other musicians from completely different continents. And last night, they were all in little ol' Perth, walking ten minutes late onto the stage in the museum gardens, before an audience tense with expectation and barely-contained excitement.
I was expecting them to launch into the pealing trumpet blasts I tend to associate with jazz; so please imagine my surprise when they started with a slow track, that showcased Bona's incredibly smooth, almost ethereal vocals front and centre. He sings in his native Douala, which is a lilting, pleasant-sounding dialect, with an impressive range that tends regularly to falsetto, while still filling your ears with this steady, rich honey sound.
That was common throughout the set - for each of the driving, rollicking funk tunes there was a slow, soulful song to match. That variation, and Bona's chatty, sassy onstage banter, kept me so captivated with the set that when I saw that half an hour had passed, I couldn't quite believe it.
(Quick gripe: I knew it was half an hour because the person in front of me watched the whole show through their iPad. Sure, I leave myself open to the same lack-of-appreciation criticism for my unpreparedness, but come on, man - you're missing the show for the sake of a few minutes of shaky footage you're never going to watch again!).
The band ploughed through a tight, 11-song set, which covered all kinds of jazz styles without being even close to a by-the-numbers checklist. Fat, twangy funk progressions from Bona's bass; Bumblebee-like chirpy, tight trumpet lines, slower, chilled-out calypso beats, high-energy Afro-Cuban rhythms, sometimes mournful soul melodies, and then a driving, rhythmic dancehall tune that Bona said he wasn't convinced we could handle, and we all laughed along like we didn't know it had been coming all along (I do so enjoy banter like that). That chat happened between Bona and his guitarist - a lanky, jacketed New Yorker whose mouthing along of the words and exaggerated and claps had me thinking Frankie Valley. He had a rock star moment at the end of the set, where the band indulged him in some big meandering riffs, and you could tell they all loved it. The joy they showed being on stage was absolutely reflected in the audience - if you'd let me get misty-eyed for a minute, I was really proud of that audience last night (bar my amateur filmmaker friend). The museum gardens were packed full of hundred of people - hundreds - crammed in together on a cold Sunday night, listening to a genre of music perhaps a little intimidating for its sophistication and complexity, but in the hands of Richard Bona and band was playful, fun and accessible, and those stodgy Perth folk gave it a go.
Jazz critic Jack Massarik wrote after a 2013 Bona gig that the musician had left "listeners dazzled and journalists searching for fresh superlatives." He's completely right - I was blown away by this show, and my hands stung from clapping along with the crowd for minutes and minutes after the set was over. It was incredible, and I feel so fortunate to have seen it.
As we turned to head out back into the night it was the man behind me whose comment I heard, but this one, I already knew it myself. "That was a bloody good show," he said. I couldn't agree more.