One of the encouragements jazz players often shout to each other during intense solos is “Tell the story!” On Cameroonian Richard Bona’s third release, “Munia (The Tale),” he does just that by weaving lovely epic tales in melody and rhythm that combine West African music with New York jazz.
During his upbringing in the countryside of Cameroon, Bona learned music from his musician parents and through the church, an influence he acknowledges in the opening invocation, “Bonatology,” which sounds like a Gregorian chant you can tap your foot to.
He quickly moves to a rollicking West African beat on the second track, which features Salif Keita on lead vocal. They trade bass and vocal lines with the quick repartee of similar musical minds. Bona played bass on several recordings of Keita’s before moving in the mid-’90s to New York, where he quickly secured top-notch bass spots with Mike Stern, Joe Zawinul, Bobby McFerrin and Pat Metheny. With a Jaco Pastorius-influenced style that underscores every tune on this new release, his bass is instantly recognizable for its lyrical and nimble high-range rhythms and crisp punch.
More than technique, though, it is Bona’s heartfelt sincerity that added a key element to the technical sophistication and high-concept approach on many of those jazz recordings. Bona is always laid-back (which, ironically, makes him stand out all the more). His understated approach works well on his own recording. Many of the best moments on “Munia” are the most relaxed. On “Dina Lam,” his piccolo bass and acoustic guitar lay down light touches beneath the searching melody sung in his native Douala. “Muto Bye Bye,” about a woman leaving, moves slowly and gently, with a spine-tingling melody. The closing song, “Playground,” lingers lazily, with a simple ostinato ending that fades out just right.
Of course, Bona also includes plenty of vibrant African music. His original “Balemba Na Bwemba” (about jealousy, according to the liner notes), is a full-out romp set to a West African dance beat. The cleverly titled “Bona Petit” has a swaying, Brazilian feeling that hits like a strong summer breeze. “Couscous” blends jazz harmony and West African rhythm in equal portions, the bass lines driving the beat forward and pulling the band along in their wake. Bona’s third release succeeds in blending jazz with African music as if it had always been done that way, and establishes him as, well, a Bona-fide multicultural artist.
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