Richard Bona at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center

Last night I had the good fortune of seeing Richard Bona in concert at the intimate, 200-seat Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz, California. In a word, the show was superb. Zawinul fans know of Bona’s phenomenal electric bass playing from his work with the Zawinul Syndicate, which can be heard on the World Tour CD as well as Anthony Zawinul’s Two Years video documentary. His own CD, Scenes From My Life, emphasizes his compositions about his childhood in Cameroon, West Africa. In addition to playing electric bass, guitar and other instruments, he sings his lyrics in his native tongue, the language of Donala.

I had previously heard Bona last May in San Francisco, as the opening act for the Zawinul Syndicate. This show was far more rewarding, as the band had a chance to truly stretch out in a club setting, playing two completely different 90-minute sets.

Bona opened the first set on his own, singing and playing a five-string bass. I believe it was the same tune that opened his San Francisco set nearly a year ago. However, this time the performance was more developed, and he used an echo or sampler device to record his bass playing, building up three or four layers which he used to accompany himself. He then brought out the band, consisting of Etienne Stadwijk on keyboards, Aaron Heick on saxophones, Zawinul Syndicate drummer Nathaniel Townsley, and a guitarist from Israel whose name I didn’t catch. For the remainder of the first set, they mostly played tunes from Scenes From My Life—no word on when a second CD will be coming—as well as some new material, including one tune written just a few weeks ago in honor of Bona’s grandfather’s one hundredth birthday.

Richard Bona is a very engaging and personable entertainer. He established a rapport with the audience, and there was a lot of good-natured banter between tunes. During the half hour intermission the entire band came out of the dressing room and mingled a bit with the crowd, and Bona signed autographs of his CD, which was for sale.

Bona didn’t pick up his fretless bass until the second set, which he started with a Jaco-esque “slang” bass solo, complete with references to “Sound of Music” and “America the Beautiful.” You may have heard the story that the first jazz album young Bona heard in his native Cameroon was a Jaco Pastorius album; three months later he had mastered the electric bass. Regardless of how long it took, he truly is a master of the instrument. After the bass solo, the band launched into a version of Jaco’s “Liberty City,” a fun tune if ever there was one. Here again Bona’s playing was inspired by Jaco, but he clearly put his stamp on it.

For the encore Bona picked up the fretless once again for a rendition of Jaco’s “Continuum.” Again, Jaco inspiration, not imitation. He closed the show as he started it, by himself. He once more set up a layered bass accompaniment, bid the crowd good night, and we left the club with Bona’s playing continuing to emanate from his echo box.

Richard Bona’s music is beautiful, and that in and of itself is reason to seek out his shows. But for Pastorius fans, there is the added dimension of seeing what Bona has done with Jaco’s legacy. It is impressive, indeed. By the way, Bona also played a show in the afternoon for elementary school children and their teachers and parents, sponsored by the school.

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