Lionel Loueke & Richard Bona in New York
The pairing of these two enormously gifted musicians from West Africa—guitarist-vocalist Lionel Loueke from Benin and bassist-vocalist Richard Bona from Cameroon—proved to be a winning formula for inaugurating Jazz at Lincoln Center’s new Duo Tones series. Each is a classic triple threat: virtuoso instrumentalist, soul-stirring singer and prolific composer. And each conveys a charming, charismatic stage presence to boot. As duet partners they made magic in the magnificent Allen Room, with its 40-foot floor-to-ceiling windows behind the stage providing a breathtaking view of Manhattan’s Columbus Circle below, to the delight of this largely civilian crowd (clearly not the usual suspects that you regularly encounter in the jazz clubs).
Bona and Loueke had performed together once before, last summer at the 2007 Montreal Jazz Festival during Bona’s weeklong residency there. But that gig was under-rehearsed and only hinted at the tight, playful chemistry the two have developed. At the Allen Room, their four sets over two nights were well-prepared and played to each other’s strengths.
While Loueke put in a few years as a sideman with trumpeter Terence Blanchard and has been seen more recently in Herbie Hancock’s band, the New Jersey resident reveals a more personal side of his musicality in his own Gilfema trio (with bassist Massimo Biolcati and drummer Ferenc Nemeth) or in more intimate settings like this duet with Bona. Organically blending his African roots with his studies of jazz harmony and improvisation, the innovative fingerstyle guitarist moved easily from syncopated swing on a bristling rendition of “There Is No Greater Love” to a more African folkloric approach on his own lilting “Nonvignon,” a gentle prayer for tolerance which he sang in his native Fon language. In his solos, Loueke’s penchant for scatting in unison with his fluid and harmonically hip single-note lines recalls George Benson. And though his nylon-string guitar resonates with a rare purity of tone, he is also adept at creating some otherwordly effects with an array of stompboxes at his feet, such as his harmonizer effect on the swinging opener, “There Is No Greater Love,” and his creative use of looping ostinatos on “Nonvignon.”
Bona, a Brooklyn resident and master of swinging through changes on the electric fretless bass, has been called the “African Jaco,” a reference to his most profound bass influence, the late Jaco Pastorius. Whether chording or blowing saxlike single-note lines on the bass, Bona is a marvel who delivers the most complex figures with a sense of ease and a wide grin. As a vocalist, the former musical director for Harry Belafonte and one-time sideman in the Zawinul Syndicate demonstrates remarkable Bobby McFerrin-like range, from angelic falsetto to cartoonish basso profundo, along with a highly developed sense of spontaneous harmonization. On Loueke’s “Nonvignon,” for instance, he chimed right in with falsetto vocals an octave above Loueke’s, then freely improvised different intervals at will.
That keen ear for harmony would later be demonstrated to an astonishing degree on “Samaouma,” an engaging folkloric number sung in his native Douala language in which Bona builds up layers upon layers of vocal harmony parts by utilizing a digital looping device (which he refers to as his “magic box”) until he has created a virtual Ladysmith Black Mambazo-type choir in real time, to the utter amazement of everyone in attendance. I have seen Bona slay audiences with this show-stopping bit in four countries. The magic box never fails, and it worked once again at the Allen Room.
On Bona’s gentle and lyrical offering “Te Misea (A Scream to Save the Planet),” he switched to nylon-string guitar and accompanied his plaintive vocals with accomplished fingerstyle arpeggios and chording. Loueke joined in with interlocking guitar parts while Bona’s warm, inviting vocals enchanted the crowd. For Loueke’s solo spot, “Madjigua,” he wove a piece of plastic in between the strings of his guitar to achieve a distinctly percussive effect on the instrument while singing with rhythmic clicks, a vocal technique borrowed from South African bushmen.
Bona turned in a rare performance on upright bass on a gentle African lullaby and the two kindred spirits closed their set with Loueke’s tricky, chops-busting “Benny’s Tune.” For an encore, they took the energy level up a couple of notches with “O Sen Sen Sen,” Bona’s catchiest number and one that always involves lots of audience participation in concert. And the ebullient bass master seems to revel in his role as musical director in teaching vocal harmony parts to the men and women in the audience. (At one point in this giddy sing-along he mischievously called out, “Now, all the women over 40,” and the house fell silent.)
Hopefully, there will be a studio recording in the future to document this special hookup between two such potent performers.