Roberto Fonseca

The Basement, March 12 

Fonseca resEverything was a dialogue: between idioms, between players, between virtuosity and heart. The reward for a nightmare trip to town (following the Barangaroo fire) was hearing one of the great bands, Roberto Fonseca’s quintet having few peers for scope, power, beauty and cohesion .

Since his unforgettable Concert Hall appearance in 2009 Fonseca has expanded his musical palette, adding keyboards and samples to his own piano, and infusing his Cuban jazz with a heady shot of West African spirit. So rather than a saxophonist the band now had a kora player: the brilliant Cherif Soumano from Mali, who also played tamani (talking drum).

The pairing of Joel Hierrizuelo (percussion, vocals) and Ramses Rodriguez (drums) remained, but the Basement was a much friendlier environment for their more explosive contributions than was the Concert Hall. Completing the band was new bassist Yandy Martinez, who was equally at home playing meaty grooves on electric, or bowing a sorrowful solo on acoustic.

Fonseca, a true piano virtuoso (when that word is absurdly overused), having surrounded himself with fellow virtuosos, never let the music degenerate to idle displays of dazzling craft. Last time he made every solo a story, and this time, while the stories remained, they were nearly all shared dialogues between two instruments, whether the piano with kora, bass, drums or percussion, or the percussion with drums.

Rodriguez is surely among the most gifted, sophisticated, subtle and thrilling drummers on the planet, and his rapport with Fonseca has blossomed. Every aspect of their phrasing and dynamics was a high-precision game, and, just as sparks were arcing between drums and piano at every turn, so they were between idioms. 80’s was a melting pot of disco, funk, Cuban and Malian elements, and Bibisa an exquisite context for a kora/piano conversation.

Often Fonseca added another layer of dialogue: between live playing and recorded samples, the latter always used intelligently, whether to atmospheric ends, or as a catalyst to propel the music towards another scalding climax.