Coping with crisisOn March 27 Duke Performances presented a virtual concert by two excellent artists: Jane Bunnett and her all-woman band, Maqueque, who put on a fiery performance, followed by a dazzling solo performance by Ballaké Sissoko.

In her introduction Bunnett said that her group’s name, Maqueque, means the fiery energy and spirit of a young girl. Additionally, she said that her mission is to spread joy and beauty, and in this recorded concert I think she and her five-year old band absolutely lived up to these goals. The video was produced in Canada with performances recorded remotely in Cuba, Miami, Toronto and Toledo. We may get spoiled by virtual performances because technology allows for perfect sound and visual closeness to performers. The band sounded totally together.

Their performance consisted of five tunes plus a short encore and then a longer encore which was a previously recorded video they had done. What I liked most about all of the tunes was the group’s skill of orchestration and arranging. The textures were constantly changing and evolving and there seemed to be an unlimited amount of Latin rhythmic grooves throughout the concert. They played a lot of different Latin styles, including: Cha Cha, Pelon, Mambo, Salsa and even some funky pop grooves.

The melodies of each tune were often played in very sweet-sounding unison by soprano sax and the very pure rich sound of vocalist Joanna Majoko. Sometimes the melodies were sung by three female voices and their blend was so strong that they sounded like a much larger choir.

A very tight rhythm section supported the melodies and improvisations. The drummer, Yissy Garcia, was especially good with her dynamics, counter rhythms and very solid tempos. The percussionist, Mary Paz and pianist, Danae Olano, who also wrote some of the tunes, provided authentic Latin rhythms throughout the concert. I would have to say that their excellent bassist, Tailin Marreo, with her precise Tumbao grooves was the force that made the rhythm section so together. On a couple of the tunes, Nicky Brown, was added on slide guitar providing a unique sound to the rich texture of the group.

Most of the jazz improvisation occurred over four or eight bar vamps which to me didn’t give enough time or harmonic structure for the improvisations. However, I don’t think the concept of this group is about improvisation. Bunnett’s solos on soprano sax often reminded me of Wayne Shorter, saxophonist and former co-leader of the Jazz Fusion group, Weather Report.  She improvised on the predominate mode of the vamp with very expressive solos often including fast glissandos from low to high. Her aim was tonal expression. I yearned for a more melodic approach which she very skillfully did on the fifth tune. Majoko showed her improvisation skill with some wonderful scat solos.

The energy and variety of their performance would have pleased any audience.

The second half of the program was quite a contrast with Ballaké Sissoko, who is from Mali, sitting alone on stage and playing an instrument I had never seen before. I watched and listened to the beautiful sound of the instrument which I thought was some type of African harp. Sissoko did not speak throughout his 40-minute performance and there were no notes explaining anything. Later I learned the instrument he plays is the kora.

Initially I wasn’t sure what the form and structure of his music was but I soon realized that he was creating his music mostly or maybe completely through spontaneous improvisation. With his dazzling technique he created a theme, expanded upon it and then began a new development on another theme. It seemed that he played three tunes because of slight pauses but it may have been one long improvisation.

I loved his concentration, his calmness, and his technique on the instrument. He braced his hands on both sides of the harp with three fingers from each hand holding a bar on each side of the strings while his thumb and index finger from each hand plucked the strings. It was amazing how fast he played at times as he elaborated the themes with flourishes that reminded me of the jazz pianist, Art Tatum.

As he continued, I watched his eyes and body language and realized his themes seemed to come to him by a spiritual connection to something outside him. At times he hummed or moaned as he communicated with some force. When he got the inspiration, he would create a new groove or a new theme and then go to town with it.

I sensed when he was ending his performance because he set up a relaxed walking bass tempo which signified that he was leaving. But before he left, he added one more show of his mastery with fast melodic flourishes before settling down and ending. A very memorable performance indeed.

Note: Folks who expected something else (or more) were forewarned by Duke Performanes with this note at their website: “Due to complications relating to the COVID pandemic, the trio of artists that comprise 3MA were not able to travel between their respective countries to record a virtual performance as originally intended. Instead, Duke Performances’ March 27th Black Atlantic presentation will feature a solo performance by 3MA member Ballaké Sissoko. Jane Bunnett & Maqueque’s performance film, featuring artists recorded in Canada and Cuba, will be presented as scheduled. We look forward to welcoming all members of 3MA to perform live in Durham as soon as possible!”