If the EFG London Jazz Festival were ever required to stand up in a court of law and produce a convincing justification for its existence, it could point to its habit of bringing Paolo Conte to the South Bank on a regular basis. Last night the 80-year-old former lawyer from Asti was greeted with applause so warm and prolonged that it practically stopped the show on several occasions and was brought to an end only when the singer drew a forefinger across his throat to indicate that there was no more to give.
While this most Italian of performers was doing his stuff, his footballing compatriots were failing to qualify for next summer’s World Cup finals for the first time in 60 years. For two hours, at least, the many Italians in the audience at the Festival Hall were spared that pain, and the lasting glow probably eased the subsequent anguish.
The show wasn’t very different in substance from the one I wrote about on his last visit, four years ago. Most of the favourites were there, including “Max”, “Sotto le Stelle del Jazz”, “Gli Impermeabili”, “Come Di”, a hurtling “Diabolo Rosso” and a wonderfully restrained “Alla Presa di Una Verde Milonga”. And, of course, “Via Con Me”, with which even the monoglot English could sing along — “It’s wonderful, it’s wonderful, it’s wonderful, I dream of you… Chips! Chips! Chips!” — and which reappeared as a coda to the evening.
The arrangements made full use of the versatility of his 10 musicians, switching constantly between a full range of saxophones (sopranino to baritone), clarinet and bassoon, accordion and bandoneon, violin, piano, marimba, drums, hand percussion, all resting on the base provided by three acoustic guitars and Jini Touche’s double bass. The short improvised solos were beautifully positioned, and the endings invariably cunning. The stage lighting, which cast equal illumination on all those playing at any given moment while leaving the rest in shadow, was brilliant.
Conte gave us his irresistible sandpapered croon, his brief vocal imitation of a trombone (his first instrument in childhood), and a snatch of kazoo. I don’t know anyone else who can do what he does, blending archaic forms and sounds — hints of Ellington’s Cotton Club band, chanson, Palm Court glide, tango, Hot Club of France swing, dolce vita and spaghetti western — into a genuinely modern music with such originality, such grace, such dignity.