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Posts tagged ‘Paolo Conte’

It’s wonderful, it’s wonderful

Paolo Conte ticketIf 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.

Paolo Conte’s ‘Amazing Game’

paolo-conte-8858-ph-dino-buffagniAn all-instrumental album from Paolo Conte: that would be like an episode of The Sopranos without Tony, right? Well, not exactly. He doesn’t sing on Amazing Grace (although he does mutter the word “Tips” at the beginning and end of the short track of that name), but in its way this is still an album of full-strength Conte, offering perspectives that don’t normally get exposed.

It is, he says, a collection of “recordings made at different times (from the ’90s to the present day), for soundtracks of theatre productions and for study and experimental purposes, that I had very carefully tucked away at the back of various drawers”. He was right to decide that they needed to be exposed to the light of day.

There are 23 pieces, ranging in length from 61 seconds to six minutes, and in style from clarinet ballads and a tango for piano and bandoneon to romantic string quartets and soulful wind chorales and a sweeping orchestral piece, and a lovely, pensive fragment for solo piano called “Gli Amici Manichini” that sounds like it was recorded on primitive equipment in some deserted hotel ballroom 100 years ago. That last item is one of six written for a theatre piece called Il Ballo dei Manichini, of which the final work is the only song of the set: a jaunty pop number called “Changes All in Your Arms” sung by two women, Ginger and Rama Brew, as if they’re gathered around a pub piano.

Maybe the best of all is a track called “P.U.B.S.A.G. (Passa Una Bionda Sugli Anni Grigi)”, its lyrical theme stated by the trumpet of Alberto Mandarini and the clarinet of Massimo Pitzianti, supported by Jiri Touche’s double bass and Daniele Di Gregorio’s drums, Conte’s piano nudging them along with simple and unhurried but exquisitely timed phrases. And it’s followed immediately by the title track, another gloriously melodic reverie in the form of a trio for piano, bass and Di Gregorio’s vibes.

Perhaps I wouldn’t swap these pieces for favourite songs like “Alle Prese Con La Verde Milonga” or “Los Amantes Del Mambo”, but it’s amazing how the pungency of his character comes through even when he denies us the pleasure of the rasping voice, with its characteristic combination of world-weary wisdom and irrepressible youthfulness, of a man — a unique and precious jewel of our musical world — who will turn 80 next month.

* The photograph is by Dino Buffagni. Amazing Game is out now on the Decca label.

Paolo Conte in London

Paolo Conte 1When I get home from a concert by Paolo Conte, the first thing I do is put on some of his records. Great as so many of them are, however, they’re not the same as watching this wonderful figure — half professor, half boulevardier, like someone you might spot in the corner of a cafe in Trieste, quietly writing in a small notebook — deliver his delicious songs while manipulating his excellent musicians through an evening that never seems long enough.

Conte is 76 now, and having given his audience a single encore at the end of an hour and a half of music at the Royal Festival Hall last night, he smiled and drew his finger across his throat, to indicate that there would be no more. But what he had given was more than enough to ensure that he would be bathed in waves of affection, respect and gratitude.

He had brought 10 of the 11 musicians who accompanied him on his last studio album, Nelson, released in 2010, and they were so outstanding, individually as well as collectively, that I’m going to name them all, in the knowledge that the list will give you some idea of the versatility at Conte’s command, and the range of textures available: Claudio Chiara (tenor saxophone, flute, accordion), Luca Velotti (alto saxophone, clarinet), Massimo Pizianti (piano, keyboards, accordion, bandoneon, soprano and baritone saxophones, clarinet), Lucio Caliendo (keyboard, oboe, bassoon, percussion), Piergiorgio Rosso (violin), Nunzio Barbieri, Daniele Dall’Omo and Luca Enipeo (guitars), Jino Touche (double bass, bass guitar), and Daniele Di Gregorio (drums, percussion, marimba).

Conte’s performance was part of the opening weekend of the EFG London Jazz Festival, and although what he does is basically a form of pop music, jazz provides its underpinning and its guiding spirit. For him, sounds that were once at the cutting edge — the horns of Ellington’s Cotton Club band, for instance, or the guitars of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France — have lost none of their modernity. His particular gift is to write songs with chord structures so beguiling that you don’t miss the apparent absence of a melody (if there is one, his mode of laconic recitation barely hints at it).

He has so many songs that it doesn’t really matter which ones he chooses on any given night. He might not sing your favourite, but those he does perform — including the ones you don’t recognise — will be more than sufficient. Last night he included a swooning “Gli impermeabili”, the spaghetti western swing of “Diavolo rosso”, a yearning “Max”, a driving “La Negra” (one of a number of up-tempo songs in which the advantage of having three acoustic rhythm guitars strumming away became apparent) and, best of all for me, a long, slow sweep through the elegantly descending cadences of “Alle prese con una verde milogna”, the sultriest tango you could ever hope to hear, supported by Touche’s swaying bass and drenched in grown-up romance.

There were all sorts of sounds to be heard: Di Gregorio leaving the drums to play a racing marimba improvisation behind the leader’s vocal on “Dancing”, for instance, or an unorthodox horn section of alto, tenor and baritone saxes plus bassoon, or the combination of accordion and bandoneon, or a magnificently flamboyant violin solo from Rosso, or Conte’s occasional insistence on singing through a kazoo, each element within the complex overall design perfectly calibrated while retaining a precious air of informality and spontaneity. There really is nothing like it.