Paolo Conte, live at the Royal Festival Hall

Paolo Conte, Live at Royal Festival Hall, November 16th

The name of Paolo Conte is one that sits comfortably amongst those of great musicians such as Frank Sinatra, Jacques Brel, Hoagy Carmichael and Leonard Cohen, and over a fifty-year career, this particularly influential Italian artist has been compared to countless other notable singers and songwriters. Yet his distinctive sound remains absolutely unique, as he brings together influences ranging from traditional jazz, to Latin American folk music; from French chanson to Romani music, whilst never distancing himself too much from popular Italian tradition. Though his musical approach may be more refined and intellectual, his lyrics narrate the stories of the masses; of unsophisticated everyday life; and of the struggles and triumphs of a nation, his husky, grainy voice evoking scenarios dominated by melancholy and heartbreak. A singer, songwriter, composer, pianist, painter and onetime lawyer, Conte has inspired generations of Italian songwriters amongst which we can count Adriano Celentano, Giorgio Gaber, Enzo Jannacci and Francesco Guccini.

In honour of the EFG London Jazz Festival, Paolo Conte returns to London once more, to perform a memorable show that retraces various footsteps throughout his quite remarkable career.

The diffused buzz humming about the Royal Festival Hall dies down as the lights dim and three guitarists slowly, if still gracefully take their seats centre stage. Synchronically, thee three of them begin to strum, accompanied by a double bass player to their left, and are gradually joined by a drummer, wind section, and finally by Paolo Conte himself. For the first song, he stands at the microphone. At seventy-six years young, he possesses the look of a man who’s well aware of his legacy – not only with regard to Italy, but also across the world – and yet still he retains an inalienable modesty.

Conte opens the concert with Cuanta Pasiòn – a high-tempo flamenco with Spanish suggestions, and already, a few brief seconds in, the entirety of the Royal Festival Hall feels to be carried away from this cold English November night, to a warm and colourful summer evening upon the Spanish Riviera, where the atmosphere is dense with the taste of wine and the sweet scent of the Mediterranean. It’s an exquisitely befitting overture, for passion lies at the very core of this man’s music.

Equally suitable, Sotto le stelle del jazz follows: “Now hear me, jazz, I whisper I love you, I whisper I love you”. Now sat at the grand piano, Conte recreates this piece which, in a way, seems to sum up traditional jazz music as though wanting to capture the essence of its history. With a striking saxophone solo tucked into the middle, it feels the perfect ode to the EFG London Jazz Festival.

In Come di, he gestures first to the guitarists, then to the saxophone and clarinet players as if orchestrating them, the spotlights in turn illuminating these differing segments of the stage. The music dips between piano and forte, and Conte hums into his kazoo, managing to create a singularly refined sound. With the audience applauding devotedly, at the end of each song he looks up from his piano and smiles coyly. He sweetly nods his head as if to say, “Thank you”.

When silence falls once more, a brief and utterly heartbreaking violin introduces Alle prese con una verde milonga. As the double bass joins in, then the accordion, followed by the remainder of the band, the song accelerates. With its seesawing pattern of intense crescendo and decrescendo, Alle prese con una verde milonga narrates the traits of the milonga tradition itself, described as a “border between music and love”. In a hoarse and husky voice, Paolo Conte declares: “Io sono qui, sono venuto a suonare, sono venuto ad amare, e di nascosto a danzare” – ‘I’ve come here, I’ve come here to perform, I’ve come here to love, and secretly to dance.’ There is no doubt as to that being precisely why he is, and to a similar extent we are, here tonight.

The band ascends into the warmth of La Negra, and then into the mesmeric storytelling of Bartali. In a dialogue between Conte’s throaty singing and the saxophone, amidst the frenzied strumming of the guitars, we’re described a rural scene of quotidian simplicity, made of old newspapers fluttering in the wind along dusty avenues.

Conte stands and gingerly walks over to a vibraphone upon which he strikes a few gentle, melancholy notes in accordance with the violin, creating a soft introduction for the morosely humorous Parole d’amore scritte a macchina. Gentle drums cradle us right down to the last note, before breaking the spell. Following on in a similar mood, Le chic et le charm represents the evening’s most chic, and so too charming use of a kazoo. For such a peculiarly melancholic song, the combination of soaring violin notes and reedy clarinet is positively uplifting. Then, allowing for the music to draw out behind him, Conte leaves the stage for the interval.

The second half of the show opens with a few mellower songs such as Dancing and Gioco d’azzardo. Following the conflation of a delicate saxophone solo, a moving climax provided by the violin and the introduction of a flute, the latter ends softly amongst solitary piano notes, when suddenly, the band leaps into a much more upbeat Gli impermeabili. As they recognise the familiar tune, elderly couples lean in to one another and hum along as one. Two saxophones engage in a vibrant dialogue, before ending on a beautifully distressing finale.

More passionate still, the audience applauds raucously upon recognising those familiar piano chords that introduce Via con me. The music is now more raw when compared with some of the previous songs, returning as it does to the roots of the Italian folk tradition – between acoustic guitar chords and the catchy sounds of the double bass and the accordion, Conte’s violinist creates short intervals as he plucks the strings of his instrument. Feet tap and hands clap along to this irresistible classic and certainly thus far, it makes for the highlight of the night. But Via con me is only the beginning of an escalation in calibre, and the real climax lies within the ardent flamenco-paced Diavolo rosso. It’s a flawless amalgamation of countless musical influences, and it feels as though really, we all ought to be dancing in a large group in the middle of a warm piazza, perhaps once slightly tipsy.

The rhythm of the guitars seems to engage increasingly with the audience – it’s in the same way that umpteen popular folk songs have, for centuries, brought great multitudes of people together. Here, no one is a stranger. For this is the music of the Italian countryside; of the campagna; of the valleys of northern Italy; of arcadian folk. Of starry-skied summer evenings where food and drink are plenty. It’s a piece which, at least on this particular stage, emphasises the unique qualities of each instrument. Our attention is helplessly captivated by the clarinet, which in one moment reminisces Middle Eastern traditions. Basked in the deep red lights of the stage, as if in a smoke-filled tavern, the accordion player sits on a stool to one side, thus detached from the formal presentation of the other musicians, and begins to play a solo that gradually grows increasingly delirious. As he plays faster and faster, the guitar players strum passionately in the background, before every one comes to a triumphant, and abrupt stop.

Accordions wouldn’t necessarily be associated with virtuosity, but the effect is jaw-dropping. But, as the spotlight slowly shifts onto the violinist and, elegantly, he picks up his instrument, I think to myself: ‘Shit’s going down. He responds to the accordion player and, without false modesty nor discreetness, plunges straight into a vertiginous, breath-taking solo, his bow moving frenetically across the strings; his fingers dancing hurriedly along the instrument’s neck; his body twitching and bending as he plays standing on his tiptoes. A shiver runs down the back of my neck. To watch, it’s an impressive sight, but tolisten is to be absolutely overwhelmed. Once again, the audience greets this performance of unprecedented virtuosity with great praise – a loving applause which is picked up again even more passionately when Diavolo rosso comes to a glorious, grinding halt.

In contrast, an extended, essentially instrumental rendition of Max follows. It’s a sudden change of direction from the vigour and vitality of Diavolo rosso, yet it’s no less compelling. The band picks up pace again as the song flows into L’orchestrina. “To be, to be, to be, or not to be” sings Conte; “To be, to be, to be, or not to be” mimics the trumpet. As the song finishes with a spring, he leaves the stage, the audience applauding wildly. They too are faithfully mimicking the song itself, with its pleading l’orchestrina to “suona ancora”, or ‘play some more’.

Conte does indeed return to the stage once again for a solitary encore. As if coming full circle, through Sijmadicandhapajiee, the show seems to return to the upbeat style of Cuanta Pasiòn. The warmth and rhythm of the song make it nearly impossible for the Royal Festival Hall to sit still in their seats. After the final stroke of one last drum roll, the band falls silent but the audience whoops and cheers, one by one standing and, exuberantly, they clap ceaselessly. “Il popolo applaude e ringrazia”, or ‘the people applaud and thank’. And, rightly, they continue to manifest their affection even when the stage is empty and the lights brighten, and are left to walk down the aisles of the concert hall with a delighted spring in their step.

Written for Dots & Dashes

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