REVIEW: Paolo Conte at the RFH (2017 EFG LJF)

Paolo Conte in Pontresina, Summer 2017
Photo credit: Henry Schulz/ Festival da Jazz St Moritz


Paolo Conte
(Royal Festival Hall, 13 November 2017. EFG LJF. Review by Peter Jones)


A gigantic star in Europe, practically unheard of by the mainstream audience here in the UK, Paolo Conte turned 80 this year. Wherever he goes – particularly in Italy and France, he draws multitudes of adoring fans like iron filings to a magnet. Even in London, there are more than enough of them to fill the Festival Hall.

For the uninitiated, Conte is a gravel-voiced singer, pianist and composer of popular music, or rather, of music that once sounded familiar in the UK, until perhaps the early '70s. It’s the sound of Southern and sometimes Eastern Europe, of Jacques Brel and Maurice Chevalier, of lonely bars, smoke-filled cabaret clubs and Buenos Aires dancehalls. Scott Walker was also entranced by this tragi-comic mélange; Tom Waits mined it for decades.

Conte brought with him a 10-piece band, all virtuosi, clad in evening dress. The two risers on either side of him contained, stage left, four woodwind players and a violinist, and right, three guitarists, a double bassist and a drummer. Between them they played an extravagant range of additional instruments, including a marimba the size of a double-decker bus – used on just one tune – plus, at various times, accordion, bassoon, clarinet, concertina and mandolin. There were no brass instruments, and virtually nothing electric apart from a quiet bit of keyboard and electric guitar. The range and combination of acoustic instruments, such as baritone sax, flute, violin and clarinet, created some extraordinarily rich and evocative textures.

The singer’s voice is a wonder, surely the result of smoking 50 a day for 50 years. Conte sounds like an old bear who’s wandered into a bar to wet his whistle after gargling with a bag of rivets, and then entertains you for the rest of the evening with tales of his numerous failed but beautiful love affairs. The lyrics (almost none of them in English) are often spoken rather than sung; lines are filled out with hmm hmm hmm hmm, or dup-ter-dup dup-ter-dup, boom je-boom boom, and so on; he emits other unexpected sounds, too, swishing with his mouth, or playing an invisible tuba, and the performance included the only unironic use of a kazoo I have ever seen.

There were songs of resignation and regret, there was solemn humour, a bit of theatrics, and the effect was wonderfully romantic and charming. Song intros were greeted with increasing rapture by the audience, and Conte was happy to sit there milking the applause, half-smiling, raising a hand and nodding benignly like the Pope.

Near the end, they played a fast western-type tune that was like a freight train careering down the track and colliding with a Balkan wedding party. An extraordinary evening – I’m not sure you’d call it jazz, but then again, I’m not sure what you’d call it at all. Whatever it was, it was terrific.

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