Jazz Middelheim: Antwerp, Belgium, August 16-19, 2012
Singer/pianist Paolo Conte looked like an old bloke who's just got up to sing a song in his local bar. Except that, despite his rumple-jacketed, military-trousered and pot-bellied bearing, this Italian maverick happened to have a slickly suited band, arranged across the stage behind him. They were in the style of a 1920s dance band, quirkily arranged across the boards. There was a huge obsidian block to stage left, which turned out to be some kind of upright piano, either authentic or electric, it was hard to decide. To the rear sat three acoustic guitarists (subtly strummed electric axes were occasionally allowed). To their side was a horn section, and there was a drummer high on a podium to stage right. Not the normal setup. Conte frequently encouraged his soloists to stand out at a frontal microphone, although such soloing was also allowed from their accustomed stage positions. The parade moved from trumpet to violin, and a sequence of saxophones, and then Conte whipped out his kazoo on one song, actually singing all of its verses through this buzzing tube.
For his first number, Conte stood at the front of the stage, but then he sat at the piano to deliver most of the set, occasionally straying over to the marimba. He looked completely at home in his barroom away from home. With his wonderfully rich, deeply grainy, crumpled velvet, nicotine-encrusted voice (even if he's a non-smoker), he could be viewed as belonging to the line of singers that include Tom Waits and Nick Cave, except that Conte, at 75, was much older and more ingrained in his career than both of those arch individualists. The same goes for any comparison with the avant tango growler Melingo, who's also much younger, but maybe a name-check of the adopted Argentinian tango pioneer Carlos Gardel will stick. Not that Conte's songs were essentially tango, but that spirit was as strong as any core Italian sensibility. His landscape was almost pan-European in scope, scooping up traits from the romantic southern Mediterranean lands, as well as the far shores of South America in general.
Ultimately, his compositions were without a defined home. Conte created works that were born in their own land. The songs invoked old-time sepia jazz, and even the occasional country-style ramble, the latter arriving at the climax, with drummer Daniele Di Gregorio maintaining an almost rockabilly crash, seemingly forever. This led to a pair of show-stopping klezmer-style solos from violin and clarinet. At over 90 minutes, this was one of the festival's longest sets, but Conte kept it careening madly for the entire duration, the consummate host of intimately personal expressivity.