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Nicola Conte: Good Juju From Italy’s Spiritual Jazz Shaman

Photo credit: Gianluca Petrella and Nicola Conte (right) by Giovanna Sodano

Chris May By

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The Fez Collective was a circle of friends, some of them decent musicians, some DJs, some record collectors. We were all bohemian hipsters. The name came from a photo of Dizzy Gillespie wearing a fez. African American jazz musicians were idols to us because they were bringing this different, rebellious, free-thinking culture. —Nicola Conte
Ever since his debut album, the acid-jazz masterpiece Jet Sounds (Schema), in 2000, the producer, composer, DJ and guitarist Nicola Conte has kept the jazz world guessing by constantly moving the goal posts. The trumpeter Miles Davis famously said, "I always gotta change. It's like a curse." But with Conte, it feels more like a blessing, an incremental process executed without angst or fanfare. Through all the shape-shifting, continuity is provided by Conte's deep roots in African American spiritual jazz.

Jet Sounds, and its follow-up Jet Sounds Revisited (Schema, 2002), are sui generis blends of modal jazz, Italian and Bollywood soundtrack samples, lounge music, and rare-groove beats. Then it was all change for the live in the studio, acoustic ensemble album Other Directions (Schema/Blue Note, 2004). Made with a mid-sized, horns-rich line-up of Italian jazz luminaries, the album evoked a romantic, retro 1960s, European jazz ambiance. The jazz-in-dub suite The Modern Sound Of Nicola Conte (Schema, 2009) employed recordings by Conte and other artists including Mark Murphy, Till Bronner and José James as source material. Let Your Light Shine On (MPS, 2018), made by Conte's multi-national band Spiritual Galaxy, is a spin on Other Directions. These and other albums offer fresh perspectives on jazz, executed with love and respect. There have been curatorial projects, too, including trawls through the Blue Note, Prestige and MPS catalogues, and the five album Viagem series (Far Out, 2008-2015), which compiles obscure Brazilian bossa nova singles unearthed by Conte during crate-digging expeditions in the country.

Late February 2021 sees the release of another game changer, People Need People (Schema). The album was co-composed and co-produced by Conte and his longtime colleague, the trombonist Gianluca Petrella. Petrella has played on most of Conte's albums. (He also has a distinguished track record with other bandleaders and has recorded albums with the guitarist Eivind Aarset and the trumpeters Enrico Rava and Steven Bernstein among others). Petrella and Conte have released co-headlining singles and EPs, starting with the EP New Standards (Schema) in 2001, but People Need People is their first 360-degree, full-length album collaboration. It takes elements of Other Directions and Let Your Light Shine On (several of whose bandmembers it uses) and reroutes those albums' trajectories towards the electronic dance music and contemporary soul worlds.

Conte, like Petrella, lives in Bari, a bustling but off-the-beaten-track seaport on the heel of Italy's boot on the country's southern Adriatic coast. Conte first came to attention in the 1990s with his Fez Collective, a coalition of progressively minded jazz musicians, DJs and cultural activists clustered around Bari's alternative club world. The group was a sort of latter-day musical equivalent of a mid-twentieth century European literary salon. Another Fez Collective alumnus is the singer Stefania Dipierro, whose exquisite Natural (Far Out, 2016) was produced by her "eternal friend" Conte. Most of Conte's own releases have been released on the Milanese label Schema, but have been recorded at Bari's Sorriso Sound studio with sound engineer Tommy Cavalieri.

In this interview, Conte relates his journey from classical guitar to acid jazz and spiritual jazz, and his eschewal of "hit and run" relationships with musicians and studios. He concludes by talking about six albums (a number imposed on him by All About Jazz) that have been milestones in his life.

All About Jazz: You studied classical guitar as a young boy. Do you come from a musical family?

Nicola Conte: Not at all. My father had other plans for me. He was a civil engineer and wanted me to follow him into the family business. It was a big disappointment to him for many years when I chose to become a musician and DJ.

AAJ: What had sparked your interest in playing an instrument?

NC: We had this big radio set at home which I really got into when I was quite young. I can still picture it in my mind. For me it was the door to a new world, another dimension, where people were talking about music in an informed way. It had a deep impact on me. I discovered music from all over the world. This would be the early 1970s. My main reference point was London. I was fascinated by the sounds from the underground scene there. Then when I was thirteen my family sent me to England on a school exchange. It was a small town not far from London and I remember all the record shops in Oxford Street. It was heaven. Through the radio, I was already into music from other cultures and in Oxford Street you could actually buy the albums.

AAJ: So your global outlook on music was in place by your early teens.

NC: Yes. It is the only perspective I have ever known—and not only with music. For as long as I can remember I have believed that one of the great gifts of being human is the chance of getting exposed to different cultures. When we get into dark times, like with all these authoritarian rulers today, to me it is unbearable to realise that we are going backwards. [This interview took place a few days before Donald Trump slithered out of the White House.] Things that belong to the time of the Crusades are happening now. Like waving the flag of religion or waving the colour of one skin against the colour of another. Me and my friends in Bari, since the Fez Collective and before then, thought that Nixon and Bush senior and junior were as bad as things could get. How wrong we were.

AAJ: The Fez Collective sounds rather like alternative London a couple of decades earlier. Liberated, oppositional, culturally inclusive.

NC: I think it came out of a similar atmosphere. We were a circle of friends, some more intellectual than others, some of them decent musicians, some DJs, some record collectors. We were all bohemian hipsters. I think the main difference, artistically speaking, with what was happening in London in the late 1960s, was that in Bari in the 1990s the role of the DJ was more important. Club culture was very strong. Clubs were the only place where you could express a different musical culture. We were still enduring the hedonistic and consumerist world that came in the 1980s and we in the Fez Collective did not want to go along with that. We started to make our own thing which, once again, was very much connected with what was happening in London. It was totally spontaneous and organic and it grew and grew and grew and it lasted for seven, eight years.

AAJ: Where did the name Fez Collective come from?

NC: It was because at one point a photo of Dizzy Gillespie wearing a fez was circulating. African American jazz musicians were idols to us because they were bringing this different, rebellious, free-thinking culture. And Bari is not very far from North Africa, not very far from the Middle East. We are the fusion of many different cultures. That is our heritage.

AAJ: And you have chosen to stay in Bari, when other artists would likely have moved to bigger cities in the north such as Milan to further their careers.

NC: Well, I've spent a lot of time travelling, but what is special about Bari for me is the sea. I need to be by the sea. I need to be able to open my window and see that wide horizon. It opens up my mind. In the 1990s I would come to London many times a year. And in the early 2000s, after Jet Sounds became a sort of underground success in the US, I frequently visited there and many other countries too. I would go both as a DJ and on a personal journey. I never liked to just fly in, go to the hotel, do the gig and fly out again the next morning. I've been lucky because my travels give me opportunities to meet people and I am introduced to artistic circles through my work. But I always return to my home town. Whenever I spend time in a big city—and I don't particularly like Milan for instance, where Schema Records is based—I feel a bit suffocated. Bari restores me.

AAJ: Your musical trajectory also seems to be equal parts stability and continuity on the one hand, and experiment and new horizons on the other. Gianluca Petrella, for instance, has played an important part in almost every album you've made.

NC: Gianluca and I have been friends and collaborators since Jet Sounds and even before then. When I was invited to DJ in the US after that album came out, Gianluca sometimes accompanied me to play live while I played the turntables. Our paths have had different directions—Gianluca is very well established as a jazz musician throughout Europe and beyond, while I'm known more as a producer and composer. But because it is a longtime friendship we know how to blend together to make the sort of music that we want. We are also united by the idea of music as a way of bringing different peoples together.

AAJ: Does Gianluca get involved in the arrangements on your albums?

NC: All the fundamental arrangements—structure, rhythms, harmonies—they are always done by me. But I often have someone to score the horn parts. On Let Your Light Shine On, Carolina Bubbico, who is lead vocalist on some of the tracks, arranged the horns on half the tunes. On Other Directions some of the horn arrangements were by Gianluca, some by other horn players. They were done mostly in the studio, during the recordings. Everything else—bass lines, drum patterns, piano vamps, whatever —that has always been done by me. The main difference is that on People Need People Gianluca and I were both involved in composing the tracks.

AAJ: Your relationship with Sorriso Studio and Tommy Cavalieri is equally longstanding.

NC: I'm not into hit and run. It's like why all the Blue Note records were recorded in Rudy Van Gelder's studio. The way I conceive the sound of my music I need a very high degree of craftsmanship and knowledge on the part of the sound engineer. For me the studio is like an instrument. I'm always bringing new ideas and inputs and it's a constant study in sound, which is often a very delicate balance between analogue and digital. It takes time and a lot of experimenting to get it right. It takes a lot of effort and skill to have the kind of warmth and those colours in sounds that are necessary to me. But I have recorded in other studios. Some of People Need People was recorded Sud Est Studio in Lecce [about ninety minutes' drive south of Bari, right on the heel of the Italian boot] and right now I'm thinking of doing some more work there. Sometimes you just feel that you need to move on and experience something else. If I feel the sound cannot develop anymore after a length of time, then I have to find somewhere else.

AAJ: We will await developments. Meanwhile, People Need People seems both a consolidation of what you've done before and also a new direction.

NC: It's an open dialogue, it comes from Gianluca and mine's desire to say something about what's happening today and to give a different perspective about how the world could be. The album has a very strong political concept behind it, it's our manifesto really. So there's continuity. But at the same time we didn't want to do something completely organic like Let Your Light Shine On. For a change, we wanted to do something that was a fusion between organic sounds and electronic sounds. It's not niche like other albums may have been. We thought the most important thing was to communicate with people in such a way that even somebody who is not necessarily a musical freak could get into it. We didn't want to dilute the sort of tribal feeling that you can perceive in each track. This does not mean that the album is simple or is pop, but it may be more widely accessible, though accessible is a dangerous word. Let's say there is less improvisation than on Let Your Light Shine On. On People Need People the jazz influence is felt more in the colours and harmonies and the way each piece has been composed than through improvisation.

NICOLA CONTE: SIX ALL-IMPORTANT ALBUMS

Trying to choose just six albums puts me in turmoil. I could name six hundred. And for each and every phase of my life there have been important albums. So it's impossible really. But I'm going to try. These albums are among those that still, years after I first heard them, have a special importance to me.

Ravi Shankar
Improvisations And Theme From Pather Panchali
World Pacific, 1962

This was an album I found on one of my first crate-digging trips. I don't remember exactly where. It might have been Milan. It gave me my first opportunity to listen properly to Ravi Shankar. Bud Shank is on one track with his group with Dennis Budimir on guitar, Gary Peacock on bass and Louis Hayes on drums, playing one of the ragas. So it is important to me not just because of Ravi Shankar playing but also of the idea of two cultures making something beautiful together. That has been a thread running through all my music.

Yusef Lateef
Eastern Sounds
Moodsville, 1961

Yusef Lateef is a musician I have studied particularly closely. The idea of taking inspiration from folk music from different parts of the world is something that has always fascinated me, and when those traditional sounds are merged with progressive and creative music they bring with them a mysterious, mystic quality. Like I said before, I think that one of the greatest opportunities life gives us is gaining knowledge from different cultures. Lateef himself said that every culture possesses knowledge and that you should seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave.

Marvin Gaye
What's Going On
Tamla, 1971

What's so great about this is that it's about soul music as conscious music. It's political music and it's for the people. It talks about people but not in an individualistic way, rather in a societal way. It talks about communities. There was a big African American revolution going on along those lines in the early 1970s. And it's happening now too. The lyrics are full of meaning. They are really deep. I hate listening to music with stupid lyrics. The lyrics on this album are as far from stupid as you can get.

John Coltrane
Africa / Brass
Impulse!, 1961

I could also have chosen A Love Supreme. Both albums touch another dimension of music, a spiritual one. It's something that I feel increasingly close to nowadays. Those two albums are landmarks in music. If you talk about jazz purely from an academic or technical point of view, you are missing the essence. The whole thing is about self expression. That and connecting with a higher sphere through the vibrations of the music. I don't think that jazz can go much further than that in terms of depth. It's not about technique or complex harmonies, to approach it like that is to miss the point completely—I mean, it is also about those things, but it is mostly about self expression and connecting with a higher sphere.

Miles Davis
In A Silent Way
Columbia, 1969

This is one of several Miles Davis albums I could name including Kind Of Blue and Bitches Brew. Each of them is exploratory in its own way. People often overlook In A Silent Way but it laid the path for Bitches Brew, all those magical things Miles Davis and Teo Macero did to take the music to the next level, musically and in production terms, too—the way the recording studio became another instrument. And also you can hear music created by musicians from different places, from London with John McLaughlin and Dave Holland and from the US with Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock and so on, and that is an idea that is dear to me.

Fela Kuti
Expensive Shit
Soundworkshop, 1975

I thought about choosing something by Chet Baker for my sixth album, because of the romanticism of the music and the whole idea of an artist who is damned making beautiful music. But I don't really listen to him anymore. So instead there is Fela, something else. The title track is fantastic, of course, a wonderful story wonderfully told, but one my favourite Fela tracks is the second side, "Water No Get Enemy." It's not the best track he ever made but I love very much the way the horns come in and that it has brighter colours than he often used. It's also one of Gianluca's favourite Fela albums so, while I could have chosen other Fela discs, that is another reason to pick it. There is a strong link with Let Your Light Shine On, which has tracks inspired by Fela's Afrobeat.

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