The Italian Almanac
Italian Music - May 6
Despite the fact that he has sold out a week of shows in a plush theatre in central Milan where rival attractions such as Crosby and Nash can only manage a single night, Paolo Conte's dressing room looks virtually unoccupied. No other recording artist promoting his 16th solo album, let alone a sophisticated Italian jazz balladeer playing to a full house of home supporters, would put up with this. There are no flowers or champagne, no congratulatory cards or lipsticked messages on the mirrors; just a bowl of slightly knackered citrus fruit and a bottle of Mouton Cadet. The chairs are hard, the lighting severe and the wardrobe strangely empty considering Conte will be on stage in a couple of hours. And yet this absence of fuss and pretension rather suits the elderly guy with the walrus moustache and misleadingly fierce expression who eventually wanders in.
Paolo Conte, 69 this year, is the antithesis of showbiz. An immediate clue as to how he keeps his grainy voice in such remarkable shape comes as he offers round a pack of Marlboro reds and, with no takers, sparks one up himself. Unlike many musicians who root themselves in the jazz and Latin styles of the 1920s and '30s, he clearly can't be bothered with period costume. The reason his stage gear isn't hanging in the closet, it later turns out, is because he's already got it on. Conte is a performer of the slacks-and-jumper school.
That he isn't better known outside Italy, after 30 years of consistent acclaim there, is down to a similar refusal to dress his music up in the international language of song, English. And herein lies his hypnotic charm. The signature Conte mix of American jazz idioms and European café vocalising is what makes him swing so distinctively. Few other singers in the world today have been favourably compared, as he has, to both Tom Waits and Charles Aznavour.
Conte's own story is highly unusual. After training as a lawyer he spent his twenties working as a solicitor by day while studying harmony, learning to write music and composing songs at night. The predicaments of his clients fed into the sounds he had loved since childhood.