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Not Just a Pretty Voice

4 minute read

I don’t have a singer’s voice,” Paolo Conte says, his Marlboro-cured rasp lending evidence to that statement. But the lawyer-turned-jazzman-turned-chansonnier is playing to sold-out concert halls across Europe with an eclectic repertoire that ranges from early jazz to Argentinian milonga to Neapolitan folk songs. A self-taught musician, Conte, 64, once considered himself “a bit of a snob” with no interest in singing or songwriting. “Little by little, however, I discovered there was something interesting about singing in Italian with a bit of truth inside,” he says. “I saw that it had to be me. The trick is to manage your defects well.”

Conte has done just that. He knew he had made it as a musician after his first successful gigs in France 15 years ago. “You don’t have the help of the language so you have to transmit your whole self,” he says. He now draws a cult-like following in France and, backed by a 21-piece band, will give four sold-out concerts this week in Paris. His latest project, a dvd called Razmataz, is set in the seedy Paris jazz milieu of the 1920s. Conte calls Razmataz, which was released at the Cannes Film Festival last week, a non-film. The story of a young American dancer who mysteriously disappears, it consists of more than 1,800 of his drawings and paintings set to words and music. “It was an old dream,” he explains. “So I did it.”

Dreams, mysteries and ghosts are central to Conte’s creed. His latest album, also titled Razmataz, has two versions of It’s a Green Dream, a reverie about Mozambique. Or is Mozambique a woman? It is unclear. “His music is a bit mysterious,” says Marco D’Avenia, who is working on a Conte biography. Conte wants it that way. “Most artists complain that they aren’t understood, and they want to be,” he says, lighting up a cigarette in the living room of the home near Turin he shares with Egle, his wife of 25 years. “You have to leave the public a bit of space. They can’t have all certainties.” He recalls looking for ghosts during his first two gigs at New York’s famed Blue Note jazz club. “I know great artists have performed in those kinds of places and I look for them,” he says. “I’m sure I played better on that Steinway just knowing who had been there before me.”

Q & A

Q. How did you become interested in jazz?

A. It was prohibited by the fascists when I was a boy, but my parents had some bootleg records. After the war, I can remember listening to a French radio station that had a jazz program. That meant everything to me. I also lived through Italy’s liberation, so I saw Americans. They always seemed like people who were stronger and more handsome then we were.

Q. Why early jazz?

A. The first wave were the ones who had it in hand. In a visceral way that’s what attracts me most. These were the richest, most courageous artists. It was also true in the visual arts. Today everything avant-garde seems ridiculous in comparison.

Q. Where do you find your inspiration to write?

A. If I only knew. It’s like a state of grace. There are moments in which you surprise yourself. There’s something savage about it. Even in the sweetest inspiration, in music or words, it’s always coming from a savage, irrational part of yourself.

Q. Are you a poet?

A. That’s a bit much. I write the music first and the words afterwards, so I don’t have the blank page a poet does. But we do something of poetry.

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