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Paolo Conte

One of the most idiosyncratic, charismatic, and internationally successful Italian singer/songwriters of the past four decades, Paolo Conte created his own unique style, combining a love for jazz and music hall together with a weary yet sympathetic and humorous understanding of human foibles. Born to a well-to-do Asti (Piedmont, Italy) family in 1937, Conte began to learn the piano at an early age, together with his younger brother Giorgio Conte -- who would also become a famous songwriter in his own right -- at the insistence of their father, a distinguished notary but also a passionate jazz amateur. Following in the family's footsteps, Conte became a lawyer and practiced the profession until well into his thirties. Contemporaneously, he played the vibraphone in several local jazz bands. Conte's first release came as early as 1962, in the form of an EP for Italian RCA with the Paolo Conte Quartet. Occasional tours and recording with small outfits would follow, but it is only when he started to develop an interest in songwriting that he began to seriously consider a career in music. Indeed, between 1965 and the release of his first solo album in 1974, Conte became a reputed professional songwriter. Working in collaboration with lyricists such as Vito Pallavicini and Giorgio Calabrese, or with his brother Giorgio, Paolo was the creative force behind several hits of popular Italian artists of the day: "La Coppia Più Bella del Mondo" and "Azzurro" for Adriano Celentano, "Insieme a Te Non Ci Sto Più" for Caterina Caselli, "Tripoli '69" for Patty Pravo, "Messico e Nuvole" for Enzo Jannacci, "Genova per Noi" and "Onda Su Onda" for Bruno Lauzi, among others. The last two would eventually reappear in Conte's solo albums and grow into some of his most beloved compositions, along with "Azzurro," which became a staple concert encore. Encouraged by producer Italo Greco, it is only in 1974 and at the age of 37 that Conte finally decided to try his luck as a solo artist. His first two albums, both simply named Paolo Conte and released in successive years, introduced a strikingly original, full-fledged musical vision and persona that would quintessentially remain the same for his entire career. Conte's songs are often told from the perspective of a world-weary mixture of philosopher and clown, sympathetically commenting on a series of rather pathetic characters, either members of the Italian petty bourgeoisie or nightclub regulars (or both!) -- two types that Conte personifies with gusto, dignified resignation, and an exquisite sense of humor, and set to the alternatively sultry or languid rhythms of the jazz ballad, tango, swing, and other music hall favorites. Although the first two albums were not very successful upon their release, they are unquestionably among Conte's finest, and include a significant portion of his definitive classics, such as "Una Giornata al Mare," "La Ricostruzione del Mocambo," "La Topolino Amaranto," as well as the abovementioned "Genova per Noi" and "Onda Su Onda." Conte's breakthrough came in 1979 with Un Gelato al Limon, aided by the support of admirers Francesco De Gregori, Lucio Dalla, and Enzo Jannacci, who included some of the album's songs in their own tours and records of the same year. Conte continued to release a string of excellent albums during the '80s, most notably 1982's superb Paris Milonga, firmly securing a place for himself in the pantheon of Italian cantautori thanks to standards such as "Alle Prese con una Verde Milonga," "Via con Elle," "Parigi," "Diavolo Rosso," "Sotto le Stelle del Jazz," and "Bartali," among many others. At the same time, his celebrated live performances and cosmopolitan world view (documented in 1985's Concerti and 1988's Paolo Conte Live) turned him into a sort of Pan-European attraction, developing a strong following in France, Switzerland, and Germany. Conte concluded the decade on a high with the release of two dissimilar masterpieces, the intimate double album Aguaplano, where the trademark Conte style was reduced to its essence, and the innovative Parole d'Amore Scritte a Macchina, where he implemented new instrumentations and arrangements with surprising effect. Busy with his touring schedule and blooming international reputation (he was also released in the U.S. by Nonesuch to widespread critical acclaim), Conte recorded less often during the 1990s. When he did, his albums were customarily impeccable but slightly mannerist, even if his fame and critical esteem, particularly abroad, did nothing but grow. Conte's main obsession of the period, however, was the long delayed realization of his own musical, Razmataz, finally achieved in a variety of platforms, as a stage show, a music CD, and a multimedia DVD with Conte's drawings, dialogues, and music. An amateur painter, for this lifelong pet project Conte designed the sets and costumes, as well as (of course) writing the full score and texts. Conte's efforts were rewarded with glowing reviews and prizes, which only added to an already impressive list that included the "Librex-Guggenheim Eugenio Montale Poetry Prize", the Italian Republic honorific title of "Cavaliere di Gran Croce," and France's "Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts and Letters." In 2004, at the age of 67, the perennially creative Conte resumed his solo career with the release of the melancholic, aptly titled Elegia, his best studio work in 15 years. A live album followed the next year, and Psiche appeared in 2008. His 2010 album, Nelson, was named for, and partially dedicated to, his dog -- the other dedicatee was his lifelong manager, Renzo Fantini. Conte spent most of his time writing for theater and cinema during the next few years. A number of compilations were issued by various labels. The completely instrumental Amazing Game appeared from Decca in 2016. Despite the absence of his signature vocal style, it showcased his canny piano skills in original compositions that reflected his unique take on styles from vaudeville, chanson, and ragtime to milonga, jazz, and Neapolitan music. The career-spanning box set Zazzarazaz: Uno Spettacolo d'Arte Varia arrived the following year.
© Mariano Prunes /TiVo
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