CD Review: Nicola Conte – Free Souls

Nicola Conte – Free Souls
(Schema Records. SCCD 468. CD review by Andrew Cartmel)

Coming from an acid jazz background, heavily influenced by vintage Blue Note and Brazilian music, guitarist Nicola Conte is perhaps Italy’s most notable contemporary bandleader. Free Souls is an unusual album for him in that almost every track features a singer — a wordless, wailing free jazz coda Sunrise, showcasing Logan Richardson’s impressive alto sax, is the joker in the deck.

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But this is no pallid vocal jazz album. It’s dense, complex and often dark, with a large group of top musicians — a dozen in the core combo plus eight guest soloists — virtually forming a new-jazz big band. They are marvellously deployed, in ensemble, comping and playing solos. And the half dozen singers selected are the cream of the underground scene.

What’s more, the choice of material is fascinating. Who else would have thought of reviving Ode to Billie Joe? This is an enigmatic song about an unexplained death which generated huge speculation in its day, and continues to do so now. It was recorded by an unknown Bobbie Gentry in 1967 at one of her first sessions and originally intended as a B-side — but when released as a single later that year it would knock the Beatles off the top of the US charts. A pop hit, then, but here sanctified as jazz, not least by Gaetano Partipilo on alto sax. It has a sweaty, funky, measured beat set by Luca Alemanno on Fender bass and Teppo Mäkynen’s drumming, conjuring the “sleepy, dusty delta day.” The sultry, sweltering, rural southern US milieu of the song is perfectly evoked through the Memphis Sound style brass from Francesco Lento, and there is a Muscle Shoals R&B feel throughout. Crucially, we are treated to a deeply soulful crushed velvet vocal by Bridgette Amofah. Artfully shadowed by Francesco Lento’s trumpet, Amofah does full justice to Gentry’s beautifully observed and understated lyric — would it be possible to surpass the casual callousness of the dinner table discussion about the eponymous character’s suicide? “Billie Joe never had a lick of sense/pass the biscuits please.” It’s a much covered song, but this is a genuinely superb version in Gaetano Partipilo’s arrangement. A revelation.

Bridgette Amofah is also the featured vocalist on a simmering, sizzling high speed version of Hoagy Carmichael’s Baltimore Oriole that surges with excitement thanks to the relentless choppy drumming by Teppo Mäkynen and tuneful, tactical interjections of flute, courtesy of none other than Timo Lassy. It’s a surprisingly delicate, incantatory piece which finds new textures in this old standard as Pietro Lussu’s Wurlitzer electric piano explores the melody.

Soul Revelation is a slow deliberate groover with Teppo Mäkynen’s chunking drums and swooping vocals from Tasha’s World. In an outstanding line up, Magnus Lindgren’s flute solo would do credit to Herbie Mann. On Ahmad’s Blues the vocalese which clothes Ahmad Jamal’s original melody is sung by Melanie Charles, evoking a Lush Life ambience, ably abetted by Lorenzo Tucci’s melodiously measured drumming. In breezy contrast to the rest of the set are two Brazilian numbers, If I Should Lose You sung by Marvin Parks, in which the eloquent conversational sax seems about to break into speech and Sandalia Dela, a buoyant bossa nova confection with the wistful, husky Heidi Voegl on vocals, Pierpalo Basogno exceptional on percussion and Nicola Conte himself doing a beautiful job on guitar.

This distinguished album is a remarkable departure for jazz song in general, and a significant step forward for Nicola Conte in particular. It’s also worth seeking out the double vinyl version which features additional tracks, including Till Bronner playing trumpet on the charmingly titled Prayer for Lateef.

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