There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Paolo Conte is an Italian bandleader who writes Leonard Cohen-ish songs and brings them to joyous life with the help of a big, complex band and his own grainy, world-weary vocals. Precision arrangements, a wide-swath boogie swing, and elliptical lyricism grounded by a hard piano are Conte’s hallmarks, although the result is not quite jazz, nothing like big band, and the furthest thing from poetic singer-songwriting. Conte refers to jazz often enough that the genre takes on the form of an artifacta rowdy, lost matrix against which his sophisticated juke-joint bopping measures itself, and elegantly slinks away. Most of his songs hint at the underworld tug of Raymond Chandler’s darkest premonitions with the same ease they take on world music motifssinuous Eastern guitars, Marseilles accordions, shimmying Latin rhythms. “Boogie,” from his great album of the same name, is a six-minute tour de force that looks into the dark soul of a hard-jiving existence, and “Gong-Oh” is a spavined Charleston full of nostalgia”sensual, invisible, theoretical.” Conte also takes on playful guises, like a magician practicing the most suave of misdirections. “Sparring Partner” pretends to be a pop song while putting over a bludgeoning sense of sorrow; he writes songs for “Hemingway” and “Bartali” (a 1950s cyclist) but uses them to reveal his own self. Conte will not be underestimated; his pleasant Italian canto is a jungle of tigers and hidden traps. The scatting is so careless as to approach autism (on the jigging “Come Di”) or irony (the slurred “‘swonderful” chorus on “Via con Me”). A girly chorus even chirps unconvincingly, “Happy feet, oh, oh, I love it,” while Conte drawls, “What exhibition will you attend?/A Picasso in flames, will that be okay?”Arion Berger