Having curated 5 compilations of other people’s music for Far Out Recordings in recent years it was only a matter of time before the label invited Nicola Conte to record his own album.
The result is “Natural”, in collaboration with fellow Italian Stefania Dipierro, a singer Conte worked with on some of his earlier projects.
Conte’s initial success was as a DJ, at the centre of the Acid Jazz scene in Bari during the 1990’s. Music making started behind the mixing desk as a producer for the live bands that were attracted to and sprang out of this scene (Quintetto X, Fez Combo and Paolo Achenza Trio).
These early releases were consciously post-modern drawing together a number of complimentary influences from the 1960’s – Jazz, Pop, Bossa Nova, even Soundtracks. Over time Conte’s sound has evolved, whilst remaining defiantly retro it has become more acoustic.
Of late his music has taken a spiritual direction, on albums like “Rituals” and “Love & Revolution”. His version of Jackie McLean’s Appointment in “Ghana” with Gregory Porter on lead vocals is a personal favourite. In addition to production duties Conte also plays guitar, and whilst his playing is low-key it demonstrates a greater musical confidence and shared sense of vision with his fellow performers.
“Natural” has less in common with these recent releases, having more in common with his earlier, Acid Jazz roots. The sound and feel of the album is bright and breezy, pop created in the style of MPB, with Bossa Nova and dashes of samba.
The album consists mainly of covers, although fortunately, with the exception of “Maracatu Atomico”, these are not songs that suffer from over exposure.
Stefania Dipierro’s vocals display a range of expressiveness, at points sounding like Urszula Dudziak and on “Joia” like Gal Costa, but most of the time it’s in a slightly breathless style which doesn’t stand out from the crowd, nor does it draw a strong emotional response from me one way or the other.
Whilst the results are pleasant enough I don’t find them particularly engaging. For me this is highlighted in two of the covers, “Vento Bravo” and “The Meaning of Love”.
Edu Lobo’s masterpiece, “Vento Bravo”, is a song about slavery and freedom. Whilst not exactly an outright protest song the message within the lyrics is imbued with pointed social and political commentary. To me these words require vocals with vigour and in your face energy, but instead come across as too easy-going, too lacking in conviction. Likewise Conte’s version of Steve Kuhn’s “The Meaning of Love” has little of the impact of the original, which is a fantastically evocative, world-weary reminiscence of having loved and lost.
The original tracks follow the retro feel of the rest of the album. The upbeat bossa “Ainda Mais Amor” holds it’s own as does the slow-jam, “Within You and I”. The same cannot be said for the title track or “I Feel the Sun on Me”.
On this occasion I’m afraid that Nicola Conte’s musical vision has left me somewhat underwhelmed.
Italian DJ, producer and musician Nicola Conte is known for his specialist knowledge of Brazilian music and his hard bossa and samba jazz compilations are always a delight to savour. On this occasion, he turns arranger and producer for an Italian singer, Stefania Dipierro, and the results are a mixed affair. Dipierro excels on the Brazilian Portuguese material where she is clearly at ease, but her limited vocal range and lack of a strong jazz voice let her down on the English language repertoire. Where this album works well is on the mid-tempo numbers such as ‘A gira’ where the song is ideally suited to Dipierro’s gentle delivery, not dissimilar to Astrud Gilberto, who is surely a major influence. The use of fender and percussion complements the signer throughout and sounds totally authentic and creates a lovely 1970s laid back groove. A potential single is the re-working of a song that Gilberto Gil made famous in ‘Maracatu Atomico’ and here Dipierro comes across as a latter-day Flora Purim, though without the same dynamic range. While the instrumental accompaniment is fine, where this writer has a problem is when the singer veers into English and has to compete with versions by far more experienced American jazz singers and that only serves to highlight Dipeirro’s limitations. Nicola Conte would be well advised to deploy a native English singer and even then some of the jazz standards selected are challenging enough.
Betty Carter was one of the major exponents of jazz vocalese and’ Open the door’ is a difficult vehicle for a native English speaker to master so it was unwise to expose Dipierro to this classic. Likewise ‘Softly as a morning sunrise’ is a standard that a singer of say Dianne Reeves’ ability and experience can handle with aplomb, but Stefania Dipierro is quite simply out of her depth here, and most certainly outside her comfort zone. What would have made for a stronger all round album is if, rather than forcing Dipierro into unfamiliar and uncomfortable jazz territory, she had been allowed to sing in either Italian or even French. Why not keep the jazz instrumentation which does work well and add lyrics in Italian? On ‘Within you and I’, the down-tempo instrumental treatment works a treat, but it is near impossible to understand the lyrics in English. Italian singers like actresses are able to adapt to other Romance languages, but are, in general, best served by remaining within these limits.