Nicola Conte Combo @ Ronnie Scott’s Friday 30th January 2015
Friday nights at Ronnies are always a marvel so when Nicola Conte and his band step onto the stage to play, there is a slight hush in the air, it’s a full house and the crowd have been eagerly waiting for this man who never ceases to surprise.
The combo line up is: Nicola Conte (guitar), Melanie Charles (voc), Magnus Lindgren (Sax & flute), Pietro Lussu (piano), Luca Alemanno (double bass), Marco Valeri (drums)
Magnus Lindgren’s saxophone playing is strong from the start; he plays notes that are just so full of energy. Nicola Conte is playing his guitar to the right of the stage and seems quietly diminutive in that corner, although he is more quietly watching and conducting his band with his eyes. It only takes one look.
Then, as if by magic, Melanie Charles enters the stage and starts singing. A sly little temptress, her voice will melt ice! She moves between beautiful soft tones to strong high ones with such natural talent. Her voice is crisp and passionate. It reminds one of a decadent dinner al fresco on a long summer night in Italy… Lush and joyful.
As this is the new album’s launch, “Free Souls”, we are also treated by African themes and psychedelic tones.
Magnus, the saxophone wizard, continues to immerse the crowd into an incredible journey, whilst the “Italian contingency” on piano, double bass and drums are just simply a real treat. Luca Alemanno plays the bass with such nonchalance, a musician in his own right and a real treat to watch.
After the first set has finished and the band retires for the interval, I went backstage to ask Nicola a few questions, talking soul, fez, the Bari origins and more.
EY: Nicola, your origin is from Bari in Puglia, Italy, land of contrasts. Tell me how you “entered” the jazz world and why?
NC: I was tired of what I was listening to at the time; I got sucked in by the “beat generation”. I felt I had reached a point in my life where I was seeking something far deeper and meaningful. The London scene was, at the time, extremely attractive to me, it was offering something different and new.
EY: What does the “fez” scene mean to you?
NC: Well, the whole thing started like a game, for fun. We were a group of friends who got interested in creating a particular new dimension in the contemporary music scene. The club culture in London was something I looked at with admiration.
EY: After Ronnies in London, you will play in Milan and then Tokyo. How is the approach of the fans in Tokyo?
NC: Well, I would like to say I don’t see the people that come to see me and the band as “fans”, they are human beings, I think fans are more apt for pop music. I have great respect for the audience and I always try to give them something valuable and true as I don’t like to take them for granted.
EY: And whilst we are on the subject of venues, how does it feel when you return to play at Ronnies?
NC: We have played 4 times previously at Ronnies. Every time the band has been fantastic, so every time we return there is always a challenge to do better, to strive to offer more and differently. This, in itself, is an incredible thing. One needs to find the extra something every time. And hopefully we do! (a smile covers Nicola’s face at last!)
EY: What is Jazz for you?
NC: (he ponders for a few seconds) It is a way of life, yes, essence of life. “Un modo di vivere!”
EY: And will you give me a few names of your jazz heroes?
NC: Ohhh, this is going to be impossible… but to give you a few: I love listening to Chet Baker, Charlie Parker, Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Max Roach, Lee Morgan, Wes Montgomery, Pat Martino. But you see, I listen to so many things though, African funk stuff, soul 7” inches. I am wide open!
EY: I have listened to “Love & Revolution” and really loved it. It is surely an incredible compliment to have such a vast array of famous collaborators on that album?
How did that come about?
NC: Music is a great catalyst and in the end we have all become a big group of friends.
EY: And finally, what’s on Nicola’s “to-do-list”?
NC: Start to work on new music, but it is not something I want to talk about as yet, it is too early.
(He says so in a firm but gentle way)
Interview over, Nicola seems a bit more relaxed and we exchange a few anecdotes in Italian before the second set starts.
He is an incredible musician and, most of all, a human being who is rather shy, reserved. A true perfectionist, but an innovator, too.