Audio Alchemy

Paolo Conte's conjured dreamscapes

The faithful stroll down Hamilton Place toward the Orpheum in downtown Boston, a concert hall bearing the name of a bard who made Hades weep. Inside, a hundred conversations echo from the low decrepit ceilings. Meanwhile, the chipped and flaking crowns of plaster rosettes tell a story of a building’s elegant history.

Lights flicker, drawing the crowd from the cramped hallway into the vaulted performance hall. The stage lights are shielded by alabaster, and a silent reverence pervades the atmosphere, until a tuxedoed man glides across the platform with a timeless elegance. Cheers. Adoration pours forth and washes this troubadour and his company with wave upon wave of applause.

At last the hall is quiet. Paolo Conte, the Italian singer of near-mythological standing, leans into the microphone and whispers simply “Allora” before launching into his epic song “Hemingway.”

Georgia O’Keefe said she wanted real things, music that made holes in the sky. Paolo Conte punched a few of his own that night at the Orpheum. Notes leapt from his piano and melded with an inspired horn section, his guitarists, bassist, drummer, and accordion player. The audience lived a real event—beautiful and tragic at the same time. At points Conte seduced and teased with rich, creamy textures of his soulful piano wrapping the audience with sensual changes and harmonies, strolling through perfumed fields of measures and half tones to an assault of the kazoo, perhaps the musical equivalent of swallowing too much wasabi—alarming at first, but not altogether unpleasant.

The kazoo? Conte uses it to illustrate the peculiar beauties of relationships. Your lover, admired from afar, turns out upon closer look to enjoy bologna sandwiches or belching. Juxtapositions and eccentricities make life all the sweeter because even runway models—or your own brand of beauty—are human. And this makes them more, rather than less, beautiful. Paradox is only one of the qualities driving the genius behind Conte.

Another element of his genius is an ability to elevate the mundane to the lyrical through seemingly disparate combinations of words and music, audio alchemy at its finest. Consider “Max,” one of the featured songs at the concert. The song begins with Conte’s piano addressing Max through the words, “don’t simplify…Max, don’t explain yourself, let me go…Max.” A sensual crescendo mounts as all parts of his ensemble gradually meet in a hypnotizing mélange of instrumental voices among which are clarinet tones reminiscent of Sidney Bechet, and accordion notes drawn from French chanson. Somehow the tones intensify and the driving beat of different traditions melds into a fantastic denouement that leaves the listener breathless.

Michael Beckerman puts forward that “purity in music is as impossible to achieve as purity in any other sphere of existence…music result(s) from an almost infinite number of interactions between groups.” As a true alchemist, Conte taps traditions of Klezmer, Vaudeville, Italian Folk Song, and Tango to transform them into his own creation that contains presence and atmosphere, which like all great art transports the audience to a different place.

Conte’s opening song, “Hemingway,” sets the stage for such magic and journey. The piano coyly breaks the silence of the theater, beckoning the audience to listen and prepare for stories to unfold. Conte’s voice flows from the stage and like water does a glass of ice cubes, fills and enwraps the listeners, while lifting them to a higher level—eventually melting differences to create a unified, fulfilled experience. He sings of the illusions of Timbuktu, the long legs of Babalu and a road…a silent road that wants to go like a butterfly, a fond memory, and warm recollections of the taste of curacao. And then, “Allora Monsieur Hemingway,” which translates to, “What of this, Monsieur Hemingway?”

Conte is using an Italian/English pun, referring to roads in Italian and to the English way in Hemingway. From this word play and reference to a man who lived his adventures—blurring the lines between one’s life and art, Conte launches into a baleful kazoo solo. These striking notes are jolting and yet they further enmesh the audience with the smooth vibrato of the clarinet and piano. They create a vivid tapestry that depicts the paradoxes of day-to-day life.

Conte handles this exploration of the confusing nature of daily existence with class and humor, a testament to the depth of his gifts, expression, and humanity. Such a performance stands in stark contrast to other performances those faded rosettes in the lobby must endure such as the overly angst-ridden and cash-bloated whiners of the day, or the “I’m proud to be a virgin, but I dress like a prostitute” to sell records category. While these acts have value as social and cultural phenomena, they, like some modernist movements, lack a human dimension outside the abbreviated attention span of an adolescent caffeine rush. These groups will find their wreckage on the trash heaps of instant fame and pop adulation.

Paolo Conte endures and exults.

The evening finished with an invitation, “Via Con Me,” perhaps the best known of his works. With that song, he entices people into his world with up-tempo piano melodies and saxophone riffs combined with words exhorting them to come into this gray weather full of music and pleasing humanity, stating that the spectacle of art varies like one who is in love. Ben Waltzer, in his article “Learning to Play with the History of Jazz,” quotes Stravinsky as saying that music is a “living force that animates and informs the present.” Waltzer then goes on to add that part of the joy of being a musician is finding one’s own individual way through and in relation to that history. Conte, in this song and all his others embraces those diverse currents whose confluence enriches and defines his body of work. As the chorus of “Via Con Me” emphasizes, “It’s Wonderful, It’s Wonderful.”

The evening ends and Conte stands for the audience one last time, his hand gesturing in a way that implies his respect for the circular nature of performance—performer energizes audience, audience energizes performer. The house lights come on, and the theater-goers filter back into the night. Rejuvenated by the Italian dreamscapes conjured by Paolo Conte and his host of musical alchemists, they might see the paradoxes of their own lives differently—wiser and perhaps even younger than they were a few hours before.