Jazz: That's magic

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DRESSED IN evening suits and dickie-bow ties, the members of the septet stand at ease between numbers with the serious air of waiters at an end-of-season Adriatic resort, rather as if they've just stepped out of Fellini's I Vitelloni. Then the guitarist strokes out a furious rhythm like Freddie Green with Count Basie, the trumpet growls, the trombone rasps, and we're off again, hurtling pell-mell through another round of hot jazz licks and Nino Rota-ish music-hall refrains from some mad, mid- century Euro-cabaret.

From his piano, Paolo Conte counts the band in and out again, singing rough songs in a tender voice and vice versa. Sometimes he picks up a kazoo and brays along with the band. The lyrics are all in Italian, bar the odd English phrase that occasionally emerges, surreally, as in the chorus of "S'wonderful, s'wonderful. Chips! Chips! Dabadabadoodedoo!" from the crazy jazz vamp "Via Con Me".

Looking more like Bernard Cribbins than the Tom Waits he's so often compared to, Paolo Conte is a smart sixty-something whose moustache, dark shirt and tie perhaps recall his old profession as a lawyer, before he became a huge star in Italy.

Though his voice and material are reminiscent of Waits, the analogy may be more of a testament to how little, stylistically, we have to go on, for Conte is a highly singular performer.

The songs - even when you don't know what the lyrics are on about - are partly in the tradition of European chanson (in the poetic manner of Yves Montand singing Jacques Prevert), but Conte's love of American swing, and his Louis Armstrong-like vocal embellishments, make them closer to jazz.

But whatever it is, it's great; so great that it ceases to matter. Buoyed up by a large Italian contingent, and with a band so supple that they moulded themselves to the contours of each change of mood perfectly, Conte proved himself to be the best kept secret in contemporary music (although if I were planning a new Fiat campaign, this wouldn't last long).

By the end, even the environment of Ronnie's seemed like nothing so much as a socialist republic where the authority of the state had all but withered away and the audience shushed themselves.

In a word, it was magico.

Paulo Conte is at Ronnie Scott's until Saturday (0171-439 0747)