ROCK / The Italians are coming: Paolo Conte's album '900' is out now (Warner/CGD 4509-91033, CD/tape).

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The Independent Culture
YOU'RE in a piano bar in the backstreets of Naples. It's a hot summer night. On stage there's a man in late middle age, slumped over his keyboard, surrounded by 10 other musicians - all, like him, in evening dress. There are saxophones, an accordion, a cello, a guitar, a double bass, a vibraphone, bongo drums. And a beautiful girl in a long black gown, half-hidden behind a giant tuba, like a living Magritte.

When the man begins to sing, you remember that somebody told you earlier that he's Tom Waits's father, that he's performing a bunch of previously undiscovered Brecht-Weill songs, and that the band is just off the boat from Buenos Aires, where they were handed deportation orders for committing serious offences against the Tango Musicians' Code of Practice.

Except he wasn't Tom Waits's dad, the songs were his own, the band wasn't from Argentina, and the place wasn't Naples. But that's what the Royal Festival Hall felt like last Tuesday, when Paolo Conte played there.

The place was full of Italians, on one of those evenings when expats of all ages get dressed up and come out to get sentimental about the Old Country. Paolo Conte has been a star in Italy for 20 years; in most of the rest of Europe, too. His last stop before the Festival Hall had been at the Theatre de Champs-Elysees in Paris: 26 nights, all sold out.

What do you call this kind of music? Before Conte arrived on stage, the musicians played a short overture that sounded like a compressed version of Ennio Morricone's score for Once Upon a Time in America: snatches of aching melody arranged for a nostalgic accordion, the chime of the vibes, an oom-pah from the tuba, feverish saxophones. After he joined them to add his melodious growl, the songs ranged from wonderfully droopy ballads to bright Latin pieces, always with a edge of irony - a grin or a grimace undercutting the emotion.

Paolo Conte loves old jazz, the two-beat rhythms and busy arrangements, the clashing cymbals and the grainy saxophones of the pre-swing era, and I can't think of anyone who has made more creative use of these archaic resources, applying them to his perfectly contemporary songs and making them come up brand new. It was one of those nights when it feels as though you've just discovered something that you'd been looking for all along, without ever knowing it.