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Avion Travel
Danson Metropoli: Canzoni di Paolo Conte
Sugar/Warner Music Italia 3312098062

The enduring economic divide between northern and southern Italy has gotten worse, according to the Italian daily La Repubblica. Two cities exemplify the gap: Milan, the economic powerhouse of the north, is the nation's richest while Crotone, in the southern region of Calabria, is its poorest.

The divide isn't only economic; it's also political and cultural. Northern politicians and other chauvinists see southerners much the same as they view non-white immigrants: as backward, parasitic, and inferior.

But northern Italian artists, and especially musicians, long have been drawn to the Mezzogiorno. The film composer Nino Rota, from Milan; operatic tenor Pavarotti, from Modena; and pop singer Mina, from Cremona; are just a few of the northerners who headed south for inspiration and material.

Avion Travel takes the reverse route on Danson Metropoli, with the innovative band from Caserta, near Naples, performing 11 songs by Paolo Conte, the veteran singer, songwriter, and pianist from Asti, in Piedmont.

You couldn't ask for a happier marriage of north and south. Danson Metropoli is a genuine collaboration, not just a tribute. Conte's credited as artistic director, he sings on one track ("Elisir") and wrote a new song, "Il Giudizio di Paride," that's one of the album's best. Also a painter, Conte made the bold gouaches that decorate the individual lyric sheets for each song.

But the guiding hand here really belongs to Avion's great guitarist Fausto Mesolella, who arranged and mixed all the tracks except "Elisir."

The proof? Each of Avion's remakes improves on Conte's own renditions. As the magazine L'Espresso noted, "Conte flies on the wings of Avion Travel." But the reverse is true, too. Danson Metropoli, Avion's eighth album and the first not to include any of their own material, is the group's most consistent and accomplished to date.

Danson introduces the latest version of the "banda casertana," as they dubbed themselves on an earlier album. Formed in 1980 as La Piccola Orchestra Avion Travel, the band has shrunk from a sextet to a quartet, with Mesolella, percussionist Miḿ Ciaramella, bassist Vittorio Remino, and vocalist Peppe Servillo. Two former members, bassist Ferruccio Spinetti and keyboardist Mario Tronco, turn up on several tracks.

(Tronco, along with saxist Pepe D'Argenzio, left to form Orchestra Piazza Vittorio, a Rome-based big band comprising singers and musicians from Italy, Latin America, South Asia, and Africa. The Orchestra's two albums are pretty good, but neither makes a compelling case for Tronco's and D'Argenzio's departure from Avion.)

Regional differences aside, Conte's and Avion's sensibilities are quite similar - urbane, witty, and ironic, but with an aura of melancholy and wounded romanticism. Danson Metropoli, in fact, isn't their first encounter. Avion previously recorded two different versions of one of Conte's songs, "Insieme con te non ci sto piu." Conte leans more toward jazz and Avion toward rock, but they share an affinity for pop balladry, chanson, tango, Brazil, and noir-ish film themes.

And, canzone napoletana. Conte, like many Italian songwriters, is an aficionado and student of Naples' rich song tradition, unequalled anywhere in Italy. He wrote the dialect lyrics for several tracks on "Danson," my favorite being "Spassiunatamente."

Conte recorded the tune in 1987, but Avion, 20 years later, serves up the definitive version, with a Napoli-by-night soundscape of electronic effects, whistling straight out of a Morricone soundtrack, and, best of all, a flamboyantly soulful vocal turn by percussionist Ciaramella, who's aptly credited as the "voice of the south."

Lead singer Peppe Servillo takes a back seat to his drummer on that track, but elsewhere on Danson Metropoli he's in command. Servillo, who has acted in Italian films and plays, is an amazing performer who captivates audiences with his dramatic gestures and husky, intimate vocals. Bald and gaunt, he evokes a figure from commedia dell'arte, with something of the great Neapolitan comic Toṭ and even a bit of Yves Montand (who, after all, was of Italian origins).

Servillo shines on Danson Metropoli, reveling in Conte's rich melodies and inventive wordplay. On the title track he's the bemused traveler caught up in the rushing frenzy of a "metropoli," a Spanish term for an urban hub where voyagers from disparate parts converge. Conte's fractured lyrics capture the narrator's sense of dislocation; they're in Italian, Spanish, and Conte's own invented lingo ("Dabaribi Dadaram Babaramaba…Leh, nah! Labalibi la milonga...Labalibi la canson"). Servillo throws napoletano into the polyglot mix, adding "incazzatura" (something that drives you crazy) to Conte's "cretineria" (idiocy).

Avion's frontman can make you laugh, but, being a singer-actor of uncommon communicative power, he also nails the longing in "Cosa Sai di Me?" (What Do You Know about Me) and the pained regret of "Un Vecchio Errore" (An Old Mistake). Some of his best moments, however, come when he enacts the serio-comic erotic dilemma of "Il Giudizio di Paride" (The Judgment of Paris). In Conte's take on the Greek myth, the singer, like the prince of Troy, must choose among three women - one, "sweet and plump," brags of having the world's roundest butt; the second has "infinite class"; and the third is "leonine and muscular." Servillo appreciates each one's charms but, paralyzed by indecision, can only sigh, "What should I do?"

Fausto Mesolella is the other star of Danson Metropoli. The guitarist's inspired arrangements are sometimes spare, even stark, with just guitar, keyboard, drums and electronic beats. At other times, he swathes the band's rock grittiness in lush strings (courtesy of the Orchestra da Camera delle Marche), a strategy that works especially well on "Aguaplano," "Max," and "Il Giudizio di Paride."

Mesolella's playing draws on traditional southern Italian styles, jazz, rock, with a spaghetti western twang, and Hendrix. (In concert he's been known to break into Jimi's "Waterfall.") Three of Danson's tracks -- "Languida," "Max," "Cosa Sai di Me?" -- are showcases for the guitarist, whose Italian fans call him, not unreasonably, "il mitico [mythic] Fausto."

For Avion Travel, Danson Metropoli marks a return to form after their disappointing previous album, Poco Mossi gli altri Bacini (2003). Now that the band's creatively recharged, I'm looking forward to whatever they come up with next. But I wouldn't mind a Danson Metropoli Due, with more "canzoni di Paolo Conte." - George De Stefano

The band's web site:

There is also a little mini-documentary on YouTube
(In Italian with French subtitles)

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