Nicola Conte

Free Souls

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Italian guitarist, producer, arranger, and composer Nicola Conte may have issued Free Souls as a follow-up to 2011's Love & Revolution, but its recording actually preceded it. Cut live in the studio, it was begun in 2006 and finished in 2011 -- vocals were added in 2013. His basic septet -- guitar, three saxophones, trumpet, piano, and percussion -- is augmented by alternating drummers and bassists, as well as guest players and singers. The arrangements are deeply informed by late-'60s Blue Note and early-'70s A&M filtered through sophisticated soul. Conte wrote or co-wrote seven of these 13 tunes, including the killer opener "Shades of Joy," written with Gregory Porter and featuring vocals by Marvin Parks. A humid bossa groove is painted by a Wes Montgomery-esque guitar and a throaty tenor solo by Magnus Lindgren. Parks' baritone vocal recalls the spirits of Leon Thomas (sans yodel) and Joe Lee Wilson. Jose James guests on the skittering swinger "Goddess of the Sea," with fine solos by Francesco Lento's trumpet and Gaetano Partipilo's alto. Bridgitte Amofah (from dubstep outfit Rudimental) makes the first of three vocal appearances on the soul-blues title track, featuring strutting baritone sax solo from Timo Lassy and breaking drums by Teppo “Teddy Rok” Mäkynen. She also guests on the set's high point, a soul-jazz cover of Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billy Joe," illustrated by electric piano, chunky horns, snaky guitar, and tipping ride cymbal in a slow, funky vamp. She digs deep into the tune's mystery as short sax and trumpet breaks fill the ends of her lines. Melanie Charles guests on a simmering read of Ahmad Jamal's "Ahmad's Blues." Alto saxophonist Greg Osby guests as a soloist and counterpart to her righteous phrasing. Her vocal on the stirring, Afro-Latin "Spirit of Nature" is also remarkable. Parks fronts the band on an inventive, swinging samba chart for the standard, "If I Should Lose You," which thoroughly reinvents the longstanding Frank Sinatra vehicle. Amofah's contralto on a Latinized arrangement of Hoagy Carmichael's "Baltimore Oriole" channels the brooding intensity of Nina Simone. Tasha's World delivers the Latinized Afro-bop of Conte's "Uhuru" with a resolute conviction. Lorenzo Tucci's Art Blakey-esque drumming pushes the ensemble to swing harder. Heidi Vogel gives Luiz Claudio's glorious samba "Sandalia Dela" a reserved elegance as Lassy contributes a smoking flute break atop the interplay between drums and percussion. The instrumental "Sunrise" skeletally commences with a shimmering electric piano, Paolo Benedettini's woody upright bass, and Mäkynen's drum kit, but gradually transforms into a minor-key modal jazz number, sending Free Souls out on a peak. This is not so much a "retro" recording as a classic-sounding one. It summarizes six years of Conte's musical evolution and opens the door to his vision of a music, which seamlessly integrates jazz, blues, Latin, Brazilian, and soul that is both holistic and timeless.

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