Italian DJ/producer Nicola Conte's loungey brand of acid jazz relies extensively on bossa nova, but is also heavily influenced by the swinging soundtracks of Italian films in the '60s and '70s, plus touches of ethnic music and easy listening kitsch reminiscent of Japan's Pizzicato Five. That said, his career trajectory has also seen him delve deeply into jazz as a guitarist, composer, and arranger, leading bands comprised of superstars, playing music that touches on '60s Brazilian traditions, '70s spiritual jazz, and even modal post-bop. He is also a curator and has released numerous volumes in his Viagem series, which compiles rare tracks from many international musical traditions in thematic collections.
Part of the loose-knit Fez collective of artsy acid jazz revivalists centered in the Italian town of Bari, Conte was a classically trained musician who moved into production and DJ'ing, working with artists like the Paolo Achenza Trio, the Fez Combo, Balanco, Quintetto X, and the Intensive Jazz Sextet. Conte also masterminded the Schema label, which gave many of those artists a home and cultivated a trademark, distinctly Italian approach to acid jazz. As for his own recording career, Conte scored an underground hit with his first single, "Bossa per Due," which appeared on a variety of compilations and was licensed in the U.S. for an Acura commercial. Conte's first album to be released in America was also titled Bossa per Due, a slightly reconfigured version of the Italian Jet Sounds; it appeared on Thievery Corporation's ESL (Eighteenth Street Lounge) label in the summer of 2001. The remix album Jet Sounds Revisited followed in late 2002. Two years later, Conte bowed on Blue Note's French subsidiary with an assured jazz date, Other Directions. Quiet Stars and a slew of singles followed before Conte would return with Viagem, his curated selection of classic Brazilian recordings in 2008, followed by four more volumes between 2009 and 2013. These were followed by a two-CD set of electronic recordings entitled The Modern Sound of Nicola Conte: Versions in Jazz Dub in early 2009.
That same year, Conte explored Latin jazz, Brazilian pop, and John Coltrane's early sense of experiments as inspirations for Rituals, an exotic, wide-ranging jazz album that featured five different vocalists. The use of singers was expanded to eight on 2011's Love & Revolution, an exercise in European pop, jazz balladry, and Eastern-tinged and modal jazz that included performances by Jose James, Gregory Porter, Melanie Charles, and Ghalia Benali, and was followed by the Brazilian-themed EP Sketches of Samba in 2013.
Conte forged ahead in his explorations, wedding deep modal and spiritual jazz to sophisticated pop. This resulted in Free Souls in the spring of 2014, an album that once again utilized vocalists — including James and Charles — and was comprised of expansive originals and standards, including tunes by Ahmad Jamal and Hoagy Carmichael. In the '90s, Conte had worked with vocalist Stefania Dipierro in a band called Fez. They reprised their partnership for 2016's Natural, a program of originals, jazz standards, and bossa/samba classics. Conte wrote some of the original tunes, produced the album, and played guitar, while Dipierro wrote others and sang in the company of a Conte-assembled band that included some of Italy's finest jazz musicians, including trumpeter Fabrizio Bosso and saxist/flutist Gaetano Partipilo. After touring the record, the pair went their separate ways with the intention of working together again in the future. Conte issued a pair of collaborative singles with Gianluca Petrella: "African Spirits"/"New World Shuffle" in December of 2017, and "Sun Song b/w "Nigeria" in the late winter of 2018. He was also the subject of the Schema compilation The Modern Sounds of Nicola Conte: Versions in Jazz-Dub. In May, Conte issued the full-length Let Your Light Shine with an international all-star cast of jazz and world music musicians under the umbrella Nicola Conte & Spiritual Galaxy. They included vocalists Bridgette Amofah, Zara McFarlane, Carolina Bubbico, and Zoe Modica, and instrumentalists Logan Richardson on alto sax, Magnus Lindgren on tenor and flute, Theo Croker on trumpet, Pietro Lussu on keyboards, and Gianluca Petrella on trombone and Moog. ~ Steve Huey