Piemonte, in Italy's northwest corner, is the land of my ancestors. Its regional capital Torino lacks the facile exuberance of Rome,* the sublime arrogance of Florence, and the can-do fizz of Milano. But it is the Italian city I most love: a refuge of sober elegance where café culture continues to thrive, where baroque fancy and nineteenth-century ponderousness stand in mute incomprehension, and where old-fashioned civility still holds sway.
* [It also lacks the Berninis and Caravaggios and Michelangelos of Rome. But shut up.]
In fact, other Italians taunt us for our good manners:
Of course, they invariably neglect the saying's second part: "Italiani, falsi e villani." A vilaine fille, I nonetheless prize courtesy above all, showing myself to be a true piemontese.
There is an episode in Tomasi di Lampedusa's Il gattopardo, beautifully played in Visconti's film, that illustrates our proverbial gallantry. It depicts the arrival of the piemontese bureaucrat Chevalley to Donnafugata, where the Prince of Salina's son meets him.
The journey to the palace was gladdened by repeated skirmishes between Piedmontese and Sicilian courtesy (the two most scrupulous of Italy) over Chevalley's valise, which, though very light, in the end was carried by both chivalrous contenders.
The subsequent dialogue between the Prince and Chevalley—gentle but stubborn, quintessentially piemontese—is a high point of both the novel and the film.
I also love Piemonte for its contradictions. For all its apparent placidity, it has a wild underside. Torino is a famous center of the mysical and paranormal (think the Shroud and the novels of Umberto Eco, who was born in Alessandria and took his degree in Torino). Our gianduiotti are among the world's most voluptuous sweets, each one a dark, vertiginous burst of chocolate and hazelnut, a petite mort for the palate. The mass-market parody of gianduia, Nutella, also comes from Piemonte.
Torino is also where my soul-brothers Torquato Tasso and Fred Nietzsche* went definitively loco. Lesley Chamberlain's beautiful Nietzsche in Turin offers an evocative account of the man in the city. When my mind finally snaps, I hope that I, too, will be in Torino.
We piemontesi are fierce Francophiles, and the French return the favor. Our chestnuts become their most exquisite marrons glacés. And the French were the first to embrace our brilliant and eccentric singer-songwriters Paolo Conte and Gianmaria Testa.
Critics often compare Testa to Conte, though they share little besides a glancing relationship with jazz and gravelly, nicotine-ravaged timbres. (Conte's music is vastly more louche and wild than Testa's.) In coming months, you will hear a lot more about Testa, since he makes his long-overdue U.S. début in November, with dates in New York (Joe's Pub), Cleveland, Chicago, Los Angeles, and (unconfirmed) Boston and San Francisco. Back in 1997, I was the first North American journalist to interview him.
Testa is a railroad linemaster and a self-taught musician from a family of farmers. Though his flourishing musical career and family matters may soon compel him to quit the railways, he has held on to his day job all these years, determined never to accept artistic compromises in order to earn a living. His sophisticated work combines elements of jazz, folk, bossa nova, tango, and his own sober but rapturous melodic vein. In addition to Conte, he has been compared to Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Jacques Brel, Cesaria Evora… the insanely wide range of references indicating, I think, that he is very much his own man.
About twelve years ago, after Testa won a song competition, Italian impresarios asked him to goop up his music for radio and to ditch the glasses and moustache. He went straight back to his signal boards, but one of his cassettes found its way to a French producer who was happy to work with him as he was. Testa's fame grew by word of mouth, at first almost exclusively in France. With five acclaimed albums to his credit, he now has a devoted following in Italy, all over Western Europe, in North Africa, and even in Amérique du Nord.
In February, Testa headlined the Montréal en Lumière Festival, and I heard the second of his sold-out shows at the 1,000-seat Spectrum. Though he did his intros in French, Testa sang in Italian. Still, the French- and English-speaking crowd hung on his every word, rapt and quiet. (Afterwards, Testa confessed that he had performed certain numbers extra softly, because he enjoys hearing just how deep a silence he can command.)
With Piero Ponzo (clarinet, sax) and Enzo Pietropaoli (bass), Testa offered two hours of songs that never lose their freshness for all their unpretentious warmth, like wisps of memories that flit gratefully about the heart. Highlights included the caressing intimacy of "Città lunga," the almost weary sensuality of "Extra-muros," and the little pinpricks of radiance (on cello and recorder) that lit up "Comete"…
Testa introduced this last, visionary song about boiling seas and uprooted forests with a story about working the night shift in a shack along the train tracks. One night a huge, effulgent moon filled the misshapen window through which he and his buddy usually checked out female passers-by. "He gave me a look, a look… and then we went back to work, without a word."
He sang "Gli amanti di Roma," a slow, nostalgic waltz, under a single spot that set his unruly mane aglow. Bartenders froze in their tracks, audience members held their breath: You could have heard a pin drop. Sitting in the dead last row of the house, I still had the feeling that Testa was singing to me alone. He is just that kind of artist.
His second encore was a bilingual (French-Italian) version of Boris Vian's "Le déserteur." Testa's gentle voice hardened with contempt when the song's narrator invited the President who has drafted him to go spill his own blood if he finds war agreeable. Ben detto, monsù.
Here is a rundown of Testa's recordings for newcomers to his work:
Montgolfières, Testa's first CD, is intimate and understated but shot through with sultry magic ("Manacore," "Come le onde del mare," "Citta lungà").
La valse d'un jour duplicates one of Testa's small-venue concerts: voice, two guitars, with (G-d bless!) poetry readings between sets. He is accompanied by the splendid young poet and guitarist Pier Mario Giovannone, an artist of similarly low-key but devastating eloquence. Testa recorded this CD on his own, selling it at low cost through Italy's network of newsstands, but it was such a smashing success that Le Chant du Monde and Harmonia Mundi picked it up for worldwide distribution.
Altre latitudini is Testa's latest CD. It was featured on WNYC's Spinning on Air (along with discs by Keren Ann and Rufus Wainwright, two other darlings of mine) and Soundcheck (where I reviewed it). My favorite cuts: "'Na stella" (in Neapolitan dialect), impossibly delicate, accompanied by the extraordinary pianist Rita Marcotulli; "Nient'altro che fiori," sweet and tender, with the great Enrico Rava on trumpet; and the sassy, wryly sexy "Dentro al cinema."
Extra-muros, Testa's hardest, jazziest album, and the nocturnal, intensely lyrical Lampo are almost impossible to find in North America. If you should come across them at a used record shop, *pounce.* Happily, Testa's publisher offers several complete cuts from these discs online:
"Come un'America," erotic, intoxicating, dangerous—possibly my favorite among Testa's songs.
"Extra-muros," spare, quotidian, another favorite. Here's a translation of the lyrics:
Your love, my love, is a chimney:
piercing haze and night.
Your love, my love, is a chimney.
Your love, my love, smells like paint:
green, for new shutters and railings,
that restores even deep-rooted rust.
Your love, my love, smells like paint.
Your love, my love, is a chestnut—
hot in the hand, that warms up a Sunday
and satisfies hunger.
Your love, my love, is a chestnut.
"Polvere di gesso," fierce and bittersweet: "I scatter chalk dust on the floor for the tracks that someone will leave, because when there's an open door, sooner or later, you know…"
I will post Testa's tour dates as soon as they are firm.
P.S. While in Montréal, I also picked up Paolo Conte's new CD, Elegia, whose January release seems to have gone almost unnoticed in these parts. It is staggeringly wonderful. (Monsieur C, note that it includes a song about San Francisco.) I'll do my best to post about it in the not-too-distant future. For now, however, I am struck dumb with awe.