various artists,
Italian Cafe
(Putumayo, 2005)

Long a fan of the Putumayo CD series, I was not disappointed with the latest offering, Italian Cafe. A "captivating collection of classic and contemporary Italian songs," it truly transported me to romantic Italian movies with sunglasses and stovepipe pants, sports cars and cafe lattes.

From the opening track -- "Juke Box," recorded in 1958 -- I was taken in by the freshness of these songs. "Juke Box" is a bouncy swing number about a young couple sitting in a cafe listening to the jukebox. The singer, Fred Buscaglione, was a popular Italian film star who had a "weakness for women and whiskey." He lived fast and died young, crashing his pink Thunderbird at 40.

"Che Cosse L'Amour (What is Love?)," sung by Vinicio Capossela, is a strange, almost tango-like number about love. Capossela has been compared to Tom Waits because of his quirky use of instruments and creative lyrics. This particular song asks the age-old question, what is love? But according to the liner notes, he asks the question of a frozen hammock in a gazebo. It conjures up visions of Fellini dancing in his surrealistic greatness.

"Gne Gne (Blah Blah)," sung by Giorgio Conte, is a funny little song about mindless conversation. A lovely clarinet and stand-up bass make for a lively swinging number. Somewhere in there, the girl in question poses nude for a calendar, hmmm -- interesting.

I was struck by how much this CD reminded me of the Ultra Lounge series from Capital Records with its interesting songs outside the norm.

My favorite singer was Gianmaria Testa, who has two songs on the CD. With a voice like Leonard Cohen and sparse guitar accompaniment, I found myself wishing I spoke Italian. In "Dentro al Cinema (In the Movies)," he sings of the "superficiality of fame." I love his voice, rough and raspy. "La Traiettorie delle Mongolfiere (The Trajectory of Hot Air Balloons)" compares human relationships with hot air balloons. Testa is not well known in Italy; he still works as a train station manager. But he has released four critically acclaimed CDs and continues to garner praise wherever he goes.

A CD of Italian music would certainly not be complete without a nod to the accordion. "Tu Vuo' Fa' L'americano (You Want to Play the American)" was originally sung by Sophia Loren to Clark Gable in the film It Started in Naples. Quadro Nuevo, a quartet of accomplished musicians, plays an instrumental version featuring the accordion.

The CD ends with a song, "Carina (Pretty)" by Nicola Arigliano, an Italian jazz icon who, according to the liner notes, recorded the song at age 80.

This collection is delightful and definitely worth a listen. There is a recipe for "The Classic Caffe Shakerato," an espresso with Kaluha, in the liner notes, and I suggest making a batch, putting on your '60s sunglasses and dreaming of La Bella Notte. Ciao.

by Jane Eamon
3 December 2005

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