The Italian singer-songwriter has yet to release an album that isn't at least quite good, and the trend continues with his latest.
Fast approaching 50, Italian singer-songwriter Gianmaria Testa didn't release his first album, Montgolfières, until 1995. In any musical genre, one's late thirties is a peculiar point in life to mark the beginning of a career. For Testa, however, arriving on the scene fully ripened has perfectly suited his world-weary, understated vocal style and considered musical approach that draws from a broad array of carefully selected influences. On the back page of the booklet accompanying his latest release, Da Questa Parte del Mare, Testa is shown bespectacled and pensive, like a vintner accessing the readiness of his grape.
Like fine wines, the composer's products are bettered by age. His sixth album is that much more subtly evocative than its predecessors. Along with his own accompaniment on acoustic guitar, Testa is joined, on most tracks, by Enzo Pietropaoli on double bass, Philippe Garcia on drums and percussion, Luciano Bondini on accordion, and Claudio Dadone on guitar. Other guest artists offer varied flavorings to the tracks, nudging each song in a slightly new direction. Always at center, though, is the voice of Gianmaria Testa. What is it about Italian vocalists that inspire comparisons to Leonard Cohen? Along with fellow countryman Paolo Conte, Testa sings in a low, warm rasp that conjures images of cigarettes and brandy. And with all the stereotypes of garrulous and over-gesticulating Italians, why do its finest exports exude such sighing resolve? Perhaps they have seen too much to get hysterical anymore.
On Da Questa Parte del Mare, which translates to something like "from this side of the sea", Testa dedicates an entire album to what he has seen of the worldwide migration of refugees from troubled lands. Although specific place names aren't given, Italy offers a view of both Northern Africa and Eastern Europe, so there is plenty for a sharp observer from Testa's home nation to take in.
He is a poetic storyteller, so it's a boon that his lyrics are presented in English in the CD booklet. To my typically limited American ears alone, a track like "Una Barca Scura" is simply a pretty song, opening with a lovely melodic theme from clarinetist Gabriele Mirabassi before descending into softly thrumming plucked strings and Gianmaria's hushed vocals. Musically, the track could easily slip away, but it is perfectly suited to the lyrics about "A Dark Boat" (it's English title) and a siren whose singing is "barely audible" "at the bottom of the sea".
Not that the joys of the album are at all restricted to the reading of its lyrics. Testa responds to this moody tale with "Tela di Ragno", wherein the singer proclaims himself to be a litany of the ills that befall the unfortunate: "I'm a fly dirtying a glass / I'm embers burning a cushion / I'm an alarm clock ringing at the wrong time early in the morning". And, in the refrain, "I'm the one begging / At the red traffic-lights". Paolo Fresu's trumpet and the electric guitar playing of the incomparable Bill Frisell punctuate the track with stellar jazz licks, transporting Testa's folk rock into headier territories. In "Rrock", a stubborn father is left at a migrating family's home, spitting and "Looking at the ground / As if he knew". The lovely ballad "3/4" is a sad lover's waltz, filled with regrets like "I wanted to treasure for you / The afternoon moon". The bouncy and accordion-driven "Al Mercato di Porta Palazzo" contrasts the images of boys flirting with girls "under their skirts" and the authorities searching dock workers "under their coats", first in separate stanzas, and then blurring together at song's end, as the boys become men.
If this all seems a bit glum, then it is that same language barrier -- limiting in some ways -- which serves to create enough distance from the album's subject matter to render Da Questa Parte del Mare a casually enjoyable listen. Of course, the reading of the accompanying text adds a huge layer, but this can also be set aside, allowing the music to simply exist as music. Testa is a gifted composer with an inviting voice and impeccable taste in his arrangements, so the pure aural pleasure of taking in this record is strong. And, with Bill Frisell guesting on four tracks, the enjoyment is even more so. Gianmaria Testa has yet to release an album that isn't at least quite good, and the trend continues with his latest, Da Questa Parte del Mare.