It’s deep into a sultry early-July night, and a line stretches outside Joe’s Pub in anticipation of yet another sold-out show from Italian pop star Jovanotti. Wreathed in tobacco fumes, the crowd speaks a subdued Babel of languages: Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, English, and even a smidgen of Japanese. The men, especially the younger ones, are trees in a boho forest of stingy-brim fedoras and pork-pie hats, sidling up to curvy blonde and brunette ladies done up in elegant cocktail-party drag. Once inside, revelers squeezed into the standing-room-only section do tiny dances in the tiny aisles; many of those fortunate enough to have a table are fellow musicians or friends of tonight’s star attraction. To wit, a smiling and operatically zaftig black woman takes a seat near the stage and is soon the first of many people personally greeted by the singer between songs.
A census-taker might be astonished to see so many Italian tourists and long-time expats gathered to support homegrown pop royalty, but we native New Yorkers know both our town’s international appeal and the unquenchable cultural nostalgia within her various expat communities. Not that there isn’t a substantial crew of curious Yanks in this audience—cognoscenti from the East Village, Williamsburg, and beyond are all in the house, partly due to strong word-of-mouth after Jova’s U.S. debut at (le) poisson rouge in February—but also because two-thirds of the singer’s current septet (featuring trumpet, bass, guitar, keys, drums, and two percussionists) consists of local talent. After a European tour sent his 11th studio album, Safari, to the top of Italy’s pop charts last year, he decided it was time to crack the American city whose streetwise DJ culture first inspired him. There’s a YouTube video of Jovanotti (a/k/a “Joe Vanotti,” born Lorenzo Cherubini) in a baseball cap and flowered shorts, rhyming alongside Afrika Bambaataa in Italy in the ’80s.
Although today he also sings, he began recording as an old-school emcee, did his first album in English, and initially performed onstage with only two turntables and a microphone. Subsequent DJ gigs, including a stint with MTV-Europe, expanded his ongoing research into the multi-ethnic roots of all popular music, transforming him into the adventurous pop singer/songwriter/producer he is today. At 43, he still rocks the stage like a lanky, garrulous rap star, but Jovanotti now sees his own music as a blend and a refraction of all of his favorite artists, from Run-DMC to Stevie Wonder to Chico Buarque.
Much like Bambaataa, Jova investigates international rock and classical music as well, throwing every possible style and mode into his creative hopper. He has proven to be as comfortable appearing on record with Pavarotti as with Bono. Such savvy flexibility culminates in anthemic material like “Bella” or “In Orbita,” packed with lyrical hooks so visceral that even non-Italian-speakers comprehend the passions behind them. As a composer, he works by optimistic instinct, forming fast friendships in the studio with oft-magical results. Recently, after writing a samba-funk number, he e-mailed an MP3 of the demo to Sérgio Mendes, who not only agreed to provide the arrangement, but also volunteered his own musicians and did production on the recording for free.
Encouraged by how easy it was to find New York musicians able and willing to jam, Jovanotti brought only two regular bandmates (bassist Saturnino Celani and guitarist Riccardo Onori) to anchor what has become two months of intimate, twice-weekly NYC club gigs: The cheerfully funky Nublu Lounge (every Sunday) and the upscale Joe’s Pub (every Thursday) jointly exemplify the inclusive intent of this summer project. Once he had selected the other five members of what he has tagged the Soleluna (“Sun and Moon”) NY Lab, he rehearsed them for only two days to keep the onstage interaction more spontaneous. And though current sets lean heavily on dance funk and jazz fusion, his new sidemen have the chops to play anything, whether their personal point of origin is the Bronx, Salvador da Bahia, or Naples. Their leader claims this new combo gelled, within 15 minutes of rehearsal, into a unit capable of radical, genre-crossing improvisation: Imagine Weather Report as channeled through the Roots Radics and Spearhead, and you’ll come close. At this particular Joe’s Pub gig, the crew draws heavily from Safari (available stateside via iTunes), which showcases memorable collaborations with Ben Harper (“Fango”), Michael Franti (“Mani Liberi 2008”), Sly & Robbie (“Temporale”), and, of course, Sérgio Mendes (“Punto”). Jova sings persuasively about politics, but it’s the love songs that make his Italian fans sing the loudest.
Back home, Jovanotti fills stadiums, but now he has willingly stepped back into the role of developing a band, with accordingly downsized ticket prices. Moreover, he’s subsidizing the costs of this transatlantic experiment himself. Why? Because he wants to be part of a paradigm shift in the global music biz and thinks experiments like this are part of it. At heart, Jovanotti is still an internationalist of the Zulu Nation school, believing in progress, liberation, and fraternity through music. DJ culture has been promoting this vision globally for three decades; coming off his most successful CD yet, with the Euro strong and the world re-potentialized by Obama and online networking, he now joins a growing vanguard of maverick pop stars determined to seize this historical moment and make that vision a practical reality.