Music Review: Alfie Zappacosta - Live From Blue Frog Studios

Alfie Zappacosta is not a Maritimer. But he could have been, and in some ways, he is. The Zappacosta family arrived in Canada in 1953 from Italy, landing at Halifax's Pier 21, with Alfie just six months old. Playing to a packed Stayner's Wharf club crowd, Zappacosta admits he has no memories of it: "I know I had oranges, and I was allergic to them, and got hives." The family ended up in Toronto, but Halifax has continued to be a place he returns to with regularity, for shows, and even his side career in acting. His role in Jesus Christ Superstar (with Heather Rankin of The Rankins) in 2001 made him a favourite here, something that continues.

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The same role in 1994 took him to Edmonton, which is where he has made his home since. "It was a quiet, perfect spot to raise kids, and I still love my neighbourhood," he says. That's a pretty sensible, stable attitude, one that has typified his career over the past two decades. An 80's hitmaker, his singles and albums made him a star, including When I Fall (In Love Again) and Nothing Could Stand In Your Way, the latter written with David Foster. His cut Overload on the soundtrack for the movie Dirty Dancing put his name around the world, with sales of 42 million copies. It no doubt also made him a small fortune, and would continue to generate healthy royalty cheques. But money, it seems, isn't everything to Zappacosta. Music, and musical integrity is, however.

At a time when his contemporaries enjoy the festival and casino circuit, playing faithful renditions of their old hits, Zappacosta has decided to stay off that path. "I wouldn't want to put on the spandex," he laughs. For the past two decades, he's made the music he wants, which won't put him on any pop charts or outdoor stages. Sick of being told what to do by music companies, he followed his muse. That Zappacosta music has a lot of smooth jazz in it, lots of his deft acoustic guitar, and lots of new songs too, his touch for romantic ballads and elegant chord changes as strong as ever.

The Halifax shows were stripped-down affairs, Zappacosta long ago learning the economies of touring Canada. For Eastern shows, he works with the brilliant Cuban pianist Sylvio Pupo, now a Canadian resident, living in Moncton. Out west, he has a different set of players, which can bulk up to a six-piece group, including viola and sax. That's the band that joins him for his latest disc and DVD, Live From Blue Frog Studios, recorded last year in White Rock, B.C. With the group, the jazz groove comes out more, but with his strong pop flare in the melodies, and any fans of latter-day Steely Dan would jump on board. Zappacosta has written lots of this kind of material over the past few years, certainly equal to his past hits. Recent numbers such as You Make Me Laugh, Bella, and Blame It On Me all groove, plus have an intense romantic quality that few dare display. Blame it on the Italian in him, perhaps? Whatever, they strike a chord with a lot of admirers in the audience.

Most surprising are the adaptations of his old hits. Zappacosta is justifiably proud of them, too, but they were from a different time. Stripped of the 80's production, played with rich acoustic chords, the words to the front, you gain a new appreciation for the craftsmanship that went into them.

The new DVD and CD have a mix of old and new, with the band tight and the sound crystal-clean. It's not a rock show, there's no theatrics, and the focus is on the music. Alfie Zappacosta doesn't have to trot out the old stuff for applause, and be somebody he doesn't want to be. The focus, for him, and on the recordings, is on the music.

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About Bob Mersereau

Rockin' BobBob Mersereau has been covering music, and the East Coast Music Scene since 1985 for CBC. He's a veteran scene-maker at the ECMA's, knows where the best shows and right parties are happening, and more importantly, has survived to tell the tales. His weekly East Coast music column is heard on Shift on Radio 1 in New Brunswick each Wednesday at 4'45. He's also the author of two national best-selling books, The Top 100 Canadian Albums (2007) and The Top 100 Canadian Singles (2010).

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