To call Valentina a long-awaited debut album is definitely an understatement. You see, Toronto jazz pianist, arranger and bandleader Mario Romano has taken nearly four decades to fulfill his creative dream. The wait will be over, with its release this fall on prestigious independent label Alma Records.
Back in the early ‘70s, Romano was a highly promising young player on the Toronto scene. He studied music composition and performance at York University, and his talent back then led to a CBC Radio recording session with the likes of local greats Freddie Stone, Pat LaBarbera, and Dave Young.
Mario’s career plans were then shaped by what he poetically terms “a slap from the force of destiny. I went from the complete abstract, music, to the complete concrete, which is cement!” Music’s loss was the construction industry’s gain, and Romano and his company Castlepoint have become one of the most important players in real estate development. One of their current projects, the L Tower at the Sony Centre in Toronto, features an award-winning design by world-renowned architect Daniel Liebeskind, and has been termed ‘architectural jazz.’
His passion for music never flagged, however, and his long-delayed musical dreams have now come to fruition. “Eventually it is like coming home to your wife. You cannot deny your heart,” he explains. The happy result is Valentina, a truly compelling album of musical depth and melodic beauty.
Any suspicions that this might be something of a wealthy man’s vanity project are blown out of the water upon first listen. Romano is the real deal, a serious and committed musician of major talent as both a pianist and an arranger with a very fresh approach. While Romano’s name may not be familiar to jazz fans just yet, those of his four musical comrades certainly are. Saxophonist Pat LaBarbera, bassist Roberto Occhipinti and drummer Mark Kelso are elite Canadian musicians, players with the highest reputation, internationally as well as nationally. Overseeing proceedings with subtle authority is renowned producer Peter Cardinali.
These are musicians and a producer of unimpeachable integrity. Nobody buys peer respect from these cats. It has to be earned, and Mario Romano has done just that on Valentina.. The well-constructed record features jazz classics (“On Green Dolphin Street,” “Night In Tunisia,” “Autumn Leaves”) and a Beatle tune (“Norwegian Wood”) given a fresh twist alongside two group originals (“Via Romano” and “Those Damn I Love Yous,”) from Occhipinti and Romano respectively.
Song selection for Romano is an instinctive rather than intellectual process. “The songs choose me,” he says. “I marry a song and it’s in my head all the time. I play with the tune, and through that ideas come up.”
There’s an elegantly understated quality in Romano’s fluent playing that evokes the legendary McCoy Tyner. Roberto Occhipinti observed that quality, harnessing it for his composition “Via Romano.” “We had been rehearsing at Mario’s house, and he played a McCoy Tyner kind of figure. I decided to use that as a starting point of a tune I’d write for him. For a title, I thought ‘Romano’s Way,” or, in Italian, ‘Via Romano,’ would be an apt dedication.”
For his original composition, the sweetly haunting ballad “Those Damn I Love Yous,” Mario called upon talented Toronto jazz vocalist Kristy Cardinali. “I just love her voice,” he says. “It’s very clean and pure, and she has a way of singing that’s like whispering in your ear.”
The Quartet was afforded the luxury of time in recording Valentina, and they took full advantage. “We weren’t under the gun, watching the clock, and I think it shows,” says Pat LaBarbera. “This is one of the best records for the sound of my saxophone.” Considering the countless number of recordings he has made during a stellar 50 year long career, that’s saying something. One listen to his stellar work on tunes like “Nardis” and “Norwegian Wood” (a tune Pat played nightly for years in Buddy Rich’s band) and you’ll agree.
Mark Kelso also sees Valentina as representing “one of my personal best recorded jazz performances. Mario's arrangements are very hip rhythmically so they are especially fun for me to play. I see the album as a great mixture of the lyrical and rhythmic.”
Romano’s three bandmates and producer have recorded and performed together on dozens of occasions, and their musical empathy is clearly audible on Valentina. In turn, Mario’s prowess as a pianist and arranger caught the ear of his comrades. “He’s modest about his skills, but I’d be more than happy to have half his technique,” says Roberto. To LaBarbera, “His treatment of standards is refreshingly original because he plays from pure inspiration.”
To Peter Cardinali, “Mario comes up with some great left-field ideas that really pique my interest. I then do what I do production wise and that involves arranging on the floor as well.” Romano cites “Autumn Leaves” as an example of their collaborative approach. “Peter came up with a really good idea to cut the melody in half time, so now it is like a ballad being played over a Latin feel.”
Over the last couple of years Mario has honed his performance chops too. A 2008 concert at Brampton’s Rose Theatre was a sold-out success, and a performance at Toronto’s 2009 Art of Jazz festival drew rave reviews. This past July, he and his band had four shows at Italy’s famed Atina Jazz Festival, to equally positive response.
With Valentina, Mario Romano has written a love letter to jazz, and has done so with genuine passion and poetic imagination. Read it now!