Mario Romano Quartet
Mario Romano Quartet
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 â70s, 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.

Marioâs career plans were then shaped by what he poetically terms âa slap from the force of destiny. I went from the complete abstract, music, to the complete concrete, which is cement!â Musicâs loss was the construction industryâs 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 âarchitectural jazz.â

His passion for music never flagged, however, and his long-delayed musical dreams have now come to fruition. âEventually it is like coming home to your wife. You cannot deny your heart,â 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 manâs 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 Romanoâs 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 (âOn Green Dolphin Street,â âNight In Tunisia,â âAutumn Leavesâ) and a Beatle tune (âNorwegian Woodâ) given a fresh twist alongside two group originals (âVia Romanoâ and âThose Damn I Love Yous,â) from Occhipinti and Romano respectively.

Song selection for Romano is an instinctive rather than intellectual process. âThe songs choose me,â he says. âI marry a song and itâs in my head all the time. I play with the tune, and through that ideas come up.â

Thereâs an elegantly understated quality in Romanoâs fluent playing that evokes the legendary McCoy Tyner. Roberto Occhipinti observed that quality, harnessing it for his composition âVia Romano.â âWe had been rehearsing at Marioâs house, and he played a McCoy Tyner kind of figure. I decided to use that as a starting point of a tune Iâd write for him. For a title, I thought âRomanoâs Way,â or, in Italian, âVia Romano,â would be an apt dedication.â

For his original composition, the sweetly haunting ballad âThose Damn I Love Yous,â Mario called upon talented Toronto jazz vocalist Kristy Cardinali. âI just love her voice,â he says. âItâs very clean and pure, and she has a way of singing thatâs like whispering in your ear.â

The Quartet was afforded the luxury of time in recording Valentina, and they took full advantage. âWe werenât under the gun, watching the clock, and I think it shows,â says Pat LaBarbera. âThis is one of the best records for the sound of my saxophone.â Considering the countless number of recordings he has made during a stellar 50 year long career, thatâs saying something. One listen to his stellar work on tunes like âNardisâ and âNorwegian Woodâ (a tune Pat played nightly for years in Buddy Richâs band) and youâll agree.

Mark Kelso also sees Valentina as representing âone 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.â

Romanoâs three bandmates and producer have recorded and performed together on dozens of occasions, and their musical empathy is clearly audible on Valentina. In turn, Marioâs prowess as a pianist and arranger caught the ear of his comrades. âHeâs modest about his skills, but Iâd be more than happy to have half his technique,â says Roberto. To LaBarbera, âHis treatment of standards is refreshingly original because he plays from pure inspiration.â

To Peter Cardinali, âMario 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.â Romano cites âAutumn Leavesâ as an example of their collaborative approach. âPeter 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.â

Over the last couple of years Mario has honed his performance chops too. A 2008 concert at Bramptonâs Rose Theatre was a sold-out success, and a performance at Torontoâs 2009 Art of Jazz festival drew rave reviews. This past July, he and his band had four shows at Italyâs 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!