Mario Romano Quartet – Valentina – Alma

by | Dec 5, 2010 | Jazz CD Reviews | 0 comments

Mario Romano Quartet – Valentina – Alma ACD15102, 54:08 ****:

(Mario Romano – piano; Roberto Occhipinti – bass; Mark Kelso – drums; Pat LaBarbera – tenor saxophone; Kristy Cardinali – vocals (track 5))

Some debuts are a long time in coming. Pianist Mario Romano’s first album as a leader, Valentina, is decades overdue. In the early 1970s, the Toronto-based musician was an emerging artist on the Canadian jazz scene who studied at York University and performed with other young Canadian jazz cats.

But Romano followed his father into the construction industry and real estate development and left music as a sideline. After such a long hiatus, it comes as a pleasant surprise to hear Romano on this 54-minute project that combines standards, classics and two originals by the Mario Romano Quartet. Listening to the seven tracks its evident Romano has remained a vital, dedicated talent who can play and arrange like he never left the jazz community.

The record warms up with Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia,” with Pat LaBarbera’s breathy solo tenor sax intro. From there the cut kicks open with all pistons firing: LaBarbera brings his many years of technique and skill to the fore; drummer Mark Kelso lays out a brisk bop beat and is evenly matched by bassist Roberto Occhipinti – who also adds an absorbing solo; and Romano showcases his commendable keyboard chops.

One highlight is a refreshing take of The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” a tune LaBarbera did when he was in Buddy Rich’s band. First there is a sedate solo piano preface that masks the famous melody, so when it does arrive about a minute in, there is an enjoyable moment when the pop hit is fully recognized. From there, the arrangement escalates into up-tempo terrain. Romano displays a keen right hand touch on his keyboard while the rhythm section keeps a swinging line. There are some bits of self-possessed intricacy in a slightly bluesy vein, but mostly the foursome position “Norwegian Wood” as an inventive invigorating stretch.

The other interpretations are also well organized. “Autumn Leaves” is a good example of Romano’s arranging and collaborative efforts. Producer Peter Cardinali suggested the band cut the melody in half time: the result is like a ballad with a Latin texture. LaBarbera scores on a soulful solo that has just the right balance of grit and smoothness; drummer Mark Kelso assembles a charging percussive combustion; and Romano employs some effective, left-of-field left-hand piano lines. There are also discerning intervals worth investigating during Miles Davis’ “Nardis,” Chick Corea’s “Windows” and the closing number, a lyrical reading of “Someday My Prince Will Come.”

Occhipinti and Romano contribute two compositions. Occhipinti’s “Via Romano” was sparked by a rehearsal at Romano’s home when the pianist laid out a McCoy Tyner-ish figure which Occhipinti used as a starting point and inspiration for his energetic composition. Quite different but just as decisive is romantic ballad “Those Damn I Love Yous,” accented by strings and featuring vocalist Kristy Cardinali’s sparkling tone: and to answer the obvious, she is the producer’s daughter. Papa must be pleased.

Kudos to producer Cardinali, whose creative participation and behind-the-boards ideas give Valentina a robust sound: the drums and bass are deep in detail within the mix; Romano’s piano tone is excellent throughout with strong declination of lower and higher register notes; and LaBarbera’s sax has superb clarity and lucidity.

1. Night in Tunisia
2. Norwegian Wood
3. Autumn Leaves
4. Nardis
5. Those Damn I Love Yous
6. On Green Dolphin Street
7. Windows
8. Via Romano
9. Someday My Prince Will Come

— Doug Simpson

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