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Previous reviewer Mauri said it all for me ! The Barry White comparison is bang on. I was on a week long holiday in San Vito Lo Capo, N.W Sicily and heard this sound over two nights, in 'Gna Sara' - a fantastic restaurant, just off the main drag in SVLC. It caught my ear and imagination, immediately. I got the Mario Biondi name from the restaurant staff (really cool gang) . Both nights, mixed with a heady brew of excellent localfood, wine and hospitality, it was a transportation to bliss. This is listen-glad-to-be-alive-think-dance-kiss & more music' - rolled into one !!! Amazing. I came home and was surprised and thrilled to be able to find & download his 2006 debut 'Handful of Soul', without problem. I am listening to it continuously for over a week. Mauri is right. The variety and richness of voice, sound and music choice is a real strength of this release. Boredom & familiarity is almost impossible. I listen / buy all sorts of music, but especially jazz / latin. This is top notch. If you are alive - BUY IT. No hesitation ! Mario, bring out another one. Quickly !!
Mario Biondi?... Who's he? And well may you ask for that is the reaction I first had when I first heard him mentioned on the Robert Helms radio show last year, unfortunately I had just tuned in so I didn't get to hear the actual song played but simply heard the praise heaped upon it. Months passed but the name must have stuck at the back of my mind since I recognised the name when a friend of mine mentioned how good his debut album was and I decided to investigate further that was the best decision I've taken in a long time.
So who is Mario Biondi? Born in Catania, Sicily Biondi is an old style soul singer possessing a wonderful deep husky voice slightly reminiscent of Barry White... and yet he isn't really a soul singer at all since his melodic tones seem to fit more neatly in to Swing/Jazz with Cole Porter style delivery. In short he's versatile and difficult to categorise.
As 'whispering' Bob Harris would've said presenting such an artist on 'The Old Grey Whistle Test', Mario Biondi's musical influences and expressions are an 'eclectic' mix. The debut album 'A Handful of Soul' recorded in 2006, the title track of which is taken from one of the classic American Soul/Jazz tracks he covers, perfectly displays his vocal talents and his consummate choice of songs helps to exhibit those talents.
The record is indeed a mixture of old and new and also a mixture of musical styles from the Bossa Latin jazz beats of covers like 'A Child Runs Free', the samba influenced upbeat 'Rio de Janeiro Blue', the pure soul sound of 'No Mercy For Me' and 'Never Die' to the swing style of 'On A Clear Day', 'You Can See Forever'.
To say the record grows on you would be a little misleading since it really captures your interest from the very first listen. As soon as I heard the rhythmic Latin drum beats on the intro of the first song 'A Child Runs Free' I was intrigued, then with the introduction of the keyboards and Biondi's warm gravelly distinctive voice I was hooked. The song takes a traditional be-pop Jazz structure as the song develops each instrument takes centre stage but the tempo and vitality of the song is kept going by the incessant rhythmical Latin percussion.
This is just about a perfect opener for the cd. The next song takes into a completely different direction as we are transported to the 'Cool Jazz' sound of smoke filled (well smoke free these days) basement bars of Montmartre. 'No Mercy For Me' is a stark change in tempo and feel from the previous song and gives a hint to the variety to follow. This lover's lament again is perfectly interpreted by Biondi who has already shown in just tow songs how adaptable his deeply soulful vocals can be. This song co-written by Biondi also illustrates his talent creating as well and interpreting songs.
So far I've concentrated on what Mario Biondi's vocals bring to the music but we mustn't forget the musicianship of the band, which is quite extraordinary. They provide the perfect foil for his Soul/Jazz tinged interpretation of the material. The High Five Quintet is made up of Fabrizio Bosso on trumpet Daniele Scannapieco on tenor sax, Luca Mannutza on piano, Pietro Ciancaglini on double bass and Lorenzo Tucci on drums. The band itself has released two albums on a smaller Italian Jazz label (Via Veneto Jazz) and each musician is well respected having won awards around the world and having collaborated with international Jazz/Soul stars. The difference between a collection of virtuoso musicians and a truly great band is the chemistry that the individuals show for each other. By some probably subconscious means the listener can discern when the chemistry is right or when it isn't. The music seems to flow rather than progress, the timing seems to be effortless rather than forced. It's difficult to explain but when you hear it you know it and this is the feeling I had on hearing Biondi and the band. What is surprising is that this is the first time Biondi and the High Five Quintet have worked together the collaboration only came about after the record producer suggested that Fabrizio Bosso should be brought in to arrange and perform on some the tracks, he in turn suggested using his band and the rest is history. I hope there are more collaborations between the two in future.
Biondi musical loves are clearly represented in the choice of songs and looking and listening through the track list we can see this singer knows and appreciates many greats from rhythm and blues to more mainstream soul. The hint of acts like Billy Paul, Luther Vandross, Lou Rawls, Aretha Franklin, Eryka Badu and Freddy Cole can be felt throughout the record. This is not to say that Biondi ever mimics or parodies these people, the connection is subtler than that and Biondi's distinctive voice makes sure he brings something new and fresh to every song.
There is no point running through every single track on the cd I don't think that would add much to the review but it is difficult to highlight any standout tracks since the quality is uniformly good.
I've spoken already of the different styles that the singer and band attempt on this recording and to add to the Bossa rhythms of the opening track and the easy cool jazz of the second it is worth mentioning the upbeat Samba inspired 'Rio De Janeiro Blue'. This is well know track covered by many artist from Jazz great Freddy Cole 'middle of the road' diva Randy Crawford but I don't think any singer has injected the compelling dance vibe and sensual vocals that we find on this version. Another great track is the title track 'A Handful Of Soul', once again the Chameleon-like Biondi mixes things up and here we get that big band swing style, with blazing percussion and booming vocals. 'On A Clear Day, You Can See Forever' another Swing/Jazz standard sees Biondi taking on the mantle of the 50's crooner more associated with another 'Italian' singer Frank 'blue eyes' Sinatra.
So confident is Mario Biondi of his vocal ability he doesn't shirk away from covering tracks associated with other great vocalist inevitably inviting comparisons. Taking on a Bill Withers track should be a daunting task but Biondi covers 'I'm her Daddy' with great verve and makes it his own. His own voice while different from the brilliant Withers manages to engage the listener and provide the needed depth and emotion to make the song come to life.
The song that some may know already from the record is the third track 'This Is What You Are' which was released as a single and did get some airplay in the UK. This was a good choice for a single it is an upbeat jazz/soul number that shows off the both the musical skills of the band as well as the qualities of Biondi's voice. It was a hit in Italy and was in many ways the breakthrough song for him. For those of you who would like a taste of what the rest of the record is like this is a good sampler and the video accompanying the song is at present available to view on YouTube.
Overall I can't fault this record; there are no bad tracks, the different styles keeps the music sounding fresh time after time. Play it with the volume turned low and it's the perfect soundtrack for those lazy fragile Sunday chill out moments, play it loud and it's perfect as a pre going out mood setter. Given the right mood and the right company you can even have a dance to it.
Track Listing and other details
1. A Child Runs Free
2. No Mercy For Me
3. This Is What You Are
4. Rio De Janeiro Blue
5. Slow Hot Wind
6. A Handful Of Soul
7. Never Die
8. On A Clear Day, You Can See Forever
10. I Can't Keep From Crying Sometimes
11. No trouble On the Mountain
12. I'm Her daddy
Released by the relatively unknown label Schema the cd has sold well in Italy over 60,000 copies in the first year. The accessibility and variety of the record will surely provide Mario Biondi with a huge stepping-stone to make his name in an international market and if such recognition comes it will be well deserved.
'A Handful Of Soul' by Mario Biondi and the High Five Quintet (ASIN: B000M2EH32) is available to buy from Amazon.co.uk for £14.49 (+p&p) at the time this review was written.
Go out and buy it, highly recommended!
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 A Child Runs Free
2 No Mercy For Me
3 This Is What You Are
4 Rio De Janerio Blue
5 Slow Hot Wind
6 A Handful Of Soul
7 Never Die
8 On A Clear Day, You Can See Forever
10 I Cant Keep From Crying Sometimes
11 No trouble On the Mountain
12 I'm Her daddy