Sunday 5 February 2012

A Musical Interlude

Last night I got to see Mario Biondi and his fantastic jazz ensemble at the final night of a short residency at Ronnie Scott's in Frith Street, Soho.

I discovered Mr Biondi about a year ago on one of those great JazzFM compilation albums through his best known track - the extremely danceable "This is what you are". I followed this by trying (and buying) his album "Handful of soul" where accompanied by the High Five Quintet he treated us to the original take of "This is what you are" as well as a couple of well known songs "Rio de Janeiro blues" made famous by Randy Crawford and "On a clear day" the all time Barbra Streisand favourite together with a number of new songs. His style is a mixture of jazz, bossa-nova and what JazzFM terms "luxury soul".

Of striking appearance - he is bald and extremely tall, he took to the stage dressed in black leather trousers and what appeared to be a mixed fabric black frock coat with a massive black leather cravat and huge glasses. Normally I would expect such attire to be way too hot for Ronnie Scotts, but it was snowing outside and the temperature had dipped below zero, so maybe he wanted to be warm! However, the most striking thing about Mario Biondi is the extremely deep voice that sounds exactly the same live as it does on his recordings.

He ran through some of his better known songs including "I love you more" "I'm her daddy" and "Can't keep from crying sometimes". Biondi was very relaxed throughout and happily engaged with the audience to the point of encouraging a sing along version of the Temptations "My Girl". He also performed one of the two songs that Burt Bacharach wrote specifically for him.

At one point he invited singer Samantha Iorio on to the stage to join him in a brilliant duet of the Deneice Williams classic "Free" and of course closed with "This is what you are" that had half of the house on its feet - well, it's hard to stand up if you are on the benches! For an encore he treated us to his reading of "Nature Boy" - I can't seem to find a recording of him doing this song, so maybe its coming soon?

As well as great vocals and engaging chat from Mr Biondi, we were treated to a fantastic performance from the band, all of whom were excellent, but for me two musicians particularly stood out, pianist Claudio Filippini and trumpet player Giovanni Amato. In fact, Mr Amato almost stole the show with a breath taking display of improvisation and interplay with both Biondi and his band mates. The gig was a real feel good experience before braving the falling snow to go home - although braver still were the hardy souls waiting outside for the second house!
Biondi was born in Catania in 1971, began singing in church at the age of 12 and has worked with some very big names including Chaka Khan, the Crusaders and Incognito. He also recorded "Everybody wants to be a cat" and "Thomas O'Malley" for the Italian version of the Walt Disney movie "The Aristocats". The "Handful of soul" album is a good introduction to his work, but a live performance is something to look out for.

A week earlier I had been in the tiny Vortex Club in Dalston, Hackney to hear all time great British jazz vocalist Norma Winstone. This gig was part of a series of jazz concerts sponsored by the Goethe Institute and included a second set of Ms Winstone's interpretation of Kurt Weill songs. She confessed to being a little nervous about the arrangements of some of the songs and about how they would work as jazz vehicles.

She didn't need to worry as the arrangements worked very well and the audience seemed to love her versions of "Bilbao Song," "My Ship", "This is new" and especially "September Song" - one of Weill's most poignant compositions. If she really was nervous, she didn't show it and shared some humorous asides including about the title of one of Weill's shows "Knickerbocker Holiday". She closed with a humour injected "Mack the knife", swinging in the style of Ella Fitzgerald and leaving us wanting more - which unfortunately we didn't get!

Norma's style is old school, relaxed and sincere and she can scat along with the best of them. I particularly like her 1997 album "Manhattan in the rain"which includes a Kurt Weill song - "It never was you" whilst she was also the featured vocalist on the "Will you walk a little faster" track on Gerardo Frisina's 2010 "Join the dance" album.

For fans of Kurt Weill, Dee Dee Bridgewater, who was at Ronnie Scott's herself last year, did a whole album of his songs a few years back, entitled "This is new" - well worth checking.

New York may well be the jazz capital of the world, but London certainly runs it close with Ronnie Scott's, Pizza Express and the new look Vortex as well as a whole range of small, local clubs and pubs. We really do have it all here!

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