Album Review: Sun, Mario Biondi (Columbia, 2013)

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Incognito’s Jean-Paul ‘Bluey’ Maunick produced this album, which no doubt drew coveted collaborators Leon Ware, Omar, and Al Jarreau. Chaka Khan also appears on “Lowdown,” previously released on Incognito’s Transatlantic R.P.M. album (Shanachie, 2010). Happily, the album lives up to the great promise this gaggle of musical legends holds.

I came upon Mario Biondi via his popular 2006 release, Handful of Soul (Schema). Cool jazz numbers like “This is what you are” and “On a clear day” were a perfect introduction to a remarkable jazz singing voice, one with as much personality as Sinatra’s or Armstrong’s.

Maunick’s treatment is noticeable on Sun, giving it more of a jazz-funk and soulful sound than the Cool Jazz sound of Handful of Soul. “Girl Blue” is a feel-good tune with the sweeping horn arrangements and backing vocals you’d expect from a great Incognito record. “Shine on,” “Deep space,” and “What have you done to me” are other uptempo tracks that Biondi attacks with relish and makes his own.

“Catch the sunshine” is a perfect melody for Leon Ware’s style but clashes a little with Biondi’s timber, which is too jarring against Ware’s easiness. This would have been a lovely track for Ware to sing solo. Likewise, Biondi’s voice is almost too powerful for the softly written “There’s no one like you.” Mario Biondi can certainly sing ballads but the arrangements on this track call for a much quieter touch than he can pull off without sounding contrived.

Biondi does, however, channel Barry White adeptly in at least a couple of tracks. “I can read your mind” has a Barry White vibe and Biondi has the voice to pull it off. “La voglia la pazzia l’idea,” sung in his native Italian, has a bossa groove and wonderfully lush strings arranged by long-time Incognito collaborator, Simon Hale. In fact, to disco heads like me, Hale’s arrangements steal the show in more than a few tracks on this album.

“Never stop” featuring Omar is a great tune and sounds like it could be a new hit from Bill Withers. Al Jarreau’s appearance on “Light to the world” is not quintessential Jarreau but it works. There’s very little scatting and the lyrical phrasing is much more relaxed than his vocal gymnastics masterpiece, “Take 5.” Still, it reminds us that Jarreau has a nice natural singing voice.

Although not a cohesive end-to-end listen, Sun has 13 full-length tracks offering lots to choose from for fans of jazz, soul, and the spaces in between.

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