Unsung Heroes No. 4 – Gino Vannelli

26 02 2008

Gino Vannelli

Gino Vannelli is one of Canada’s most talented, and enduring exports. A hugely prolific recording artist, he is known for his jazz-tinged arrangements, early use of bass-synth and cutting edge production, rivalled perhaps only by Steely Dan, which reached a peak with his classic “Brother to Brother” album in 1978. The multi-layered synth lines, pre-dating polyphonic synthesisers, and therefore considered pioneering, created a rich montage of sound, and were chiefly the work of his brother Joe.

But it is the gifted vocals which set Vannelli aside from the pack. His powerful voice is tinged with soul, funk, jazz and gospel, and his songwriting is first class. His image, and some of his concert appearances, can be cringe-inducing, as he often puts his music across with hackneyed disco moves, wearing clothes from the decade that taste forgot, the Seventies. But this belies the true talent behind this forward thinking writer and performer.

Using an array of first class session musicians, plus a helping hand from brothers Ross and Joe, Gino created some classic albums throughout the 70’s after being signed by Herb Alpert to his fledgling A & M label. His debut album was in 1973, and his television debut was also the first time a caucasian singer had been featured on Soul Train. (Bowie was to follow soon after.) Rumour has it that he once toured as support to Liza Minelli , giving the tabloids a mouthwatering rhyming double act for their headlines, but it is thought Ms. Minnelli dropped him from the tour as he was blowing her act off the stage every night.

By the mid 70’s he was so self-assured as an artist, he wrote an entire side of an album performed with the London Philharmonic; BLACK AND BLUE, from A Pauper in Paradise.

Vannelli’s tour de force is the heartfelt ballad, and a string of classics in this genre are strewn across his album output. Examples include; JOJO, from Powerful People, LIVING INSIDE MYSELF, from Brother to Brother, and PUT THE WEIGHT ON MY SHOULDERS from Nightwalker. How a man capable of writing and performing songs of this standard is not a household name, is quite beyond me. The final irony of course is that, if you ask most people in the UK if they’ve heard of Gino Vannelli, and they will seriously believe you are talking about a pizza or ice cream company.

Brother to Brother is widely recognised as Vannelli’s Sergeant Pepper, fusing jazz funk and soul seamlessly with a stunning collection of songs. It went platinum, spawning a number 1 single in Canada and garnering a grammy award nomination. Nevertheless, Nightwalker released two years later in 1980, and Inconsolable man a decade later proved he still had some more in the tank. Albums like Big Dreamers Never Sleep and Black Cars saw him treading water somewhat, as 80’s sounds and production caught up with him, not to mention some ill-chosen video highlights, but subsequent albums would see him pushing the envelope much further than ever before. Yonder Tree shouted its jazz heritage from the rooftops, the tone set by the opening track, Gino’s wonderful tribute to that great american poet Walt Whitman, with Walter Whitman where are you? The album even featured a tap-dancing solo from, who else but Gregory Hines. He followed this with the beautifully understated “Slow Love” album in 1998. Four tracks in, lies a song which sounds like its been co-written with Gershwin himself. The lilting intro melody is from another time. With scintillating piano from Rachel Z, a beautiful syncopated rhythm and ebony backing vocals dripping like molasses across the chorus, “Down with Love” is simply a musical celebration.

But it is the album Gino released in 2003, Canto, which shattered all the boundaries. Sung in a bewildering array of languages, French, Italian, Spanish and English, and mining a rich operatic vein, Canto is difficult, but ultimately rewarding, listening. It is an album by a man who embraces music in all its forms as a gift, and he’s determined to explore the farthest reaches of its galaxy. It even earned him a performance at the Vatican for Pope John Paul II. And while we’re on a religious note, thank god for artists like Gino Vannelli, a welcome and necessary antidote to the “just add water ” one dimensional sliver-thinly talented insta-pop stars we are forced to endure on the airwaves nowadays. Do yourselves a favour. Turn the radio and the TV off, and dive into the back catalogue of sparkling gems cut by this remarkable musician.
As Gino himself puts it:

“insofar as music, considered as art and a labour of love – living and breathing – this idea hangs by the slender thread of passion and persistence.”

Well, if it’s passion and persistence you want, this guy has it in spades, go check him out.

Gino Vannelli

Selected Discography

Powerful People – 1974

Brother to Brother – 1978

Nightwalker – 1980

Inconsolable Man – 1990

Slow love – 1998

Canto – 2003

His last release was in 2006, but he’s set to release a new album  sometime in 2008

Kev Moore