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 

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11 responses

25 03 2008
Trumanfq

thanks much, bro

24 07 2008
billabong

I have just stumbled upon gino’s music. I had only caught a song hear or there on the radio, but after listening to him lately, I was surprised by the sheer talent of the man.

24 07 2008
kevmoore

Thanks for dropping by, Billabong, yep, its rare to hear Gino on the airwaves, but glad you’re exploring his musical legacy now!

9 08 2008
Colin Hesketh

Wow Kev! So you’re a Gino bod too!!! We appear to have the same taste in music! Are you my long-lost half brother of something??? You’ll be telling me next you’re big on Glenn hughes/Tommy bolin next!

..Doh!

10 08 2008
kevmoore

Yep, can’t fault your taste, Colin!

11 08 2008
Colin Hesketh

I can remember hearing Gino Vannelli for the first time – And even where I was stood at the time – 1979 was the year, I was 18 and it was (of course)’I just wanna stop’ playing on Alan Freeman’s saturday afternoon show. Bizarrely, though I can see where I was coming from – I was convinced I was hearing the follow-up to ‘Play me out’ by Glenn Hughes and it was only when Fluff namechecked the artist later that I realised I was hearing something new and exciting and I wanted more!!
Over the next year or two I slowly investigated the back catalogue and bought ‘Nightwalker’ on it’s release. I kept these albums for years and tried a few of the 80’s releases, though they didn’t generally have the same pomp and grandiosity of the 70’s albums, so i have to admit my interest did wane a bit, to the point that I did eventually sell everything except Brother to Brother and Nightwalker. Bad move! Only the live set from 1991 sparked my interest for many years subsequent to that, though I did also have a go at ‘Yonder Tree’, but struggled with it somewhat… (I think I was missing the bass synth lines and incredible drum charts to be honest!).
Fast Forward to 2007/08 and I find myself yearning to hear those 70’s albums that I’d stupidly sold on.. Gist of the Gemini,Pauper in Paradise, Powerful People & Storm at Sunup.. so I set about rectifying that by having those titles shipped over from the States. What a joy! I remembered all the tunes instantly and wondered why I was so daft as to get rid of these masterpieces back in the late 80’s!!
Inspired by watching a couple of things on YouTube, I’ve just ordered a couple of live DVD’s from Gino’s site and I’m itching for them to arrive here in the UK, so I can wallow in their magnificence!
I agree with everything that was said in Kev’s blog at the top of this page.. Sometimes I feel it would be difficult to try to turn my friends on to his music, as certainly his 70’s output was overblown and pompous in the extreme occasionally, but you know what… I just don’t care! The words ‘magnificent and awe-inspiring’ doesn’t do it justice. The songs and melody lines .. not to mention the jaw-dropping playing are just sublime and I don’t care how many people take the rip out of his ‘ice cream’ name or his ‘mawkish balladry’.. I know that I know something that they are too blind to see.

GINO IS A GOD AMONGST MEN!

13 08 2008
kevmoore

Colin, a wonderful essay on the power of Gino’s music. I too, thought it quite “Glenn” when I first heard his music, and i think that’s what made me receptive to it. it was n old keyboard player friend of mine who turned me onto Gino in 78 – the quality of production and attention to detail was streets ahead of anything else at that time, save perhaps for Steely Dan. I struggled a little with yonder tree, but have grown to love it. But surely Brother to Brother and Nightwalker are his zenith. I remember finding the latter in a record shop in Oslo when i was on tour in 1980 – I’d been desperate for some new Gino, and I wasn’t disappointed! The early stuff came courtesy of some cassettes given to me by a female bass player from a Norwegian band when i was waaaay up north in Tromso – she was also a Gino nut, luckily for me – and a completist – so I got most of the back catalogue and spent most of that scandinavian tour immersed in classics like “new fix for 76”, “felicia”, and “jojo” Great days!

7 09 2008
arthur

hello my music friend!thanks for the post!i have 3 rarest gino’s dvd -1995-baden baden,1999-in montreal and ‘canto’-film with concert.do you know,maby some one have another gino’s videos(i know 2006 ‘these are the days’ film and south africa concert)and maby we could exchange for our information?thanks.

8 09 2008
kevmoore

Welcome, Arthur. You have me wanting to check out these videos – I’ve only seen Gino briefly live in YouTube – but hopefully readers will see your request and respond.

9 09 2008
Mikele

Despite by the fact that he is shamely underrated, Gino is absolutely one of the best male vocals of today’s modern music.

1 08 2009
Andrea

Thanks for wonderfl article about Gino. He is my all-time, no one else can compare, beautiful, ridiculously talented singer. I never tire of him. NEVER!
He will always have me as an ardent fan!

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