Review by Brett David Stewart at Tilting Windmill Studios – the Independent Spotlight

Independent Spotlight is a continuing series on Stewart’s blog. The series revolves around independent artists and bands sending their music to Brett to review. No band is promised a positive review, and all music is reviewed honestly in an effort to better independent music.

In this edition of the Independent Spotlight, we’re going to be showcasing Tony Marino, a lauded composer and pianist that has developed a modest following in the independent community for his endeavors through different types of jazz. Many of his fans aren’t jazz enthusiasts, however, but rather crossover music lovers that Marino appeals to due to his eclectic style. Let’s explore his lengthy new studio release, ‘101.’

Now, ‘101’ is a very long album, clocking in at fourteen tracks. I’ve mentioned this on the Spotlight before, but it bears repeating: this can work for or against an artist. Their music can expand dramatically through its extensiveness, or it can drown in its own monotony. When releasing an album like this, Marino did roll the dice in that regard. Fortunately, he rolled well. ‘101’ is a pretty incredible excursion through different styles of jazz.

The instrumental prowess behind Tony Marino and his bandmates is immediately astounding. ‘Bob & Zita,’ the opening of the album, boasts a keys-heavy journey through wind instrumentation. The flute and keyboards bounce off each other so elegantly, and they’re backed by a selection of percussion that’s chock-full of personality. That’s an important factor of Marino’s musings: they embody personalities unto their own.

Marino’s piano performance seems to have been recorded on a keyboard rather than an acoustic piano, and thus, it has a pretty distinct sound. It doesn’t occupy itself with any reverb or the like. This can make it sound a bit electronic, as exhibited on the solo section of ‘A Tune For Matt’ when the keyboard was clearly turned over to a different setting. That said, this is also refreshing. Marino sits at the forefront of his sound, unhindered by ostentatious effects or production.

There’s a Latin flair to ‘101,’ which makes sense, considering Marino has been forging his way through that scene for quite some time now. Within that realm, he branches out in a few different intriguing directions. ‘Chicago Bossa’ is a good example of this. ‘Bossa’ is a Brazilian style of samba and jazz that’s very danceable. I imagine Marino’s music is at home in a sublime fashion when introduced to a ballroom stage or a jazz club on an evening designated for more upbeat styles.

The most important aspect of an entirely instrumental record is that lyrics never end up being desired by the listener. The instruments need to take on that role themselves, conveying emotion, passion, and mood. The sonic landscape needs to be equally as poignant as a powerhouse vocalist. This is something ‘101’ excels at doing throughout its run. ‘Kristina,’ for example, has all of the perfect workings of a lovely love ballad. Marino need not utter a word, though, because his piano drives you through the motions better than any words could.

Earlier, I mentioned the instrumentation sounding particularly electronic due to the keyboard likely being a MIDI set-up or something similar. ‘Arturo’ gives that away, simulating a brass sections that’s clearly played by Marino on keys. I’ve often argued that overt key synthesizing can take away from the atmosphere of a song. With ‘Arturo,’ however, it’s oddly fitting. You know you’re not listening to a real brass section, and as a result, it allows Marino to exhibit his talent in a sonically different way.

At the top of this piece, I mentioned that Marino thinks of himself as a genre-bending act. Yes, he’s jazz, but he appeals to people who may not be traditional fans of the genre. Once one gets into the groove of ‘101,’ the reason for that becomes apparent. Many people who are not jazz fans see the genre as inaccessible, gloomy, or too complex. Songs like ‘We’re Home’ are welcoming, introducing listeners to the intensity of a quality jazz performance without daunting them in experimentalism or gloom.

‘Hermeto’ is probably the only track on the album that isn’t accented well by the synthesized nature of the keys. The occasional synthesized sections are overbearing and harsh. At one point in the mid-section of the song, the brass synthesizer sounds more like a mushroom dancing across the screen of ‘Super Mario’ than it does a jazz performance. ‘Broad Street’ mends the pitfall nicely, however, offering a great landscape for the flute to reoccupy itself within.

The songs of this album are dedicated to people who have touched Marino’s life over the years. ‘Stephanie’s Waltz’ is one of the most beautiful tracks on the album – a truly touching escapade through waltz-step explorations. Its simplicity is perfect, and I’m so glad the track doesn’t attempt to infuse any further instrumentation or percussion into itself.

‘Eggeman Road’ is a wonderful pursuit, especially in its final moments as it tones down the keyboard into a particularly wonderful effect. ‘Keep It Moving’ then follows, one of the more driving tracks in the collection. Toward the end of the album, Marino does occasionally fall victim to its length. ‘Eggeman Road,’ while lovely, isn’t anything new after over ten tracks of similar pursuits. ‘Keep It Moving’ does supercharge the final notes, though, and ‘Rita’ is a stunning finale.

Tony Marino is one hell of a talented pianist. His compositions are fresh, consistently interesting, and dynamic. ‘101’ is clearly a labor of love. Marino should tout it proudly, because it’s an accessible, but tactfully deep series of songs that define his sound as a jazz pianist. Plus, I concur with his own assessment of his music – non-jazz fans may find plenty to love here.