Gino Vannelli Strikes a New Chord with Canto

After his last two CDs were commercial flops, Gino Vannelli decided it was time to throw in the towel. “Who needs the heartache,” he says. “I was burnt. I said, ‘that’s it.’ I’ll produce some people. I’ll do some live gigs…” But the urge to write and record new material proved too difficult to contain.

After a self-imposed five-year intermission, the Montreal native who turned 50 last year is back with a new record. Canto is Vannelli’s fourteenth album in a career that has spanned three decades and more than 20 million albums sold. Along the way, he has garnered six Juno Awards and three Grammy nominations. Always difficult to categorize musically, Vannelli challenges the listener further with Canto.

A collection of eleven songs, Canto merges contemporary, classical, pop, and Celtic influences. A cut even features a Flamenco guitar. But more surprising is that Vannelli sings the tracks in four languages. Originally written in English, the lyrics were translated by “carefully selected international translators … foregoing the literal translation in an effort to reveal the spirit of the original text.” Vannelli even worked with a vocal coach to “ensure that his pronunciation was flawless.” Six of the eleven tracks are in Italian, three in English, and one each in French and Spanish.

Unlike much of Vannelli’s previous work, Canto is virtually devoid of heavy synthesizer and electronically assembled sounds. What one finds instead, for the most part, is crisp and clear classical arrangements on occasionally dissonant chords – evidence of Vannelli’s ineluctable affinity for jazz. “Maurice Ravel, one of the fathers of modern music, said the most interesting music fuses at least two elements together,” says Vannelli. “To me, all exciting works of music were, in the beginning, considered hybrids.”

Listening to Canto, particularly the Italian tracks, one is reminded of Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli. Allowing his voice to soar, Vannelli at times verges on the operatic. “Something happened when I started singing in Italian, and I wasn’t using English phrasing and vocabulary. The phonetic phenomenon about Mediterranean languages is that they allow the voice to reach passionate heights that are ofttimes considered melodramatic or just plain bad taste in English, particularly in contemporary music.” Interestingly, Vannelli sings a duet with soprano Janet Chvatal on three of the six cuts in Italian.

Canto is a complex work, both musically and lyrically. The themes being explored are often introspective and personal. The title track evokes the singer’s own decision to give music one more try: “Con il cuore canto e quindi sono.” In a track titled The Last Days of Summer, Vannelli invokes the inevitability of the passing of time and intones: “My father warned of the waning years / What every man goes through / I thought him weak and too fraught with fear / To see his tragic point of view.” In Dea Speranza, composed after the horrendous events of September 11, 2001, he implores: “Dea Speranza / Tu adesso dove sei … / Dimmi dove s’è nascosto l’amore … / Dimmi che la vita è bella.”

Canto is a flourish which will appeal to listeners in search of elaborate melodies and lyrics to match. It will likely surprise but ultimately please Vannelli fans, and probably earn him new ones.

First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 2.

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