Vannelli’s latest album, ‘Yonder Tree,’ is much different from his earlier works. Instead of rock and pop and a macho image, Vannelli sings jazz-style music in the new album, which is an account of his own spiritual journey.
In the 1970s, Montreal-born Gino Vannelli was the quintessential Italian stallion, a hairy-chested prince of synthesizer rock and disco pop. He was a genuine sex symbol, drawing thousands of screaming female fans to sold-out concerts across North America. But by the mid-1980s, Vannelli had grown disillusioned with his macho image–and his Roman Catholic faith. Adopting an existentialist outlook, he went through a life-altering experience while hiking alone in the Peruvian Andes, coming face-to-face, he says, with a “superior being.” That spiritual awakening has since led to an exhaustive study of Hindu, Buddhist and mystic Christian values. Four years ago, Vannelli left his longtime home in Los Angeles, moving with his wife and son to the quieter city of Portland, Ore. The following year, while on tour in Japan, he spent several weeks with Zen monks near Tokyo. Now, the 42-year-old Vannelli is surprising his followers again: his new recording, Yonder Tree, is a jazz-drenched–and soul-baring–account of his spiritual journey.
Recorded with an acoustic trio (pianist Randy Porter, bassist Phil Baker and drummer Graham Lear) and various guests, including the illustrious saxophonist Tom Scott, the album ventures musically into the lush, 1950s style reminiscent of Frank Sinatra’s romantic ballads. But Vannelli takes a decidedly un-jazzlike approach to his lyrics. Songs such as A Little Bit of Judas and Jehovah and All That Jazz wrestle with issues of temptation and desire. Fallen in Love, which features a tap dance solo from Gregory Hines, charts Vannelli’s inner quest with such wry lines as, “Found Jesus and Siddhartha in a bar in Djakarta.” That decidedly personal lyrical agenda sets Yonder Tree apart from the work of Harry Connick Jr., Canada’s Holly Cole and other vocalists who have explored older jazz styles. But one sign that the jazz community is willing to give Vannelli serious consideration is his June 29 appearance at this summer’s Montreal International Jazz Festival.
Sitting in a Toronto cafe recently, Vannelli appeared unconcerned about his new album’s chances of commercial success. Wearing blue jeans, a black tuxedo jacket and tinted aviator shades, and without his Afro hairdo of the ’70s, the singer talked about how he came to make Yonder Tree. “I’ve always liked some of the jazz-standard melodies, the brush-sweeping ballads,” he said. “And I wanted to write something in that vein without sounding nostalgic.” He added: “The album represents the journey I’ve been on, and this wanting to break through and do something I’ve always wanted, without being afraid of whether or not I’m going to sell a lot of records.”
Vannelli notes that his father, Joseph, a onetime singer himself who died four months ago, was also a big influence on the new album. “My father was a Sinatra afficionado who played me all those classic Sinatra albums from the late ’50s and early ’60s,” says Vannelli. “When you’re brought up with the best tunes and arrangements, it’s hard to top that. Sinatra’s singing was impeccable–everything a singer wants to be.” One of three boys born to barber Joseph and his wife, Delia, Gino had his own rock band, the Cobras, before he reached his teens. After he and brother Joe formed another group, inspired by Motown and called the Jacksonville Five, Gino went solo and began shopping tapes of his music around. Travelling to Los Angeles in 1973, Gino landed a recording deal with A&M Records, after impressing part-owner Herb Alpert with his vocals and charisma.
The singer’s albums over the next few years spawned several hits, including People Gotta Move (1974) and I Just Wanna Stop (1978). Vannelli was soon touring the United States, opening for acts such as Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight and the Pips. He earned several Grammy Award nominations and, by the end of the 1970s, the Vannelli brothers–Gino, Joe and Ross–had established themselves as a powerful triumvirate, earning Juno Awards as Canada’s top male vocalist, producer and engineer respectively. Although Gino enjoyed one other major hit, 1985’s platinum-selling Black Cars, musical tastes had largely overtaken him, and he became haunted by his image as a 25-year-old, self-described “stud.” In fact, the singer now says that the whole time he was idolized as a sex symbol he was deeply conflicted. “I was taught that my lusts and sex were something devilish,” says Vannelli, who attended a strict Roman Catholic school in Montreal and later became an altar boy. “The image that I portrayed and my feelings towards women were constantly on trial, and I wound up unhappy and confused.”
Having rediscovered a new, deeper faith, Vannelli seems more at peace with himself. On the liner notes to Yonder Tree, he thanks his wife, Patricia, and their eight-year-old son, Anton, for “putting up with this daylong dreamer, having to be pointed in the general direction of the corner grocery store.” But he dedicates the album to his late father who, he says, quit music out of a fear of failure. Recalls Vannelli: “He once told me, `Don’t ever be like me.’ But we all feel that fear. I have to ask myself, `Will the public accept me, or can I grow old with them thinking that I’m not good anymore?’ That’s the trap of having been some sort of sex god. And it’s very hard to get past that.” During his spiritual wanderings of the past several years, Gino Vannelli has struggled to reinvent himself. On the evidence of Yonder Tree, he has at least succeeded in leaving the carnal side of his performance far behind.