Valentina Marino On Jazz, Intuition And Finding Her Calling

The Sicilian native started out as a lawyer but found that her true passion lay in words and music.

Valentina Marino, Jazz, and Her Intuition and Calling
Photo courtesy of Valentina Marino.

It is a plotline so classic that it has formed the arc of our most beloved films, books, and stories: listening to one’s intuition calling you to follow your life path, and embarking on a journey that traverses the high and lows of mountains and valleys before reaching the glorious peak. Realizing that your desire shines a radiant light not only upon your chosen vocation but literally emanates from your heart, fueling every action that you take, every action that you may never have taken before. We watch films like this but few of us live them. But just such a plot echoes the timeline of Valentina Marino, a jazz artist and teacher based in New York City. 

Born in Sicily and raised in Rome, the Italian songstress and musician studied law to appease her family, who viewed music as a road to nowhere. While earning her bachelor’s degree at a law school in Rome, she would sneak into a music university to study jazz to fulfill her inner calling. Initially, she thought she would continue to study both and leave academia with a degree in each, but the pressure and workload became too much to bear and Marino had to give one up. She left the music university and continued studying law.

After five years of studying law and passing the bar exam, Marino took her oath as a lawyer and transferred to Milan to work in an international law firm as a Corporate Litigation Officer, busying herself with paperwork, briefings and phone calls every day. Six months in, Marino paused for a moment in the office and knew it would be her last day at work.

Leaving the international law firm was not only gratifying for the Italian jazz artist; it also deepened her desire to study and bring her dream of jazz as a lifestyle to fruition. She returned to Rome after her stint in the law firm, spent a few months there to regroup herself before moving to Vienna in 2007. There, she tinkered with the nuances of jazz as if she were a beginner. In 2011, four years after delving deep into the jazz world in Vienna, she packed her bags and flew to New York. There, she would her career would grow into the epitome of her vocation.

In New York City, she studied Jazz at the School of Jazz and Contemporary Music at The New School. It marked the turning point of her pull towards jazz, elucidating the depth of her deeply ingrained love for the genre. Marino has been playing with her band for nearly twelve years both in the city and in tours around the world. In 2016 she recorded and released her debut In the Name of Love, which she considers as one of her milestones as a jazz musician. Her follow up is a reflection not only of her growth but of the strange and surreal time she recorded it: Quarantine Covers is a collection of her interpretation of songs from artists such as Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Alice Merton, Lucio Battisti and Gotye. She is working on her third album, entitled East 75th.

In an exclusive interview with Valentina Marino, she narrates how she birthed Quarantine Covers. Her bandmates were a critical part of the process and included Marcio Garcia in piano and Rhodes, Myles Sloniker in upright and electric bass, Mike Robinson in guitars and pedal steel, Chris Benham and Camillo Sanchez in drums and percussions, Anthony Pinciotti in drums, Mark Caserta in second guitar, Marko Churnchetz in piano, and Molly Aronson in cello. She tells the backstory of recording Quarantine Covers during the pandemic, the role of jazz in her journey to self-rediscovery, the themes that helped to shape the music, and the next direction she’s likely to wander. Some passages have been edited for clarity.

Valentina, congratulations on your new album entitled Quarantine Covers! Let us talk about this venture of yours. While others learned how to cook during the pandemic, you produced your own album. How did the idea come about? How does it feel releasing an album during this period and how did it influence you and your approach to your music?

The influences came out of inspiration and necessity. As we know by now, live performances have been cancelled and for us musicians, the only possibility to continue with our music is through live streaming in our apartment and, perhaps, singing in the shower. These situations do not bother me. I see music as essential: no matter where the place is, there is always the drive to sing and create music. During this unprecedented time, I wanted to do more than to Livestream my music to connect, so I thought, why not produce an album? I felt the need to record Quarantine Covers after spending my time in my apartment during lockdown and jamming with other musicians in Catskills in Upstate New York.

Throughout the album, a storyline unfolds which relates to the pandemic, as all the songs talk about endings of cycles and new beginnings. Most of the time in love relationships we talk about leaving and beginning, and I kept that in mind throughout the production of this album, through the presence of metaphors. The order of the songs is intentional: from Gotye’s Somebody that I Used to Know (the ending of a relationship) to Bob Dylan’s To Make You Feel My Love (the bloom of a new relationship). 

The record is also about the separation from our loved ones and the need to be in touch with them, even if we’re miles apart. While the pandemic has barricaded us in this cycle of online calls, we also look forward to this rebirth after the time of isolation. The album embraces that theme, the cycle of love and life in general.

Most of your influences for Quarantine Covers come from Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Alice Merton, Lucio Battisti and Gotye. Why do you draw your inspiration from these artists? Considering that they have varying genres, was it challenging to turn them into covers?

These songs have always been a part of my playlist, but I find a specific attachment to the stories that these artists narrate. They resonate with me not only as an artist, but also as an individual: people such as Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan were activists fighting for human rights. Their songs are spectacular not only for the arrangement of their production, but also their musical styles have influences of jazz elements. 

Among the covers in this album, Alice Merton’s No Roots, which was released two years ago, echoes my transition of style and exploration of other terrains in music. This song has disco vibes surrounding it, while in my case the musicians I collaborated with and I arranged it by infusing flamenco and percussion to give it my own spin. Aside from that, the lyrics of the song speak to me. Just like Alice, I have never felt any attachment to the cities I have been in, from Rome and Milan to Vienna and New York. I’ve got no roots, and it does not matter. What matters the most lies in the music that I play anywhere: the rhythm, lyrics, and tune take me to the cloud and into this world of creativity, creating an almost autobiographical sense of connection to me.

You mentioned that Quarantine Covers was your transition to new territories of pop and crossover. Could you guide us on how your penchant for music began? What genres did you dabble in before settling on jazz?

When I was four or five years old, my dad used to collect jazz vinyls until he amassed a collection in his music library at home. He would place them in his record player and let the tracks play until they ended. A particular duet stuck with me as the album’s songs wafted across our home: Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong’s Ella and Louis. I fell in love with the contrast between Louis’ raspy and gritty voice and Ella’s buttery crooning. I connected with their improvisation and found it joyful and different; it spoke to my heart and awakened these sleeping desires in me to pursue jazz. Growing up, I did explore other genres of music but there was something about jazz that I just could not find anywhere else. So I pivoted back to jazz, thanks to my Dad as well. 

When I flew to New York in 2005, the epicenter of jazz, I was fortunate enough to be invited by the saxophonist and flutist John David Simon in one of these Monday Swing Nights at the Cotton Club in Harlem, where jazz artists such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway performed. I did Peggy Lee’s Fever with him and thirteen other musicians on stage. I will never forget the high, and it was my first gig in New York City too. Since then, I have considered jazz as a lifestyle for its artists and musicians, having the same degree of sensibility in the way we talk about its reverence and rendering jazz as a part of our everyday life. What I also love about jazz is the degree of honesty that pervades the genre through improvisation. When you are on stage, every time is different. You may have sung the song a hundred times, but there will always be something different in the way you sing it the next time. And when slip-ups occur during the performance they are not perceived as such, but as an element of surprise.

After Quarantine Covers, you will be releasing a new album titled East 75th. Could you talk about the themes and overarching message of this album? How was the songwriting process for you?

Originally, Quarantine Covers was not a part of my calendar, but there was this need to record an album before the new one so I had to do it. With East 75th, the songs are all original, and I wrote them four years ago. Contrary to my usual style, this album is composed of non-jazz songs: they are all pop and rock songs. In a way, Quarantine Covers becomes this bridge in my transition from jazz to non-jazz while still retaining elements of its nuances. 

East 75th is the name of the block in Manhattan where I lived for over ten years before moving to the Upper West Side. It was my first apartment in the city. A lot happened in this apartment and on this block: these memories latched onto me, and the stories of the people I share the block and building with compiled narratives that I think are worth telling.

One of my favorite songs in this album is Gotta Move On, a story of unrequited love. I met a guy while I was teaching music on that block, and I developed feelings for him that were not reciprocated. I embarked on a healing journey to come to terms with the fact that it would not reach its bloom. Then I realized that often (or at least sometimes) we find ourselves in that same position, tinkering with daydreams and writing stories in our mind with the hopes that our feelings will be recompensed. Music to the rescue, which is why I wrote in this song: “I got lost for a while with the games that your mind wanted to play.” It’s a fun, upbeat song that listeners can dance to, but it is also a healing song about finding our way back to ourselves.

Sometimes, music comes to me during an emotional state: I close my eyes and hear the music, which usually comes before the songwriting. The first tune I hear is usually the bass and its distinctive pulse, the foundation of my songs. Other times, I start composing the bass line before the drum and other instruments kick in to jam with the bass. A chunk of the process dwells in the plot of what I envision the song will be, like in Little Flowers. It’s about this young girl who studied piano and music with me and told me about her sexual abuse experience. I was the first person she talked to about it. As a way to respond to this issue, I wrote this song for the victims of sexual abuses without being explicit, to try to depict the light at the end of the tunnel.

Now, you have Quarantine Covers and East 75th under your belt. What’s next for Valentina Marino? What do you look forward to this year?

What I look forward to right now, and it is no different from what other musicians want, is to be back on stage and to perform in front of an audience, to connect with them and look into their eyes as I perform. I envision stages full of artists and musicians to accompany big and festive gatherings for music. Also, to be back on the jazz stages and start touring for both Quarantine Covers and East 75th, being back on the plane and touring across the globe, most especially in Europe.

I also hope people will spread the message of art and the fact that music is essential. I don’t see life without art. It is part of our human experience and our evolution, and I cannot imagine and fathom a world without music and lyrics. And while I am already thinking of a new album, I have enough material for now and will take a short break before producing some more new songs during this pandemic.

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