Paul Marinaro: Hurdling Roadblocks


“There’s a lot of creative space between Sinatra and a singer like Kurt Elling, who’s found his own approach,” Marinaro says. “And I believe that’s where I fit in.”

(Photo: Frank Orrico)

Every jazz musician faces challenges in gaining exposure for their music — especially without the support of a major record label. And it’s even more difficult gaining a listening audience as well as critical attention for independently released recordings.

But those challenges can be heightened for male jazz vocalists, according to Chicago-based singer Paul Marinaro, who has built a solid career on the Windy City scene since moving there in 2003.

“A major difficulty for male jazz singers is being defined and typecast as only one version of what that means,” Marinaro explained during a recent interview. “And that version — especially if you sing standards — is being constantly compared to Frank Sinatra. It’s funny, some critics would rather label you as a Sinatra imitator instead of just recognizing his influence. For me, there’s a lot of creative space between Sinatra and a singer like Kurt Elling, who’s found his own approach. And I believe that’s where I fit in, and where I like to create.”

Born in Buffalo, New York, Marinaro discovered an early love for jazz after finding old acetate recordings that belonged to his father, who had an unfulfilled dream of being a professional singer. After studying the music and sitting in at clubs in Buffalo to build his reputation, Marinaro moved to Chicago.

Working in a duo with pianist Judy Roberts, Marinaro began to build a following, working steadily in area clubs such as the Green Mill, the Jazz Showcase and Winter’s Jazz Club. In 2013, he released his first album, Without A Song, in tribute to his father’s dream of singing jazz. He gained national airplay and critical acclaim, and followed up with a live recording, One Night In Chicago, in 2015.

After singing at the 2017 Chicago Jazz Festival with legendary jazz vocalist Sheila Jordan, Marinaro’s musical career was put on hold due to a serious bout with diverticulitis that sent him to the emergency room. A lengthy hospital stay and several operations put his career on hold for more than a year. His friends on the Chicago jazz scene put together a fundraiser to offset his medical expenses, and Jordan flew in to headline the event.

Once he recovered and began to work again, the pandemic hit, adding another roadblock to a full return. But the time off gave Marinaro an opportunity to plan, and even explore the music of David Bowie.

“I heard Bowie’s last album, Blackstar, and really realized I had missed a lot of his earlier recordings. I hadn’t paid as close attention to it as I should have,” he said. “And while I was thinking through my next recording project — especially coming out of the pandemic —there were certain songs of his that I knew I wanted to record.”

Marinaro’s latest album, Not Quite Yet, turned out to be an expansive project that featured his backing quartet (Mike Allemana, guitar/arranger; Tom Vaitsas, keyboards; John Tate, bass; and George Fludas, drums) plus a six-piece horn and woodwind section, the KAIA String Quartet and backing vocalists Alyssa Allgood and Sarah Marie Young.

In addition to interpretations of two Bowie songs, “No Plan” and “5:15 The Angels Have Gone,” Marinaro fashioned winning takes of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Someone To Light Up My Life” and Ivan Lins’ “The Island,” plus fresh versions of standards “Remind Me,” “Born To Be Blue,” “Taking A Chance On Love,” “On A Wonderful Day Like Today” and Stephen Sondheim’s “I Remember.”

“For this album, I didn’t want to hit anything too hard to force a narrative that this album is about a specific theme,” Marinaro said. “I don’t think that’s necessary. But there’s an underlying feeling I wanted to convey about the uncertainty of a world coming out of the pandemic, and how that experience has affected us on several levels.”

The song sequencing of Not Quite Yet clearly follows what Marinaro calls an “old-school approach.”

“That’s always been my connection to how I listen to music,” he explained. “I want to know, where does that song come from? Where does it fit in the album, why was it chosen? And this is really a throwback, but even how it’s laid out on a slab of vinyl. What ended side A and what started side B? Is there a connection between the two sides or a different vibe? I think of that now when I program my albums. I’m not sure anyone notices anymore, but I do it for my own enjoyment.

Marinaro performed the new album live at the renovated Studebaker Theater in early November and is now in the process of editing a video of the concert. He’s also recorded a full album of Bowie songs with the Metropolitan Jazz Octet, which is set for release in late January on Origin Records.

“We’ll be performing the album, The Bowie Project, live at Studio5 Performing Arts Center in Evanston on Feb. 10,” Marinaro said. “And I’m already in the studio with another recording project featuring some heavy-hitter arrangers that will come out at the end of 2023. I want to make up for lost time and do projects I’ve wanted to work on for quite a while. Singing is a passion for me. That can ebb and flow, but now I’ve really got the perseverance and desire to make these projects happen.” DB

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