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An Alice Leon Protege Finds Her Voice

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An Alice Leon Protege Finds Her Voice
Erini's Bound: Singer-songwriter Sandy Zio

Pianist and singer-songwriter Sandy Zio took her time recording her first album. The Princeton Township resident recorded “All That I Am,” her well-produced, thought-provoking debut, over the course of the last five years, in various area studios.

Taking her time is part of Zio’s signature style. At her live shows, she often uses no drummer, just a guitarist or another keyboardist. “I like working in duo settings,” says Zio, who sings and plays piano and a little guitar on “All That I Am.” “For one thing, you can hear everything, and sometimes, when you have a full band, it gets pretty loud. It’s also much easier to find one person to go a gig than it is to find four or five people. And a lot of places just aren’t hiring full bands that do original music these days.” Zio appears on Thursday, April 24, at Erini’s in West Trenton.

On her debut album she is accompanied by many of the area’s top session musicians and even some nationally-known players from Billy Joel’s backing band, including drummer Liberty DeVitto and saxophonist Richie Cannata. Also on the album are John Harris, a trumpet player with Tower of Power; trombonist Ozzie Melendez, who plays with Mark Anthony; and violinist and viola player Allison Cornell, who has performed with Pat Benatar. The local contingents on the album are Alice Leone, her former roommate and founder of the Alice Project; Highland Park pianist John Bianculli; west Jersey-based guitarist Jimmy Leahey (who will accompany her on April 24 at Erini’s), son of the late, noted jazz guitarist, Harry Leahey; and Ruth Greenwood. Recording a few tracks at a time at five different studios, Zio worked with producer Glenn Barrett at Morning Star Studios in Springhouse, PA. Barrett has recorded Grover Washington Jr. and Diana Ross, among others.

Among the 13 tracks on “All That I Am” are seven original compositions and two familiar covers, the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” and Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed,” and a tune she wrote with Leone.

“I had three songs in the beginning, and they were only intended to be a demo,” Zio says. “It was slow going at first, and I decided at one point, why did this album just have to be my songs? Some of the best artists out there do other people’s music. So I got some songs from Alice Leon, John Bianculli, Jimmy Leahey, Ruth Greenwood, and some other locals,” she says.

Zio says she cannot remember a time when she didn’t sing. Raised in Pompton Lakes, Bloomingdale, and Kinnelon, she began taking piano lessons as a seven-year-old. Both her parents are real estate brokers in that part of the state. She moved to the Princeton area in 1997 to take a computer-related job as an IT technician. Here, she met Leone, and later, her piano teacher, John Bianculli of Highland Park, who stopped a lesson one day after hearing her sing, bowled over by her voice. Encouraged, she continued writing and singing her own songs.

“He said, `You can sing with my band anytime you want,’” she says. She had her professional debut shortly after that with Bianculli’s group at the Old Bay Restaurant in New Brunswick.

Leone led a procession of bands for a time in and around the New Brunswick club scene (both Zio and Leone are Rutgers grads), including Secret Lovers, After Alice, and the Alice Project. In retrospect, the endorsement and encouragement from Leone and Bianculli were big confidence boosters for Zio, she says. “When I first moved down to this area [in 2000 and 2001], Alice told me to get some gigs, because she knew that I could accompany myself playing piano. Alice kind of kicked my butt; she said, `Why don’t you get some gigs of your own?!’ and then I moved on to playing places like Mediterra, Sotto 128, and some coffee houses around Princeton.”

Zio still performs with Leone, a guitarist and vocalist, and they call themselves the Saloon Chicks. Like any resourceful musician, Zio does shows under her own name, using a variety of guitarists — including the versatile Leahey — but she is also involved in various other projects as well, including cover bands.

Zio says her primary inspiration was always singer-songwriter-pianist Billy Joel. Other influences include Carole King and Neil Sedaka. “Billy Joel was always my favorite; that’s why I wanted some of the guys from his band on my album,” she says, noting she met Richie Cannata in New York City at a nightclub called the Cutting Room on West 26th Street.

“Richie in turn introduced me to Liberty DeVitto,” she says. “I didn’t even have to say that much: I just walked up to Richie and said, `Would you play on my album?’ He eventually gave me Liberty’s phone number, too.”

Zio is pleased with the results on “All That I Am,” and will be the first to tell you, “it always takes time and money to put together something lasting.” The album is available on websites like CDBaby.com, iTunes, and several other sites. She hopes to get a few copies to the Princeton Record Exchange.

Zio says her approach to songwriting is rooted in sitting down at the piano to play something. She starts noodling and then lyrics begin to pop into her head. “The music always comes first for me,” she says. “What drives me is the melody. The words come later for me. The lyrics shape the rest of the song, words can guide the rest of the composition.

“I’ll sit down at the piano and when I come up with an idea, I keep playing it over and over again, and after I’m done sketching out a song, I’ll put it down on a tape recorder,” she says, noting she’s a piano player first and a guitar player second.

Like a lot of musicians, Zio is hard-pressed to describe her sound on “All That I Am.” “I’d say it’s a blend of pop, country, and jazz. You could think of it as a martini with two parts country gin, one part jazz vodka, and another part pop cranberry juice.”

For the near future, Zio has her hopes set on a series of shorter tours in support of “All That I Am.” “I’m going to do whatever I can to see if I can get out there some more,” she says. “I’d just like my songs to be heard by more people. I certainly would love to tour and travel and get out to different countries. Hopefully, more people will hear my music and like it.”

Sandy Zio with guitarist Jimmy Leahey, Thursday, April 10, 7 to 11 p.m., Erini’s, 1140 River Road, West Trenton. 609-882-0303.

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