I met Mario Sulaksana four years ago, in a Wayne State University practice room. He was the band leader of a fundraiser for the Artist Residency I was living in, and the residency coordinator suggested he accompany me for a song or two. When we first spoke on the phone, I remember preparing to meet a 40-something, well established jazz musician – he sounded so grown up and formal. I was shocked, then, to see a 20-something man in basketball shorts and a backpack greet me and let me into the practice building. “I actually graduated a few months ago but I can still get in here to practice,” he explained.
I was a bit skeptical at first. As someone with very limited formal music training, collaborating with the “music major” types always kind of intimidated me or rubbed me the wrong way. But there was something about Mario that felt different. His professional demeanor mixed with his college kid wardrobe was extremely endearing. After a few minutes of talking, it became clear that he is the kind of person that makes it feel like you’ve known him for years within a few minutes of meeting. And then he started playing the keys. I was floored by his intuition and ease on the keyboard. Within two hours, we had written three songs together, one of which we performed at the fundraiser.
As much as I’d like to think I’m special, Mario is the type of producer that brings out the best in every single musician he works with. That’s probably why, then, four years later, his debut album Conclusion features almost twenty different musicians (including me), all of whom could tell a similar story to mine. The record is a kaleidoscopic portrait of Mario’s last eight years in Detroit – absorbing inspiration from the greats like Stevie Wonder and Quincy Jones, spending countless hours composing and performing, and making friends that naturally evolved into collaborators and vice versa.
Sulaksana explains that while writing the record, it became clear which of his friends would be the perfect fit for the parts he had in mind. “It’s just kinda how my brain works. I can only imagine the words coming from a certain voice, or the pocket grooving from a certain drummer,” says Sulaksana. “I think it reinforces the message to the musicians that I care about them as people first, and that everyone’s individual voice matters.”
Of course, wrangling so many musicians is extremely time consuming and difficult. Nonetheless, Sulaksana managed to record the entire album in a matter of six 12-hour days at Rust Belt Studios, a studio just outside of Detroit. Sulaksana says that over half of the songs were finished or written in the studio, speaking to his ability to improvise. “I remember writing the lyrics to ‘How You Wanna Be Loved’ the night before my session with Keyandra, but I had only completed the song halfway,” says Sulaksana. “I then finished the rest of the lyrics quite literally on the car ride to the studio.”
Part of his improvisational prowess comes from the years Mario spent as a band leader for live shows. Before recording Conclusion, Sulaksana worked any number of weddings, dive bar shows and gigs in Detroit’s mainstay jazz clubs, Cliff Bells and Willis Show Bar. And while he played thousands of covers in this time, there were a few that stuck out. Although most of Conclusion is entirely original music, he chose four of his favorite pop songs to record “Mario style” – which means complex chords, lush arrangements, and a killer band. The covers showcase his knack for transforming a universally recognizable song into one that feels like you’re hearing it for the first time.
The one that stands out to me is “Landslide,” sung by local artist Madelyn Grant. A departure from his normally intricate arrangements, this cover is stripped down, featuring just Sulaksana on the keys and Grant on vocals. The arrangement is a perfect example of Sulaksana’s wide-ranging influences, from gospel music to Fleetwood Mac. Grant’s ethereal vocals float over Sulaksana’s unexpected chords, a combination that is as satisfying as it is unordinary.
As far as his original work on Conclusion, Sulaksana pays homage to R&B and soul legends. One of the first songs he wrote on the record, “Always,” is his most obvious tribute to Stevie Wonder. Not only does the name nod at one of Stevie’s most beloved songs, but the jazz-infused chords and languid melodies are reminiscent of Songs in the Key of Life. In the chorus, Justin Showell sings Sulaksana’s lyrics, “Stevie always told us, love’s in need of love/I know that your love is in need of mine,” acknowledging the depth of Wonder’s influence on his musicianship.
Though Sulaksana cites Wonder as one of his heroes, he admits that the album’s eclectic sound pulls from a mosaic of different sources. “‘How You Wanna Be Loved’ had a lot of Floetry and D’angelo energy behind it. The Intro, ‘Love is Here to Stay,’ felt like a lost K-Ci & JoJo demo, and honestly a lot of the others just kinda happened,” says Sulaksana. “Each song had its own influences and I think it’s pretty evident when you juxtapose them individually and out of order from the album.”
As is the story for almost everyone, the past year has been one of shapeshifting, growth and change. For Sulaksana, it’s meant switching gears from band-directing live to producing in the studio, arranging other artists’ songs to writing his own, and stepping from the shadows into the spotlight. While he was itching to get into the studio to record songs he had been writing for years, he says he feels most at home working behind the scenes. “I wish I could be somewhere in between Chad Hugo and Mark Ronson,” Sulaksana muses. “Maybe leaning more toward Chad at the moment… I don’t really care to have my face on a bunch of things. It’s weird to promote myself. I work with so many beautiful stars who shine on stage and make it look easy. I want to lift them up as high as possible.”
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