A Jazz Pianist’s Journey to Following the Beat of Christ
By Goh Eck Kheng
Mario Serio, 63, a pianist of the CCMC worship team, who was featured in “A Tribute to Singapore Jazz Pioneers” at the Esplanade in February 2022, has been in tune with music all his life.
An American Filipino, Mario was born in New York City’s Spanish Harlem to a musical family. His brother and sister were violin and piano players respectively, while his father played the guitar and his mother, the piano.
“I always had good ears,” shared Mario. “My Mom detected an aptitude in me from my attempts at age 1 to imitate songs she sang”
Thus, Mario was given private classical piano lessons from age 4.
Being from a Catholic family which attended mass regularly, Mario’s formal education started in Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a Catholic school. In Grade 1, he was featured on the piano in – of all things – a TV cooking show! He remembers that his classmates bought him a gift in recognition of his achievement. At that time, he saw his skills as an ability and talent and did not recognise it as being God given.
His talent was recognised enough. When it was time for high school, Mario gained admission to the High School of Performing Arts, the school on which the 1980s film Fame was based on.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” Mario recalls. “Compared with the strict rigor of Catholic school for 8 years, High School of Performing Arts was the polar opposite in terms of dress code, religious diversity, open mindset and of course, a serious focus on your craft; a welcome and overdue change for me.”
It was also in high school that he was first exposed to jazz and taught himself the essence of the form. “I instantly fell in love with the feeling, looseness, variety and rhythmical syncopation that were so different from the rigid and predictable forms in classical music.”
But Mario continued formal training in classical music, majoring in performance, at the Mannes Conservatory of Music. In fact, he never thought of anything but music as a career.
After college, Mario juggled a clerical job in a hospital whilst playing gigs on the side. He had randomly met musicians on the Atlantic City circuit and he joined them to play a myriad of genres including jazz, pop and Latin in casino lounges and showrooms. In 1989, when he was offered an extended gig of a month, and the hospital refused to grant him leave, he quit to become a full-time musician.
On the evening of 17 June 1994, as Mario with the rest of America was transfixed to the TV watching the live broadcast of the police low-speed chase in pursuit of wanted murderer and former NLF player O J Simpson in his white Bronco, Mario’s telephone rang.
It was a singer from the Atlantic City crowd. There was a four-month, year-end gig extending past New Year’s Eve in Singapore. Was he interested? Thus began Mario’s next chapter of life in Singapore, playing at Somerset’s Bar at the Westin, the premier jazz club in Singapore at the time.
Four months flew by and Mario returned to the States. But he was back in July 1995 having been signed for six month at the Pan Pacific. That six months was extended to a year. And it was then that Mario met Michelle Goh.
Michelle perceived Mario as a free thinker. “My attitude then was openness and not negating anything,” explained Mario. “I tried to find good in any religion and was not closed to anything. Although I was born a Catholic and my parents taught me that God is always there and I could pray to Him, I did not become aware of what faith was until I got to know Michelle.”
Michelle was a committed Christian attending CCMC and she brought Mario to church in 1996 and introduced him to BSF in the early 2000s.
Mario shares what happened when he started to read the Bible. “I felt that I was going directly to the source. Faith became more personal and relevant, applicable to myself.”
Then Ann Robers, who was then a lay ministry staff of CCMC, asked Mario to play the piano during Sunday service. “I was still not familiar with the order of service. Ann had to sit next to me and cue me for the Doxology and hymns, etc! Being from the Catholic Church, I did not know the Protestant hymns. I started playing from a technical standpoint, but they became more meaningful when I understood the lyrics and could play more deeply and vitally.”
Mario believes that as much as music can move its listeners, it can be a spiritual experience. Jazz concepts can be applied to Church music. The use of dissonance in jazz, for example, can reflect the longing of the worshipper in seeking resolution. Such resolution can be presented wholly or partially depending on what the music and lyrics convey.
In March 2019, Mario and Michelle formed a band called UnBroken to present diverse genres of Christian music. It’s members are Mario (piano), Jimmy Lee (drums), Casey Subramaniam (bass), Michelle and Lee Shu Lyn (vocals). They had got to know each other in CCMC, and those in the rhythm section became friends even earlier in the professional-musician circuit . The group’s name recognises that everyone has some brokenness but through God’s mercy, we can be “restored and deemed unbroken.”
When Covid came to Singapore, Mario and Michelle went for walks in Lower Peirce Reservoir. One day, amidst a sudden deluge, they took shelter in a pavilion overlooking the water.
“Michelle asked me: Can you write a tune right now in your head, without tools?” Mario hummed a melody that came to mind, and recorded it on his phone. Back home, he played it on the piano. After the music came the lyrics, which Mario also wrote, knowing that it would be about Jesus’ pierced hands. So the song that was born at Peirce Reservoir is “Pierced”.
Since then, Mario has written some 14 pieces of music, 10 of which were featured in “First Fruits”, a concert held on 20 March 2022 at Esplanade Recital Studio where Mario performed, with a unique ensemble of jazz and classical musicians.
The concert featuring all original compositions, includes two songs (“For You” and “Michelle It’s You”) dedicated to his wife, “Lunanoon” written for his sister Kathy, songs for their young grandchildren in Singapore, a rap-inspired number for their teenage grandchildren in USA, and “Contrition”, based on the Catholic prayer: O My God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee.
“Pierced” is the most personal of all the songs. “I hope the lyrics and music of the song will cause the listeners to put themselves sympathetically in Jesus’ shoes so we can more deeply understand the significance of the crucifixion and resurrection,” said Mario.
This use of music to share life stories will also be key in Songs and Stories of Faith: Night of Music and Testimonies. This new ministry in CCMC, hosted by Michelle and featuring music by Unbroken, was launched on 30 March 2022 at the MGS Auditorium.
First Fruits marks a significant milestone in Mario’s journey of faith and music. “The music I now make is a reflection of what goes on inside of me,” he said.