Fresh off a whirlwind month-long national tour introducing his hit single "Gallery" to audiences eager to see the former "American Idol" contestant in action, New York-born Mario Vazquez is experiencing a mix of emotions with the September 2006 release of his much-anticipated self-titled Arista Records debut album: he's at once excited, upbeat... and anxious! "I feel this record represents everything I enjoy listening to and that it shows my versatility as an artist. It's edgier, grittier than people who saw me on 'Idol' might expect: I wanted to make an album that is a 100% me. Now it's time to put it out there and see what happens: I just hope it does well..."No worries: the handsome and talented young Nuyorican has delivered a first album that demonstrates his musical diversity and vocal skills through smooth, tailor-made slow jams like "One Shot" and "We Gon' Last" to the hardcore 'reggaeton'-flavored "Like It Or Not" and the super hot club-friendly joint, "Cohiba" (featuring Fat Joe and Knox). Working with some of today's hottest producers including, Scott Storch (50 Cent, Christina Aguilera), Lester Mendez (Shakira), Stargate, Soulshock & Karlin (Usher), Steve Morales (Ricky Martin, Enrique Iglesias), The Underdogs, Camu, Fernando Garibay, Anthony Dent and Ne-Yo (who supervised vocal production for "Gallery", Mario has crafted an album that he says "reflects all my influences, growing up and living in New York. The city is such a melting pot and it's so open to all kinds of music: I wanted my album to be a vehicle for all of that -- from Latin pop, R&B, hip-hop and soul to tracks that take me back to hanging out in the city's dance clubs as a teenager. I'm also very proud of being a Nuyorican so, of course, some of my songs have a strong Latin influence. It's very important for me to 'represent'!"No question, infectious tracks like "She's Got Me" (co-produced and co-written by Sean Garrett) and "How We Do It" coupled with the pop'n'soul-flavored "Everytime I" (co-written by Mario) and "Don't Lie", with its ska'n'reggae 'feel' demonstrate Mario's musical versatility, placing him front and center among today's young hitmakers. Of course, it doesn't hurt that he's literally been seen and heard by over 30 million people nationwide. As one of the Top 12 finalists in the 2005 season of the television's ever-popular "American Idol," Mario scored millions of votes week after week before choosing to leave the show. "I wanted to control my own destiny as an artist," he explains.Destiny, indeed: The day after the show's season ended last year (with Carrie Underwood as the winner), Mario found himself auditioning in person for Clive Davis and his A&R staff. Davis took less than twenty-four hours to sign Vazquez to Arista Records, making him the first young male Latin artist on the label's prestigious roster. "I couldn't believe it," Mario recalls. "I sang the song 'Whatever Happens,' which I had done on 'Idol' acappella and I thought, 'Oh my God, I can't believe this is happening!' I had a recording contract! It was amazing."Arista's A&R team immediately put Mario with chartmaking singer/songwriter Ne-Yo and the Stargate production team. The result: the infectious hit "Gallery" (the second most added single on the rhythm radio format its first week out and an airwave-burner in Miami, Boston and New York). In between shows through the summer of 2006 on Teen People's fashion and music 'Rock N'Shop Mall' tour (with Ashley Parker Angel, Fefe Dobson, Keisha Chante, Ak'Sent, Cherish and Joana), Mario found himself in studios in Atlanta, Miami, New York and Los Angeles putting the finishing touches to his self-titled album. "I've been blown away to be working with all these major producers," says Mario. "It's also really cool working with a fellow Nuyorican like Steve Morales (on "4 For 1") and with Lester Mendez (on "One Shot"), with both of us being Latino and bringing the influence of PR (Puerto Rico) to the music. That's real important to me because I do want to be an inspiration to other young Latinos who want to make it in this business."Growing up in the Bronx, Mario says his parents -- both from Puerto Rico -- provided his earliest musical influences. "I have aunts and uncles who play music and my Mom used to make me sing when I was six!" Yes, Mario insists, "she made me sing! She loved the old school classic soul groups like The Stylistics and The Delfonics and the doo-wop groups like The Teenagers so she had me singing along with songs like 'La-La Means I Love You' and 'So Young.' Then, we had lots of Latin jazz records in the household -- Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, The Fania All-Stars. Hearing all of those artists shaped me big time. When I look back, I'm so glad my folks introduced me to such a great range of music. I always loved singing so I knew that was what I wanted to do as career."Mario enrolled in New York's renowned La Guardia School for Performing Arts (the original inspiration for "Fame) and went on to join the City Kids Repertoire Company, a youth empowerment group which gave him the opportunity to travel the country and perform at charitable functions attended by major celebrities. Through his association with the group, Mario got a development deal with a record company: "After (producer) Teddy Riley heard the song 'Whatever Happens' on my original demo, he invited me to sing backgrounds on a project he was doing -- Michael Jackson's 'Invincible' album. I really bugged out! Here I was, in the studio with Michael Jackson. I was like, 'That's it, I don't need to do anymore, I've made it!' Reality set in when Mario's development deal didn't pan out. "I was doing nine-to-five's, anything that would put me near the industry -- working at photo studios, with art directors...and I got a break when I got signed to a jingle house." Following in the tradition of former jingle singers like the late Luther Vandross, Mario found himself singing alongside such name artists as Phoebe Snow and Lisa Fischer.Feeling like he had lost his focus in pursuing his dream of a solo career, Mario decided to audition for American Idol" and got in. For the ensuing months, Mario wowed the judges and the American public with his obvious passion for singing and love for music. With some smooth dance moves thrown in for good measure, he progressed each week: "I felt like I had a shot at winning because there was no one else like me on the show. But something kept bugging at me about expressing my individuality as an artist so I quit while I was ahead. Sure, I had some sleepless nights and it was a tough decision. Of course, I'm grateful for all the exposure I got on 'American Idol' and now I'd say it's all worked out in my favor."Mario is justifiably proud of his Arista debut, an album that brings his soulful mix of pop, R&B, hip-hop and Latin music along with some hard, edgy tracks to the viewers who supported him every week as well as new fans who have responded so strongly to the hit "Gallery." He declares, "I don't want to be boxed into a certain sound and what was most important to me was showing my ability to do different types of music -- and I think we did that with this album."From the sexy groove of "I Bet" (produced by Stargate and JohntÃ Austin) to the standout urban ballads of "One Shot", "Just A Friend" and "We Supposed To Be," MARIO VAZQUEZ is a hit-filled showcase for this dynamic young artist whose stated goal is "to make my mark as a musical artist and do it all -- sing, dance, act." No doubt, he's off to a great start.