As a toddler, Frank Vignola would sit for hours on the floor in the living room right up close to his father’s bulky, state-of-the-art stereo, totally mesmerized by the enchanting guitar sounds of Les Paul and Bucky Pizzarelli magically wafting out of the imposing twin speakers that towered above him.
"And now here I am all these years later," said a no less enthralled Vignola who grew up to become a modern jazz guitar master, "playing with greats like Les, Bucky and others, even being accepted not only musically but even welcomed into Bucky’s family circle."
"Bucky and I do about 20 shows a year together," he said of his childhood idol who’s now often his working colleague, "and when he’s got the guitar in his hands, he transforms into a little kid. He’s not almost 90-years-old anymore. And some nights, I swear, when he’s got his mojo going, it’s absolutely incredible," Vignola said by phone right after finishing a weekend of teaching at a guitar camp in Ohio.
Even after all these years, thousands of gigs and countless tours and recording sessions, Vignola, a string sorcerer in his own right, is as enchanted as ever by the pure sound of the jazz guitar as he was as a tyke sitting by his jazz-loving, banjo-playing dad’s stereo. Above all else, he feels blessed that he grew up and became a professional musician, living his boyhood dream by carving his own niche in the big leagues of jazz guitarists
Even now on the cusp of turning 50, Vignola, still believes in guitar magic as a guitarist who for years now has been playing as an equal with some of those same iconic figures who so enthralled him as a child.
You can sample his prestidigitation -- a kind of lyrical legerdemain -- as he performs in a duo format with guitarist Vinny Raniolo at the eleventh annual Pittsfield CityJazz Festival on Friday, October 16, at 8:00 pm at Baba Louie’s Backroom at 34 Depot Street in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
Vignola’s virtuosic voodoo -- a sleight-of-hand skill that has allowed him to play with virtually anyone from jazz greats like Les Paul, Bucky Pizzarelli and Wynton Marsalis to rock stars like Madonna and Ringo Starr -- is rooted in his fleet, fluent phrasing, burnished tone and abundant super chops.
But those chops -- which enable Vignola to play a zillion notes per minute if necessary-- are finely balanced with his deep love for lyrical, expressive melody and fine-tuned sense of form and knowing what notes to leave out. And perhaps above all else in this well-tempered mix of pyrotechnics and feeling, is his lifelong passion for songs, everything from Gershwin to Jobim, along with melodic inventions on themes from Beethoven’s Fifth to virtually anything else from Metallica to Mozart.
What Vignola taps into in his live, always audience-friendly performances is a mind well-stocked with beautiful tunes, an encyclopedic anthology that he has lived with, thought about deeply, honed, re-honed and invented on countless nights on stages around the world from the Sydney Opera House in Australia to the famous, 16th-century cultural landmark, "Teatro Olimpico" in Vincenza, Italy.
"Melody is everything. Melody, harmony and rhythm are, of course, the three elements of music, but when melody is lost, everything is lost," Vignola said.
"As much as I love jazz, my favorite jazz solos are the ones where you hear the melody. I’ve always been somebody who loves songs rather than scales. If you want to play jazz, learn the 300 basic songs that everybody else knows who plays jazz. And when you get that down, go out and play in front of people," Vignola said.
Another key belief in Vignola’s credo as a performer is that, while the music has to be maintained at the highest qualitative level, the audience must always be entertained. It’s a fundamental principle of art and entertainment that he traces back to one of his greatest jazz heroes, Louis Armstrong, the consummate virtuoso/entertainer all in one single package.
"When anybody asks me for a definition of jazz, I just say: Louis Armstrong," Vignola said. "Those old-time, legendary guys like Louis, who were inventing the music back then, were out performing every night, and they were also about entertainment. When I worked with Les, Bucky, Lionel Hampton, Hank Jones, and Billy Mitchell -- classic jazz figures-- it was exactly the same thing. They were all about the audience. They always dressed well, wanted to play songs the audience knew, were always about the melody, and always talking to and connecting with the audience, establishing rapport. And I think that kind of thing has been lost in jazz."
Vignola’s basic tenets as a performer have paid off well for his super busy guitar duo with Raniolo, which has been playing 150 to 200 shows a year over the past six years, touring not only throughout the United Sates but all over Europe as well as in Israel, Turkey, Australia, and Singapore.
"I’m very thankful that I can actually support my family," the happy road warrior said of his globetrotting schedule, traveling light with a guitar and a suitcase always at the ready.
"I hear my kids are real nice," he said of his four sons he misses so much while on his frequent tours. "I don’t see them much, but I hear they’re nice people," he said of often being away from his idyllic family home in the half-rural, half suburban town of Warwick, New York, just an hour’s drive from Manhattan.
Asked what makes Frank Vignola run as a tirelessly touring performer and world traveling educator, he pauses for a moment, then replies, "Coffee. Coffee and doughnuts and Starbucks."
Letting his joke about empowerment through large doses of caffeine and sugar settle for a moment, he pauses, reflects a few seconds, then, modulating back to seriousness, said: "I just love the idea that the music I play through the guitar brings people together. We go all over the world -- we’ve already played 14 countries and three continents -- and every place we go, whether it’s for 50 people or a thousand, Vinny and I bring people together," he said.
Along with that positive social effect as a driving force, he said, is the pure joy of playing, which may well be the prime motivation that makes Vignola run.
"We do so much traveling and so much of my time and effort goes into managing and organizing all the nitty gritty details on the business side, that when I finally get to sit down and play on the gig, wherever it is in the world, it’s a lot of fun. What I love about the guitar is that it has always been a great outlet for me, a way to get away from everything that I really don’t want to do," Vignola said. "When I’m on stage, I get into my own world, and play all these beautiful songs. There’s nothing better." Tickets: $25.00 in advance, $30.00 on day of event; dinner available separately. Information: berkshiresjazz.org.
On Saturday, October 17 at 8:00 pm, the ten-day festival bows out in style with an appearance by the celebrated trumpeter/flugelhornist Randy Brecker as guest soloist with the Greg Hopkins Jazz Orchestra at the Colonial Theatre at 111 South Street in Pittsfield. Tickets: $35.00, orchestra and mezzanine; $20.00, balcony. See berkshiresjazz.org.
Jarreau Concert Helps the Homeless
Al Jarreau, the versatile vocalist who has won Grammy Awards in the jazz, blues and pop categories, performs on Thursday, October, 22, at 7:30 pm at the fall fundraiser for Christian Community Action (CCA) at the historic Shubert Theater at 247 College Street in New Haven.
Since Jarreau began making his mark in California in the 1960s with the George Duke Trio, he’s discovered new, pleasant ways to bend and blend genres into songs that express his originality.
In 1981, Jarreau recorded the presciently titled album, Breaking Away.
One of his most popular recordings, it spent two years on the Billboard Top 200 list, peaked at number 9 on the charts, and was nominated for a Grammy® as Album of the Year.
Jarreau's prodigiously protean talents have enabled him over five decades to collaborate with apparent ease with a host of diverse artists including, among others: Herbie Hancock, Paul McCartney, George Benson, Kathleen Battle, Jill Scott, Patti Austin and The Roots' drummer, Questlove.
CCA, a faith-based, not-for-profit, ecumenical social services agency, is dedicated to helping homeless families get back on their feet. Information: ccahelping.org. Tickets are $35.00 to $65.00 and may be purchased online at shubert.com or by calling (203) 562-5666.
Homage to Drum Demigods
Drummer Carl Allen, who is himself noted for his artistry in rhythm, leads his quintet in a tribute to drummers Elvin Jones and Art Blakey in a show called The Art of Elvin on Friday, October 16 at 8:30 pm at The Side Door Jazz Club at 85 Lyme Street in Old Lyme.
Allen’s propulsive rhythm section for his celebration of the two iconic drum masters also features the hard-swinging pianist Xavier Davis and the Hartford native and no less hard-swinging bassist Dezron Douglas. Allen’s frontline players for his odes to the drum demigods features Tivon Pennicott, saxophone; and Freddie Hendrix, trumpet.
His hip hosanna to the heartbeat rhythms associated with The Art of Elvin and the Art of Art will also feature some smokin’ originals in his feel-good homage to the art of sizzle and the sanctity of swing. Information: (860) 434-0886.
Malaby’s Malady-Free TubaCello Madness
Noted for his many adventurous projects, saxophonist/composer Tony Malaby celebrates the debut release of his TubaCello band with back-to-back appearances in the region, one in Holyoke, Massachusetts and the other in New Haven, Connecticut.
Malaby’s robust quartet features himself on tenor and soprano saxophones; tubaist Bob Stewart, who has performed with such artists as McCoy Tyner, Carla Bley and Muhal Richard Abrams; and cellist Christopher Hoffman, another versatile sideman/leader and composer.
Hoffman’s resume includes work with Henry Threadgill and Ingrid Laubrock, as well as his contributions for a variety of artistic practitioners, including filmmakers, choreographers and dancers. Holding down the fort on drums for the portmanteau-named band is John Hollenbeck, the percussionist of choice for luminaries ranging from Kenny Wheeler to Meredith Monk, the multi-gifted, avant-garde composer, singer, director/choreographer and creator of new opera, music-theater works, films and installations.
TubaCello reveals the depth and width of its brass and string soul on Thursday, October 15, at 7:30 pm at a Jazz Shares-sponsored concert at Gateway City Arts at 92 Race Street in Holyoke. Tickets: $15.00, available at the door and at jazzshares.org.
On the next evening, Malaby and his TubaCello collaborators head south down I-91 to New Haven where they’ll perform on Friday, October 16, at 8:30 and 10:00 pm at Firehouse 12, the cozy, avant-garde bastion at 45 Crown Street in New Haven. Tickets: first show, $20.00; second show, $15.00. Information: firehouse12.com and (203) 785-0468.
Songbook Takes a Toe-Tapping Spin
Billing itself as putting "a fresh, toe-tapping spin on the Great American Songbook," The 2nd Line Jazz Quartet struts its stuff on Saturday, October 17, at 8:00 pm at The Buttonwood Tree at 605 Main Street in Middletown.
Educated at the Hartford Conservatory, Sue Lopes, 2nd Line’s frontline vocalist, has entertained audiences from Hartford to New Orleans with her high-caliber renditions of the pop and jazz canon. Lopes’s colleagues are: double bassist Jim Daggs, who has appeared with Maynard Ferguson and Stefon Harris; drummer Josh Briley whose style taps into the energy of New Orleans; and pianist/composer Jerry Aiyathurai. Tickets: $10.00. Information: buttonwood.org and (860) 347-4957.
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