A Q&A with Frank Vignola
By Geoff Gehman
Frank Vignola loves gypsy jazz and the life of a musical gypsy. The 49-year-old guitarist cut his teeth by touring with Leon Redbone, the celebrated singer of Dixieland and ragtime ditties; gigging weekly at a Manhattan club with guitarist Les Paul, the legendary jazz-rock stylist, and recording a traditionally jazzy soundtrack with Madonna. On his own he created a hot tribute to Django Reinhardt’s Hot Club of France, albums devoted to Gershwin and swing standards, and a public-television special showcasing four generations of guitarists, including the one and only Bucky Pizzarelli.
At home Vignola is anchored by his wife Kate, a French teacher, and their four boys. Everywhere else—on the road, in the studio, in online workshops—he’s anchored by a major jones for melody. In the tradition of his heroes—Charlie Christian, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis—he makes structured, spontaneous magic with the melodies of everything from “Killing Me Softly” to Mozart’s 40th symphony. He even turned “Eye of the Tiger,” the thumping theme song for “Rocky III,” into a hummingbird delight.
On Aug. 22 Vignola returns to the Mauch Chunk Opera House with his longtime duo partner, guitarist Vinny Raniolo, who first sensed the gypsy-jazz potential of “Eye of the Tiger.” The musicians, who have shared over 1,000 dates in 14 countries, will roam from “Stardust” to acoustic favorites by the Beatles to the first movement of Beethoven’s fifth symphony, where they swing their bodies like the Fab Two. Expect an evening of sparkling, sophisticated music with breezy humor and easy scholarship.
Below, in a conversation from his home in Warwick, N.Y., Vignola discusses his surprise gig with Paul McCartney, his dream of concerts with George Benson, and the gift of a long, hard drive in the rain after a poorly attended show.
Q: I have to tell you that I was tired of “Eye of the Tiger” the third time I heard it. It’s just too damned bombastic for my ears. So I have to thank you and Vinny for making it not only listenable but enjoyable, not only racing but bracing. But why in the hell of tarnation did you decide to give that moldy chestnut a new life?
A: You know, it’s an example of how musicians get so tight when they’re on the road. Vinny and I had finished a gig in Glasgow at a club called The Ferry. It was a really rainy Tuesday night and I think we had nine people at that show, although they were very enthusiastic people—don’t get me wrong. We were driving through the night in the rain, trying to get to an airport, saying, yeah we have to make it, it’s an uphill battle, we feel like Rocky now! Suddenly, Vinny goes “Dun dun DUN! Dun dun DUN!” [the opening salvo of “Eye of the Tiger”]. A few days later he comes to work with an arrangement [of “Eye of the Tiger”] and we came up with gypsy chord progressions and a few guitar leads and we had ourselves a unique take.
Now people love to hear us play “Eye of the Tiger.” They cheer when they hear the opening phrase; that makes me laugh every time. Jazz purists will turn up their noses but the other 98 percent in the audience will have a gas. And I do think you have to play for the people, the other 98 percent.
Q: Your dad was your first musical mentor, introducing you to the ukulele and the guitar when you were in elementary school, teaching you how to pick properly, letting you woodshed with his musician buddies. What was the best musical advice he gave you, as well as the best life lesson?
A: The musical advice would be: If you play rhythm guitar you’ll never have a problem working. I absolutely took that to heart: I had 10, 12 gigs a week in traditional jazz and Dixieland bands out of high school. As far as a life lesson, it would be: A closed mouth never lost an argument. Make sure what you’re going to say is worth debating. It was completely opposite of his personality; being a tempered Italian, anything could set him off anytime. I’ve said that to my kids so many times, they laugh at me: “Oh Dad, we’ve heard that one before.”
Q: Last year you and Vinny gave your first Opera House concert an extra added zing by playing “Polly Wolly Doodle” with your old boss, Leon Redbone. What was your favorite memory of touring with Leon?
A: Working with Leon was my first dose of life on the road, my first real dose of performing with a consummate professional. He could be aloof, if you know what I mean. Sometimes he’ll just mumble the words or skip a bridge; you definitely have to follow him. Well, one night on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” he just nailed “Shine on Harvest Moon.” It was just perfect; it made me think, wow, that’s why he was a big star at that time—packing halls all over the country, doing that Budweiser commercial.
Q: You really worked up your chops playing Monday nights at a Manhattan club with Les Paul, the master guitarist and pioneer guitar maker. How about a top highlight from your time with him?
A: My No. 1 highlight was just playing with Les, seeing how he worked with the guests and worked the crowd. Every night was brilliant; hearing him play “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was my weekly medicine. No. 2 has to be when Paul McCartney walked in one night. I knew the dressing room would be locked, so I made sure to get in before the door closed [laughs]. We played “The Sheik of Araby” and “I’m Confessin.’” It was amazing that Paul McCartney knew all that repertoire: the words, the music, the chords. His story about Les was that the first job for the Beatles required that they had to play songs by Les Paul and Mary Ford [Paul’s vocalist wife]. So what he was doing with us was bringing it all back
I love the Beatles. People will be listening to songs written by Lennon and McCartney 400 years from now, just like they’ll be listening to Mozart. I wonder how much of the popular music of the last 20 years will be around in 400 years. It’s kind of funny, or not, how the quality of songwriting in pop music has dwindled down to nothing. How do you compare “Yesterday” [sings opening line] to the rap songs my kids like? If you made that comparison, I would almost throw up.
Q: I haven’t read anything about what you did with Madonna during your ‘80s heyday as a session man. Would you care to shine a little light on how you helped her out?
A: I was brought in to work with her and [actress] Jennifer Grey on a recording of traditional jazz tunes like “I Surrender, Dear” from the late teens to the early ’20s. It was for the soundtrack of a movie, “Bloodhounds of Broadway” , based on a Damon Runyon short story. I’d say the highlight was having a nice conversation with her at lunch. We had the same tuna fish and got food poisoning together. We ended up spending half the time in the studio in the bathroom [laughs].
The movie didn’t have huge success but it was fun being the traditional jazz guy and discovering that, wow, even Madonna has a love and an affinity for great American pop songs, one of the great things America has to offer the world Today, Willie Nelson and, obviously, Rod Stewart are fans of the great traditional songs I’ve loved since I was six years old.
Q: You first met Vinny nine years ago, when he auditioned on electric bass for a six-piece rock/fusion band you were putting together. How has the duo changed over five years, and how has Vinny changed over five years?
A: What we’ve developed is the fullest sound you can get out of two guitars. I don’t know any other two guitars that sound as full. We’ve worked hard on that; that’s why we play certain guitars; that’s why we choose certain keys for arrangements. And that’s why the audience doesn’t feel like they’re missing anything. I can’t remember a time when anyone has said: Hey, that’s nice, but where’s the bass; where are the drums?
At the same time our repertoire has expanded greatly. We know hundreds and hundreds of songs and arrangements. We pride ourselves on our arrangements; we’re not just improvising. That’s what makes our duo special, like nothing else on the planet today. You’ll see a lot of solo guitarists, and guitarists with bass, drums and piano, but rarely two acoustic guitarists with such a full range of tunes and interpretations.
Vinny’s musical ability, and maturity, has increased greatly, as you can imagine with someone who goes from being 21 years old and out of college to touring the world. The better he became, the more we switched the arrangements and had him play the lead. At the same time his personality has really emerged. He really has become a great personality as opposed to a guy who just plays great guitar.
Over five years we’ve become a well-oiled machine. We’ve had over 1,000 gigs, playing for 12 people in York, England and 2,200 people in the Sydney Opera House. We’ve been to 14 countries. We both have the desire to work in every place we can possibly work. We still love playing music together. We still like each other as people.
Q: You’ve got to tell me the name of that place in York where you had only a dozen listeners.
A: I remember it was during our first tour of England as a duo. I wish I could remember the name of the club. We played it three years in a row and had the same 12 people, so we decided to skip that town [laughs]. But that’s usually the way you build up a crowd at a venue. If we work over five to 10 years at Mauch Chunk, we will eventually pack the place, one fan at a time. Places like the Opera House keep communities going in places like Jim Thorpe. I hate to see old theaters close and end up becoming banks.
Q: What was your toughest time in the music trade, when your faith was really put to the fire?
A: It was 10, 12 years ago when I ended up getting into business with quote unquote business people. I wasn’t comfortable with them financially or musically, and I almost crashed and burned. That’s when I started the six-piece acoustic band with Vinny. I hit it as hard as I could and over time it’s worked out very well. Was there a point when I considered giving it up? Never. It was simply a point when I got my college education, when I got schooled real bad. I used it as inspiration to get out there and get ahead. Rebounding is what born musicians do.
Q: How about your most rewarding time in the music trade, when you felt on top of the world and the moon?
A: Now is a great time. I feel great physically and musically. Vinny and I are really ripping it up. We have a show [“Four Generations of Guitar”] airing over PBS all over the country. So, yes, now is definitely up.
There was another time, in 2000, when my wife was teaching French and I was teaching guitar at Arizona State University and we were missing New York. Let’s face it, New York City is New York City; you can’t hear Bucky Pizzarelli every night in Arizona. A month later we were back in New York when Les Paul called me. We had been friendly since I was 19 and there he was on the phone, saying, “Hey, come join me on Monday nights” [at the Iridium jazz club]. That’s how I started with him and then, wow, I hooked up with [violinist] Mark O’Connor and we had a nice hot swing trio going.
I think the most important time was in 1990, when I was 25 years old and I had been working in the city for four, five years. I had a little place in Manhattan and I was doing gigs at high-society parties. One night I had finished a gig and it was around 11 o’clock and I was in my tuxedo and I thought: Man, I want to do more than this; I want to make a mark. So I walked into Michael’s Pub, one of biggest jazz clubs in the city at the time. I had subbed there once or twice for a banjo player working with Woody Allen. I knew the next show started at 11:30, so I had time to say hello to the owner [Gil Wiest] and make my pitch. I knew he was a notoriously no-nonsense guy; if I asked him for a job he might say “Get out!”
So I said, “Mr. Wiest, I was wondering if you want to do a tribute to Django Reinhardt.” He said: “I need a tape! I need a tape!” So I made a tape and went back to him with probably 10,000 sheets of information on Django and the Hot Club of France He called back the next day and said: “You start in three weeks; you do three weeks at a time.”
So we started the Hot Club tribute at Michael’s Pub, six months in one year, five nights a week. The first night there was The New York Times, Newsday, Fox News. The next thing I know I’m on the front cover of The Times entertainment section. Before long we had packed houses and offers to play all over the country. It was kind of the start of my solo career.
I tell that story to musicians, especially younger students, not to brag about my accomplishments, but just to let them know they have to do much more than just practice to get ahead. You have to get used to getting out there and selling your product. You might get “No” a lot. If I had heard “No” from the owner of Michael’s Pub, I probably would have said: Fuck it, I’ll pick the second most popular club in New York. At the same time, when you hear “Yes,” it’s usually a pretty big one.
Q: You’ve already made it clear that you think the rap your kids love is crap. Ah, but have they had any influence on your musical choices?
A: I remember thinking when my first son was born: There may come a day when I may not want to tour anymore, so I better get to work on writing education books to bring in mailbox money. So I write educational material every day. Technology is such that you can produce a large amount of this material at home for an affordable price, and you don’t need a publishing company. You know, we don’t get a pension here in the music business.
Q: So, Frank, what tops your Bucket List? How about, say, touring with Eddie Van Halen, one of your early guitar heroes?
A: I’d love to play with Eddie, but I don’t know if I could keep up with him [laughs]. At the top of my Bucket List would be playing a concert with George Benson. I’ve jammed with him, I’ve hung out with him. He’s a brilliant guy; he’s the best living jazz guitarist. I think we’d have a great time playing Charlie Christian [tunes] together. I would start practicing for that one; I’d have to start practicing [laughs]
A: And what tops your Fuck It List?
A: Fear of death. I just read something that really hit a chord with me: The best way to think about death is you just fall asleep and you enter a state of peacefulness. So I’m going to fall asleep and not stress out. I’m going to be 50 this year and I know it’s young but, hey, it’s still halfway to 100 and I’m going to do my best to continue taking good care of myself. I’m not a daredevil guy: I’m not going to run a marathon, and I don’t want to jump out of an airplane. Hey, a little run of the treadmill, a few pushups, eating well. A healthy lifestyle: that’s the life for me
Frank Vignola: The Scoop
“Limehouse Blues” was the first tune he remembers hearing. “I was six years old when my father played me a Django Reinhardt recording. I used to play along with that record probably.50 times a day. I never, ever will forget that song. Written in 1919. And it’s still in my repertoire, especially when I play with [guitarist] Bucky [Pizzarelli].”
As a youngster he dissected guitar solos by playing LPs at half speed.
He performed on Donald Fagen’s record “Morph the Cat” and on the song “My Little Grass Shack” with Leon Redbone and Ringo Starr.
Les Paul told The Wall Street Journal that Vignola was one of the five guitarists he admired the most.
His downloadable video lessons include “25 Picking Workouts”; his eight-week on-line courses include “Major Inversion Excursion.”
The Marine-style buzzcut on the cover of his 2007 record of Gershwin songs reflected his Marine-style workouts at the time with a trainer who doubled as his percussionist. The owner of his record company rejected his proposed title of “G.I. Gershwin” as too close a shave.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He got his jones for Django Reinhardt’s gypsy jazz from his English swing-loving mother. He can be reached at email@example.com.