In Service of Music

I caught Frank Vignola a few nights ago at the
Ark in Ann Arbor. The tickets for the show, sticking in my bedroom mirror frame, had been tantalizing me for over a month – and Frank and confreres delivered on my expectations. His band – comprising the leader, rhythm guitarist Vinnie Raniolo, double bassist Gary Mazzaroppi and guest accordionist Julien Labro – opened with an almost misleadingly relaxed "Stardust" and, without pause and employing the instantly recognizable intro to the Django Reinhardt-Stephane Grappelly recording of "Honeysuckle Rose," went into a spirited treatment of "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You" (perhaps a nod to Birthday Boy Tommy Dorsey).

In making mention, early in the proceedings, of the 2010 Django Reinhardt Centennial, Vignola set the tone for the evening. The legacy of the Belgian guitarist, like a convival, vivid and colourfully-garbed ghost settling comfortably in the best armchair, was very much in evidence throughout the set. Still, though the Long Island-born Vignola, capable of tossing off patented Reinhardt licks and creating heady Gypsy jazz atmosphere, is unmistakably a Django disciple, he's no clone. Frank Vignola is his own man – virtuosic, vibrant, vital and enclopedically informed on jazz. And blindingly fast. Apart from the distinctive manner of bending the strings, if there's one thing in Vignola's playing that, for me, conjures Reinhardt, it's the dazzling, dizzying speed. Like Django (and "Django's Tiger"), Frank flies through the changes, deftly, cleanly and with clever detours from the expected course. The velocity, though, is not without artistic purpose; Vignola's speed on the strings is always used in service of the music. Again acknowledging Reinhardt with a soulful and nuanced "Nuages" and then the recent passing of guitar-slinging giant Les Paul with a respectful "How High the Moon," Vignola verbally commented on the langourous lope into which the band had fallen with a jocular "Old guy's tempo." This guy, though often loud and fast, knows when and how to employ such.

I discovered the guitar-playing of Frank Vignola, a chronological contemporary of mine, a good 15 years ago when, intrigued by unusual instrumentation, a diverse song list and a Gatsby-esque CD cover, I grabbed a copy of the second album of Travelin' Light. Having been not just instantly awestruck by his technical skill but delighted by his unique "voice," I've been a Vignola follower ever since. The highlight of Thursday evening, for me, was perhaps an appropriately ferocious, and – yes – fast, trek through Django's "Rythme Futur" (spoken of, in Relative Esoterica, here); Frank and his fine crew took me places – in the past as well as the future – with that one. The night, or Frank's part of it (the miraculous Hot Club of Detroit took the stage next), neared its close with that perennial showpiece, "Flight of the Bumble Bee": remember, this is one of the things Harry James got critically stung for buzzing on his trumpet back in the 1940's. It was flashy, without musical substance, just a display of prowess – or so the snobby "they" said. Modest in dimensions and unassuming in manner, Vignola vindicated the Rimsky-Korsakov piece (he gave the composer credit), the artistic application of speed ... and maybe even the oft-maligned (among "purists") Harry James with a zealous and yet effortlessly-winged flight. "Serve the song," I always say (see, I'll even quote myself): playing fast or slow ... and always extremely well, Frank Vignola does just that.

Dig Italian-American Frank, unabashedly ethnic (like a certain Mr. Lang), on the 'tube: