Frank Vignola is widely known through his weekly gig (recently ended) with the legendary Les Paul for the last 5-6 years in NYC. His blazing Django Reinhardt inspired solos, every Monday night beside Mr. Paul, never failed to elicit cheers of astonishment from the crowds. And they were always deserved. He is truly a consistent virtuoso. But in the musical partnership with friend and fellow virtuoso Joe Ascione (they met back in the 90s), they discovered a different kismet. Instead of the French gypsy muse, they cast off in search of their own musical roots mainly rock music of the 70s with which they grew up, while still playing/arranging songs from the American Songbook.
With the help and encouragement of legendary producer Joel Dorn (Roberta Flack, Keith Jarrett, Mongo Santamaria, Max Roach, etc ) The Frank & Joe Show is ready to fully cut loose. The wider community of open-minded, music lovers all over the globe will surely benefit from the humor, hard work and high standards that come through their music. I sat down with Frank and Joe in their midtown Manhattan studio to speak with them about their ideas and direction.
JazzReview: So you guys just played for the last couple of months all around the United States, right?
Frank Vignola: Yeah. In the last year we’ve done close to 100 performances. Our first performance outside of NYC was at the Ryman auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee last summer and we hung a right from there Been zigzaggin’ the country. We took a boat over to Europe and debuted in Switzerland. Then we surfed back and we just got off the boat yesterday just kidding (Laughs).
Joe Ascione: The part he’s not kidding about is the quantity of dates we booked connecting the dots all over the place in relation to the road
JazzReview: From what I’ve read and heard about your group, it seems that crowd reaction and interaction are a big part of what you’re trying to do.
Joe Ascione: Yeah. It’s like gestalt. The sum is bigger than the parts. Each individual is unique and when we come together it’s larger than life. It really is. (slight pause) OK! (claps hands together and stands up) Thanks for coming! (extends hand to shake goodbye - much laughter)
JazzReview: So, the liner notes whoa! What’s going on there? Sheldrake?
Frank Vignola: In the inimitable way of producer Joel Dorn he sees things at a different slant sometimes and he’s pretty inventive, comical, surprising and as he put it, "After reading how many times on how many records when you were born " it’s time to do something else.
JazzReview: He did something else man! It’s hilarious. So Joel is Mr. Sheldrake.
Joe Ascione: That’s what we think.
Frank Vignola: Yeah. He is Mr. Sheldrake.
Joe Ascione: Did you hear the hidden track on the record?
Joe Ascione: That was another surprise. It was originally called Victor Sheldrake.
Joe Ascione: No (Laughs).
JazzReview: So how’d you hook up with Joel Dorn?
Frank Vignola: One day the phone rang. I picked it up and he said, "Hi, this is Joel Dorn." I said, "You’re kidding."(Laughs)
Joe Ascione: I said, "Who?" (Laughs)
Frank Vignola: No, he’s produced some amazing things.
Joe Ascione: But that hidden track is pivotal in that the band is moving in that direction. It’s not static.
JazzReview: I remember thinking that there was a regular drum kit on that hidden track. Is that right?
Joe Ascione: You probably thought that because the percussion set-up has developed into It happens to have a snare drum, it happens to have a little hi-hat, it happens to have cymbals, in addition to the percussion set-up. So by virtue of those sound sources that exist on a drum kit being in out set-up, you’re hearing something that resembles it. However, no, there is not a standard western American drum kit in the Frank & Joe Show. There are three strings, three percussion, and what you’re hearing It’s just smoke and mirrors.
Frank Vignola: I play one string, the other guitarist plays another string, and then Dennis plays the 3rd string
JazzReview: and each string is put through a harmonizer
Joe Ascione: and then an old space echo (Laughs)
JazzReview: Have mercy.
Frank Vignola: No, no. We just got off a couple of different meetings so we’re just ‘grooving’ right now.
JazzReview: Grooving is good.
Frank Vignola: and it’s great to groove on tape [tape recording the interview].
JazzReview: Everyone loves to groove, or jam.
Frank Vignola and Joe Ascione (in unison): I love to jam dot com!
JazzReview: So where did this ilovetojam.com idea come from?
Frank Vignola: Well, eight years ago Joe and I started a company called Venture Music Inc. because we had ideas other than performing that we were interested in. That was the beginning, sort of, of the internet, mp3 and we started developing music minus one tracks as downloadable mp3’s. This is the culmination of development, research, and work: ilovetojam.com, which is going to be all different styles from hard acid rock to beautiful ballads to funk and soul and latin and jazz and blah blah blah [11 blahs!]. They’re going to be play-along mp3’s.
JazzReview: That’s a great idea. Very cool.
Frank Vignola: You’ll get a mix without the instrument of your choice. So if you’re a bass player you get the full mix with a one page PDF of what the bass line is, [and] maybe a couple examples of how to alter it, and you’re on your way to download it to your ipod and play with great musicians. I think that’s a part of how I learned to play. Not only from playing and jamming, but also by some of the great music minus one records my father would buy me. I know that was records and vinyl but it was real. I mean, I was able to play with Herb Ellis, Joe Pass I think that was really
Joe Ascione: In this instant gratification world it’s really exciting to be able to have that tool to work with. How many records would we have wanted, growing up, to be able to play with that band or ensemble? So this website concept allows you to play anything on any instrument on any piece of music all the time And let’s face it, college kids today don’t schlep their Victrola around, right? They’ve got their ipod, they sit there grooving with their feet up on the desk, head set on, guitar in hand, or through a computer
Frank Vignola: It’s good. We’ve got everything from one-chord grooves So my 6 year old son Max I just started teaching him a couple chords. So I took the E minor groove we did which sounds hip. It sounds great. I’m even grooving to it. So I can say [to my son Max], "Ok, now play this," and he’s jamming along with the E minor chord. Then I give it to Ken, our other guitarist, and he starts playing some new mode he’s working on over the E minor groove. So it was really interesting to see the different levels that can work with the play-alongs.
Joe Ascione: And they started a band called "The Ken and Max Show."(Laughs)
Frank Vignola: Well, Max did say to me, "Hey, can we start the Max and Frank Show?"
Joe Ascione: Not the "Frank and Max Show?" (Laughs) He knows. He knows well.
JazzReview: So are you still doing that regular gig at Sweet Rhythm in the city [NYC]?
Frank Vignola: We started there. We played a year and a half there developing the act as we were working on the 1st record.
JazzReview: Yeah. I remember seeing the flyers in the window of the club every time I’d pass by and I’d say to myself, "I gotta see frank in a different context [from the Iridium with Les Paul] sometime."
Joe Ascione: Well, the band has developed so much that we’re playing 100 cities in the States. We’re going across the pond. We’re going to far reaching lands. So unless we could ‘bi-locate,’ we’ll probably
Frank Vignola: It’s tough with a steady Sunday night. You don’t make ¾’s of the
Joe Ascione: For about 6 months we were flying back from Europe and then showing up at Sweet Rhythm and playing. You know, staying up a day and a half and going for it.
JazzReview: Man. That could get kind of crazy.
Frank Vignola: Yeah. Plus, we were hoping that there would be 100’s of people lining up at the door. But when you’re there sporadically, people start to either think you’re always going to be there
JazzReview: That’s exactly what I did.
Frank Vignola: or they say, "Oh, they’re not going to be there because the last time we went they weren’t there." So we said, you know what, let’s give New York a break. When the 2nd record comes out, do a CD release party. This Saturday night it’s 120 reservations in a place that holds 70, so
JazzReview: That’s cool. So the classical pieces that are on the two records Did you guys spend a lot of time studying that stuff on its own, or did you just mix them with your other stuff right off?
Frank Vignola: I’ve always loved listening to classical music. I’ve never quite studied it the way I’ve studied jazz, rock, and fusion. But I’ve practiced Bach every day for like 20 years. I just love the studies on guitar and especially the solo violin pieces. But the furthest I got with memorizing was with half of the Allemande section which is on this #2 [Bach Partita from Frank & Joe show 66 and 2/3] and it was really cool to take that and take what we do, with our unique sound, and use the Bach as the melody to it, with that great rhythm behind it. It really works.
JazzReview: Yeah, it’s killing. It fits perfectly.
Joe Ascione: And great music is great music. When you appreciate great music, it can be any style.
JazzReview: Do either of you guys sing? There are a couple vocal pieces on the new record.
Frank Vignola: We do sing but Jane Monheit has a much nicer voice.
JazzReview: Yeah, good singer. And the other singer on the record
Frank Vignola: Janis Seigel.
JazzReview: Yeah. She’s great as well. Her tune on the record, "Glow Worm," is one of my favorites on there. But those two aren’t touring with you, right?
Frank Vignola: No. Janis is with Manhattan transfer. Jane has her own career. But when we go out on the road we sing "The Bowling Song."
JazzReview: "The Bowling Song?"
Frank Vignola: Joe is a bowler. He bowls 280s and stuff like that. So we wrote him a song called "The Bowling Song." That was my last year’s birthday present: "The Bowling Song" gift.
Joe Ascione: It’s actually a great tune. It really is. It’s kind of parody lyrics about bowling. So those are the kind of vocals we do. A couple original things we sing some chants on. Not real chants, but kind of that style because we’re not really singers. But there’s something about the element of the human voice.
JazzReview: [Singing] could be good for the context too: Trying to get interaction/connection with your audience. Singing has always seemed good for that.
Frank Vignola: Well, it’s a show. It’s like a jam-band jazz act really. We don’t really play jazz as far as
JazzReview: The ‘jam-band’ phrase is interesting because that occurred to me as well listening to some of the stuff on "66 and 2/3" [their new record].
Joe Ascione: The element of jazz that’s in it is the improvisational aspect. We need labels to speak about things.
Frank Vignola: Like Medeski, Martin, and Wood (musical group) is a jazz act.
Joe Ascione: That could be jazz because it’s improve. Jam-band you know what that is? That’s the opportunity to say, "Let’s plug in our stuff and see what happens."
Frank Vignola: Improvise. That’s really jazz. The jam-band stuff now, as far as what I’ve researched on these guys These guys are really improvising. They get great grooves going; there’s no ‘box’ on the music. So you can hit the distortion pedal if you want without worrying about getting the jazz police upset. We’ve been finding that playing at these jazz festivals, the people who we didn’t think were going to like the Frank & Joe show are blown away. Even older jazz guys like Bucky Pizzarelli and Johnny Varro. Johnny Varro was in tears when he heard that show.
Joe Ascione: Not that it was beautiful or anything. But just that wow, "Look at what these guys have done with what I have been such a part of creating since I’m 86 years old." You know what I’m saying?
Frank Vignola: And he appreciated the fact that we weren’t up there playing "Honeysuckle Rose" again. But we can take great standards from the American Songbook and make them fresh and exciting and have arrangements or not have arrangements or improvise in the moment. The exciting thing about the band, especially live, is that you can have that improvisational aspect on a great American tune, or a classical piece, or a
Joe Ascione: or a classic rock piece, you know? There’s some great music that was written in the 70s.
JazzReview: "Long Train Running" (Doobie Brothers song on their record).
Frank Vignola: Or "Alone Again, Naturally."
JazzReview: That one especially (‘Alone Again’) blew me away. I remember seeing that title and thinking to myself, "Hmmmmm. That’s a goofy choice." Then I listened to it and I was blown away by this beautiful thing.
Frank Vignola: Yeah, it’s a great melody.
Joe Ascione: So that’s what we mean when we say we’re not a jazz act as far as a traditional swing jazz act. We’re really more, live, a jam-band vibe. We really get into it.
JazzReview: So what was it like playing festivals in a group that plays more groove type music as well as standards?
Joe Ascione: It’s exciting. For example: The Elkhart Festival (Indiana). They draw 1000s of people in a weekend every June. It’s wonderful playing a festival like that. There are 60-70 other musicians your peers that you’ve played independently with and they come and check out the music. So every set we played there more people showed up because the word was out, the buzz was out. Then the musicians started to come to check it out. That was real nice.
Frank Vignola: Another thing about playing these kinds of festivals is 80% of the people who are there are just people who live nearby and decide they want to come hang out at the festival. You see people dancing. It’s really exciting when you can look out and see 100 people out of the 1000 dancing. All of a sudden people start getting up and clapping their hands. It’s really refreshing to be with an act that has that kind of impact on an audience. Instead of an esoteric jazz act, "Oh, we only do this." That always gave me a headache that kind of music.
JazzReview: Yeah. The attitude of really wanting to connect with people as opposed to maybe only playing for yourself and not caring about people’s reactions is I wouldn’t say rare, but it doesn’t seem to be in the front of a lot of jazz musicians minds...
Frank Vignola: Yeah. You kept seeing all those acts at the Iridium week after week. You know, they’ll all be sitting up there They don’t acknowledge the audience. Which is ok, it’s a vibe. But I like to see the people. I like when the lights are up in the room so I can make eye contact. We have wireless guitars now so we stroll around the audience. I think that’s really affective and fun for us. It’s fun.
Joe Ascione: Our other guitarist Ken Smith got a date because of it. He went out in the audience and serenaded someone on "My Prayer."
Frank Vignola: And Chuck our percussionist is also a dancer. He gets dates every night because he goes and dances with the ladies. He’s salsa dancing at 4 in the morning. It’s crazy. It’s true.
JazzReview: 4 in the morning? That’s a beautiful thing. (Laughs)
Frank Vignola: If you like to salsa dance. Me, I like salsa and chips, personally. That’s the extent of my salsa.
JazzReview: So you guys are really concentrating on The Frank & Joe Show as opposed to
Joe Ascione: Really concentrating on it. We’ve paved the way. If you’ve noticed, Mr. Vignola, after 6-7 years with the legendary Les Paul, is not working with Les anymore.
JazzReview: I did not know that.
Joe Ascione: So this is full time. The band is full time. Venture Music is full time. The website [ilovetojamm.com] is full time and they’re all consuming and they’re passionate filled and they’re really exciting.
Frank Vignola: After having this band for 2 years now, it’s like, ok, do we want to go like this (motions with hand suggesting a plateau), or do we want to go like this (motions with hand suggesting on the rise)? In order to do that we have to make changes. You’ve got to make changes. You have to make commitments to the music and to the belief that you claim to have for the music.
Joe Ascione: That’s why Johnny Varro had tears in his eyes. Because people know what it takes to step out and go for it. Then when they see on the other side of it the results because of the belief and commitment, the inside is moved.
JazzReview: Yeah, the belief and commitment thing is A lot of people don’t know that that’s maybe even more important than the talent thing.
Joe Ascione: In this instant gratification world that we live in.
Frank Vignola: And how do you develop the sound of a band? By working 20 times a year? Can’t do it. That’s why we had the steady Sunday night downtown. Because we knew to develop a sound for the band To go tour for the record to see if it even had a shot of us giving it a chance. And we hand picked the guys in the group and we were right. With the exception of the bass player (Laughs). No, I mean at first. At first it took us about 3-4 tries.
JazzReview: With different players, you mean?
Frank Vignola: Yeah. And then we got the guy and he’s been with us ever since Gary Mazzaroppi.
Joe Ascione: The chemistry between all 6 musicians in the band is spectacular.
Frank Vignola: Remarkable. It really is.
JazzReview: Anything you guys want to mention before we end up?
Frank Vignola: Come to the website ilovetojam.com. Come to the website thefrankandjoeshow.com to e-mail us any comments, questions, or suggestions and come see the show because it’s really a lot of fun.