Virtuoso guitarist Frank Vignola and master percussionist, Joe Ascione have worked together steadily, developing a symbiotic union which breeds energy, excitement and delicious memories with their 33 1/3 recording.
Rarely do artists of such extreme caliber work together so well for so long. Now at their peak, Frank and Joe have reached in to bring other brilliant artists into their world, giving America a taste of splendor with a cross section of The Great American Song Book, mixed with a little pop and gypsy swing, in a tribute to master song writers of recent and past decades.
Among the guest vocalists on this album are: Dr. John with a compelling sound on Sheik of Araby, Jane Monheit in a sensuous rendition of Besame Mucho and Janis Siegel with an airy, yet deep Don’t Fence Me In.
The Frank & Joe Show has drawn such acclaim that recently at Sweet Rhythm in New York, as the story is told, the house was packed. But the audience braved the sub zero temps with little thought as they anticipated the wonderful warmth, song, and musical virtuosity of this dynamic duo.
Just arriving home after a tour in Japan, the warm sound of Joe Ascione’s gentle voice crosses the phone lines, as we begin the interview.
JazzReview: Hello. Is this Joe Ascione? .
Joe Ascione: Yes, it is. I just got back from Japan.
JazzReview: Let’s talk about your new album. When I saw your photos on the album cover, I thought, ‘ok this is a comedy routine. They slipped it in on me. What is going on?’ Then, I realized you guys have picked a magnificent range of songs-totally different from bop, pop and hip-hop.
Where did you go to get these songs? You are both young. How did you even know about some of these older songs?
Joe Ascione: That’s a good question. We cover the spectrum as far as repertoire. The American Song Book is something that’s pretty much second nature to us, whether I play with Jay McShann, or Rock Sutton, or Cab Calloway, Count Basie or Della Reese. Frank and I grew up with the music. Our parents listened to it and played it, so we naturally gravitated towards it. We’ve both been playing since we were very young-four or five. So for the last 30 years or so, we’ve been weaned on the American Song Book. Because we take pride in developing the craft of our instruments, we naturally gravitated as players, to put a little twist to the songs. It’s very natural to us.
The other thing that happens is: since we have an environment, which is a band--- and a venue, which is Sweet Rhythm, who has worked with us steadily for the past year or so, we have a nice breadth of space to cultivate and explore things. And, we have a natural pace so that for example, we said Remember that tune, Delilah-that Tom Jones sang? We play that as a bright Samba-esque type tune. Many of the tunes we just think of or enjoy, we have our own slant on. From the Frank and Joe Show aspect, it’s basically our own take on the tunes.
JazzReview: I can hear the Les Paul influence in the guitar playing.
Joe Ascione: Yes, actually, Frank does play with Les Paul on Monday nights.
JazzReview: As I mentioned, I remember these songs from my own childhood-way long ago.
Joe Ascione: Yes. A great melody is timeless. You’ll always sing it, whistle it or hum it. It doesn’t get old. And as long as you present it in a fresh manner, it’s going to be exciting.
We’re very excited about the record. It’s got great music and it’s fun. It gets the people uplifted. If you look on the website, when they interviewed people, everyone is very uplifted.
JazzReview: That was my next question. Who are you reaching with your music? Do you find the younger people attracted to it as well as the older folks?
Joe Ascione: That’s the phenomena here, anywhere from eight to eighty-five. We did the Friday night get-together at the--I believe, Princeton University. The college students have a nice, social environment with ages anywhere from eighteen to twenty-two. You could hear a pin drop. And, every one was on their feet. It was incredible. So for us, that was a bit of R&D-research and development; where they were completely into it. See, if you have a great melody and if it’s presented and communicated well, it will be grabbed by the human soul.
Young people really, really appreciate the music. People who grew up with it and who know the melody like Long Train Running, and pop tunes from the seventies. These people from mid-life era relate. And, people in their twilight years relate. We have doctors and lawyers in who know the melodies from when they were younger. And, they’re die-hard fans. So really, it’s across the board. We have a wonderful group of listeners. Just like the music has such a variety of choices, so is the audience a mix.
JazzReview: Listening to your album, I find you have reached in and pulled up some great talents. Jane Monheit, Janice Siegel-even Dr. John. Where did you find these great talents and how did you manage to pull them into your world? They have all done fabulous jobs on your album.
Joe Ascione: Yes, they’re great. Well, there are a few things. Our producer, Joel Dorn, is brilliant in many ways. And, to answer your question, he is a dear friend with all three of these vocalists.
He invited them, and hopefully they wanted to-and luckily, they did. He invited them to give a listen to what the Frank and Joe Show is all about, and what the sound is of the Frank and Joe Show. And, Joel Dorn’s vision, as a producer is: we don’t want to just have guest vocalists, or guest musicians or guests. His production mind set was: the Frank and Joe Show has a vibe, has an attitude, has a tone.
We want people to take what they do, and shuffle the deck and merge it and blend it with the sound of the Frank & Joe Show so it’s not just a guest appearance and it’s tangent. So they fit into the framework and fabric and mosaic of what the Frank & Joe Show is all about. And, given the choice of the piece they sang, they fit very well.
The thing I’ll say about the vocalists is; Joel Dorn knows all three and has worked with all three. And, he had the vision that they would work well with the Frank & Joe Show sound. Secondly, Frank Vignola the guitar player, worked with Janice Siegel in the past. Then, more recently, has worked with Jane Monheit. So, there is familiarity there.
Fifteen years ago or so, when I worked with Donald Fagan, who is one of the brainchildren of the Donald Fagan-Steely Dan group, we did something called the Rock and Soul Review. And, Dr. John was one of the guests. So, ironically I worked with Dr. John 15 years ago.
Between Frank and I, we worked with these wonderful people and Joel Dorn produced these wonderful people in the past. There was a natural marriage for those great artists to blend with our sound, and Joel was excited to put out another project.
If you read the liner notes, you’ll see he doesn’t have to make records. He hears something that excites him enough to want to put out a record. He appreciated the sound and vibe of what we’re doing. And, that was the mindset when Joel decided to work with us.
JazzReview: It shows in your performance. You don’t have a stilted performance. It’s upbeat. You and Frank give a tremendous performance.
That was the next question: How did you first meet Joel Dorn? What was the connection? Did you choose each other?
Joe Ascione: Both Frank and I had heard of Joel Dorn on the periphery of our careers. Then, prior to our Show, someone had heard us playing. That person had a working relationship with Joel Dorn. So this third party, Bill Dern, who works with Hyena Records and is part of our team, said to Joel, our producer, "Joel, you’ve got to hear these guys." Out of left field, Frank called me and said, "We got a call to play for Joel Dorn, who works with Hyena Records, who produces with them. Just take it for what it is."
So, we secured some studio time and we invited different personnel. We were gravitating towards what this record sounds like. We played and in 15 seconds, Joel stopped us. Frank and I said, "Uh-oh, what is this?" Joel looked at us and said, "Okay baby, let’s do it!" And, that was that.
We spent an incredible year nurturing and developing this record. That’s what’s amazing about working with Joel and working with Hyena: We were given that space to work and cultivate the sound we knew was there, and when Joel heard it, he knew it. He allowed the space to let us cultivate what we were doing and he could tweak it left or right-and, he’s magic.
The other ironic thing is: Gene Paul is Les Paul’s son.
JazzReview: That’s incredible.
Joe Ascione: It is incredible. So, all these little facets tie in. That’s how we met Joel. It’s been wonderful so far.
JazzReview: I understand Frank has the highest admiration for you. He says your expertise with percussion allows him to be free with his own creativity. And because you are so good at what you do, it allows him to expand and explore.
He’s absolutely amazed with you. Can you tell me something about Frank?
Joe Ascione: First, I can echo verbatim exactly what he said because it’s a complete, mutual feeling. We’ve played different settings and we’ve always gravitated to our particular styles.
I pride myself as trying to play as competently as I can. Consequently, when I first heard Frank play, he allowed my musical doors to be open because no one swings as hard as Frank.
If there were a quarter note on a runway at an airport, it would be a 747 because his quarter note beat is so strong and so hard. And, for a drummer you can’t help but tap your foot and want to play with the feeling and that quarter note.
Technically, what a drummer can do with two hands, Frank can do with his right hand or his left hand because he has like a chainsaw right hand. It’s very percussive. And his ears are lightening fast. Because we go together so well in a musical setting, we know where the dialogue is going to go instantly. It’s a journey that starts as soon as the downbeat hits and we both don’t know where it could go. But wherever it goes, we know we’re both on the same page.
JazzReview: That’s incredible.
Joe Ascione: Well, it took time. A mutual friend of ours twenty years ago said, "Oh, you guys have got to play together!" And, we finally did. It was a real treat and ever since then, in musical situations, it’s a real soul partnership.
JazzReview: When you work together, it’s kind of like marriage. You either grow together or you grow apart.
Joe Ascione: Right. And, I think in the last 15 years we are just now coming to that point where we are saying, "Wow!" We’re finally reaping the rewards of our labor. This is what we’ve been looking to do. All those projects, tours, festivals and gigs were bringing us to this culmination. What you’re hearing now is a true representation of what we do musically, so it’s kind of exciting. I remember ten years ago, we were doing this style of music during the sound checks. We were dreaming of doing this. We always talk about that. The Frank & Joe Show is what we were subliminally playing all along.
JazzReview: Where do you see yourself in the future, you and Frank, on a dessert island relaxing in the glow, working towards another hit?
Joe Ascione: As I mentioned, it’s taken 15 years to get to this point. It’s been all dress rehearsals, so to speak. If we flipped a coin, I’d like to see the next 15 or 20 years with this project.
It’s almost like reaching Mount Everest. You’re finally up there. Do we quickly put a flag up and leave? Nah I think we should stay here for a while. Explore the plateau. Enjoy for a while.
The interview ended as it began: with the warm, intuitive, articulate voice of Joe Ascione as he began preparing for his next venture.
Two world-class musicians influenced by the musical greats of all time: Frank as a sideman to Les Paul, Hank Jones and Mark O’Connor, among other accomplishments.
Joe has performed with the legendary Donald Fagan of the Steely Dan fame, and was strongly influenced by Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa and Jo Jones.
All these past successes have been only a rehearsal for the success now born with the Frank & Joe Show.