July/August 2010

Frank Vignola: Guitar Music From the Heart

Guitarist talks about fellow string players in a Before & After listening session

In addition to his beautifully honed technique, guitar virtuoso Frank Vignola is well known for the extraordinary company he keeps, in the studio and onstage. His associations include a five-year stint playing alongside the legendary Les Paul, widely acclaimed recordings and tours with Mark O’Connor’s Hot Swing Trio, and recent collaborations with Australian guitar wizard Tommy Emmanuel. The New York native is also the author of numerous guitar method books available from Mel Bay Publications, and hosts a series of instructional DVDs from TrueFire.com. On a brief Mid-Atlantic tour with guitarist Gene Bertoncini a few months back, Vignola took some time out in Annapolis, Md., for a quiz that jogged more than a few memories. His latest solo release is 100 Years of Django (Azica).

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Frank Vignola

1. George Barnes Quartet
“Fascinatin’ Rhythm” (from Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, Acoustic Disc). Barnes, guitar; Duncan James, rhythm guitar; Dean Reilly, bass; Benny Barth, drums. Recorded in 1977.

BEFORE: I think that’s the last record George did. He did it for David Grisman’s label. I don’t know the rhythm section, but that’s classic George Barnes. You can pick him out of a lineup—his precision, every note is so clean, the soul, the expression, the all down-picking—you can really pinpoint that. I think George is one of the unsung heroes of jazz guitar. Barely anyone has heard of him—I hate to say that—and yet if you talked to Bucky Pizzarelli or Les Paul, they thought George was the absolute best. David Grisman told me this was a labor of love. He never put out anything electric on his label: This was the first thing, and he said it sold about 187 copies, which is really sad. Even when I [taught at Arizona State University], it was like nobody had heard of George Barnes.

2. Johnny Smith
“Easy to Love” (from The Complete Roost Johnny Smith Small Group Sessions, Mosaic). Smith, guitar; Perry Lopez, rhythm guitar; Arnold Fishkin, bass; Don Lamond, drums. Recorded in 1954.

BEFORE: I love the sound of the brushes and I always love the sound of two guitars together, but I don’t know who it is.

AFTER: Johnny Smith! I almost said Jimmy Raney because it has that style. Johnny Smith, look at that. The arrangement was great. Who was the other guitar player? [Perry Lopez.] I remember when my father bought me one particular Joe Pass record when I was young, For Django, and he said, “Yeah, Joe Pass is great, but listen to that rhythm guitar player, John Pisano.” He’d say, “If you can play rhythm guitar you’ll never have a problem getting work.” Johnny’s record of “Moonlight in Vermont,” I grew up with that, but I never had the opportunity to meet him. And just the fact that he wrote “Walk, Don’t Run!” I think is really something.

3. Pat Martino & Les Paul
“I’m Confessin’ That (I Love You)” (from Martino’s All Sides Now, Blue Note). Martino, Paul, guitars; Lou Pallo, rhythm guitar; Paul Nowinski, bass. Recorded in 1997.

BEFORE: Wow—that was so great. Les Paul, Pat Martino, Lou Pallo and I believe Gary Mazzaroppi on the bass. [Ed. note: Paul Nowinski is on bass.] I had never heard that. You always get great music from two players with different styles instead of two who play in the same way. But, of course, nobody played like Les. … In my opinion you could put 50 guitar players in a room, pick a tune, and it would sound great—that’s the beauty of the guitar. But when you get two guys who respect one another and really want to make music together, there’s nothing better. It’s when guys try to outshine one another that [you get] problems. That’s not what music is about. There’s always a natural competitiveness, which is a good thing. But that was an example of two guitar giants really playing music together. When Pat would do something, Les would be right there, and vice versa, playing off each other and really playing music. Pat is brilliant. He has one of the oddest picking styles I’ve ever seen, and yet he plays so clean and fast. Just proves to me that there’s no wrong way to hold your picking hand. And, you know, Lou Pallo, that’s the art of rhythm guitar playing right there. Not too many guitar players can play rhythm like that very well, just play the chords à la Freddie Green, nice and short with swinging time.

4. George Van Eps
“Somebody Loves Me” (from Hittin’ on All Six: A History of the Jazz Guitar, Proper). Van Eps, guitar. Adrian Rollini and His Orchestra: Manny Klein, Dave Klein, trumpets; Jack Teagarden, trombone; Benny Goodman, clarinet; Arthur Rollini, tenor saxophone; Adrian Rollini, bass saxophone; Howard Smith, piano; Artie Bernstein, bass; Stan King, drums. Recorded in 1934.

BEFORE: Is that Van Eps? That’s what I thought; also thought it might be Carl Kress for a moment. Wonderful.

AFTER: I’ve probably played that arrangement. I played with Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks coming up, and he was committed to the music of the ’20s and ’30s—really a repertory group. I loved that style of music, right after the banjo went out and guitar came in. Van Eps changed everything on guitar: not only his chordal style but then introducing the seven-string. A giant. I took a few lessons from Howard Alden when he moved to New York—must be 30 years ago, which is frightening—and he turned me on to Van Eps big time. I knew who he was and had his records, but that’s when I started studying some of his pieces, and, you know, it was like classical music. He was huge. He was a real gentleman, too. I remember when I met him he was so nice.

The rest of this Before & After session tappears in the July/August 2010 issue of JazzTimes.

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