STORY WRITTEN BY ROB NAGY
For Digital First Media
While jazz guitarist, banjoist, composer, producer and creative mentor Frank Vignola may not be a household name; his artistry has impacted fans and fellow musicians around the globe. Influenced by Django Reinhardt, Bucky Pizzarelli, Joe Pass and Johnny Smith, Vignola’s guitar prowess spans the worlds of swing, jazz-fusion and rock.
Frank Vignola and Vinny Raniolo’s latest release, “Swing Zing!,” a thirteen song production (featuring “The Best Things In Life Are Free,” “September Song,” “Cry Me A River,” “Joseph Joseph,” “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” “All The Things You Are,” “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans,” “Whispering,” “Sleepy Time Gal,” “Star Dust,” “Tico Tico/Djangomania” and “Peg Oh My Heart/I’m Confessin’”) includes guest appearances by Julian Lage, Bucky Pizzarelli, Olli Soikkeli, Audra Mariel, Gary Mazzaroppi and Gene Bertoncini.
“Every couple of weeks Vinny Raniolo and I would go into the studio and each time we would invite a different guest. That’s how the album happened,” says Vignola, from his home in Warwick, New York. “We weren’t planning the record but as we were going into the studio, if we had the day off, we would go in for a couple of hours. Then we started listening to everything and said, ‘Man this is a great record with all the duets we were doing.’ It was a lot of fun putting it together, not thinking of a record concept but ending up with a great record concept. We really captured the essence of what we do. I’m really proud of this record. I think it’s the best we’ve done so far.”
“With the advances of technology, we have lost the art of recording a performance,” adds Vignola. “This record was all done by everybody in the same room. We would walk around and place microphones in different areas to get the natural reverb of the room as opposed to adding it later. So, it was done very artfully as far as engineering. We would sit across from each other and just play. Had we not all played together in the studio, it would not have been as intimate. That’s for sure. It couldn’t work.”
After giving birth to his first group, “The Hot Club Quintet,” in 1987 at the age of 23, Vignola became a fixture in New York City’s jazz community. He performed with an impressive roster of accomplished fellow jazz artists that included Jimi Bruno, Andy Stein, Herman Foster and Joe Ascione, among others. Vignola founded the record label Venture Music, which offered instructional music books and videos. Signed to the Concord Jazz label, Vignola released his debut album “Appel Direct” in 1993, the first of dozens of solo album efforts and collaborations that have earned praise from Ringo Starr, Madonna, Donald Fagen, Wynton Marsalis, Tommy Emmanuel, the Boston Pops and the New York Pops. Famed guitarist and recording pioneer Les Paul heralded Vignola on his “Five Most Admired Guitarists List” for the Wall Street Journal. The New York Times paid homage to Vignola as “one of the brightest stars of the guitar.”
“I love songs,” says Vignola. “I almost consider myself a song stylist that leans towards jazz guitar. I obviously love jazz. I’ve played a lot of jazz. The older I get, the more I love playing that era from the Great American Songbook. I think jazz and blues are America’s art form. We should teach it in schools. We should teach about that era of music that was so inspired by World War I and World War II. I would consider myself more of a song stylist than a jazz guitar player, especially with what Vinny and I do. We do “Beethoven’s 5th” and we do Gershwin and we do Irving Berlin and “Eye of the Tiger.” I mean, they’re all great songs. We don’t play jazz on them. We arrange them into a show that people can enjoy. People say, ‘we haven’t heard that in years.’ That’s what we do.”
Vignola’s status as one of most sought after guitarists, both in the U.S. and internationally, has found him performing hundreds of shows on three continents and in more than a dozen countries, including the Sydney Opera House in Australia, Carnegie Hall, The Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, New York’s Lincoln Center and Vicenza, Italy’s Teatro Olimpico.
Authoring numerous instructional guitar books and videos for Mel Bay Publications and Truefire.com, Vignola offers clinics, master classes and workshops at universities around the world, including at Julliard and Boston University.
“I’m always putting out educational material, downloading guitar lessons,” says Vignola. “I consider myself a recording artist as much as a teacher. Every month, I put out two or three lessons on my website. Twice a year I put out a full course. I really enjoy it because music is very complicated. It’s not a formula like math or science. It has emotion. For me, there’s not just one way to teach music. It’s fascinating to me how different people learn the same thing in music, which is basically playing the song. Then, we go into theory and technique. So I really do enjoy it. It’s a lot of fun, whether you are a hobbyist or really serious about it. I’ve learned more from teaching than I have from taking lessons because you have to explain to students what you’re actually doing, and that’s a great lesson. I still lead people in the right direction.”
Featured on National Public Radio, Vignola has been a fixture on PBS, both via the heavily rotated program “Tommy Emmanuel and Friends” as well as his own PBS special, “Four Generations of Guitar.” Vignola was featured in the 2015 series, “Music Gone Public” where he was joined by special guests Bucky Pizzarelli, Joe Craven and Tommy Emmanuel.
“There’s always something good going on and I’m just happy, at the age of 50, to be supporting a family and playing music that I love,” says Vignola. “It’s just really a lot of fun.”
Having spent years performing and teaching at a feverish pace, at midlife Vignola has streamlined his schedule by splitting time on the road with being at home for his family.
“I have a good balance,” says Vignola. “For a while Vinny and I would do 250 shows a year. In the last year and a half, I cut back to 85 shows a year so I can see my kids. I hear they’re nice people (laughs).”
“We’ve kind of been doing the weekend warrior thing — play Thursday through Sunday and come home Monday, instead of lengthy tours.
Balance in life at this point is very important, and it’s good to be home. I do love playing the shows. I love to meet people after the show that is smiling. That makes me feel really good about what I do. With all the craziness of the world, it’s kind of nice to get away from it for a couple of hours and take people to another place. That’s what I love about music. It gives you a little more strength to go back into the world. There’s nothing like music. It has inspired generations of people.”