Frank and Vinny

Having a Beer With: Frank Vignola and Vinny Raniolo

Two guitars are better than one.  And two legs are better than four.


…at ZirZamin in NYC

June 2012


BBJaze: I’m here talking to Vignola and Raniolo—two outstanding guitar players—and I’m wondering if the best indicator of a person’s potential to do well as a guitarist is whether that person has Italian ancestry. What’s going on with Italian men and the guitar?

FV: Well, there’s a long history of mandolin playing and guitar playing—

VR: You play in Italy, and after the show there’s a big party, everybody’s drinking wine—

FV: Everybody gets a guitar out.

VR: They open up the restaurant, the chef cooks, and we all sing songs.

FV: And everybody gets a guitar out.

BBJaze: And plays an AC/DC tribute set?

FV: They sing Rolling Stones songs, and Creedence Clearwater Revival.

BBJaze: Sounds like Fellini movies are actually not surreal.

VR: They also sing the traditional Italian folk songs.

FV: Oh yeah…Mama…and they really sing it. If you think about it, Eddie Lang—Italian; Joe Pass—Italian; Tony Mottola—Italian; Tony Gutuso—Italian; Al Caiola, Bucky Pizzarelli…

BBJaze: John Paisano, Pat Martino, Jimmy Bruno…

FV: Frank Gambale, Mike Stern—well, no. But he plays like an Italian.

BBJaze: That’s what he and Chico Marx have in common.  But you really are Italian–and you’re basically known as a jazz player, but you’ve obviously been influenced by a diversity of genres. Are you a jazz player? What is jazz to you, anyway?

FV: Jazz was a musical form that came to the forefront in the late teens/early twenties based on blues and popular song. It was dance music. That was the thing to do during the war, to go hear music and to dance. All the early big bands were dance bands. Benny Goodman and bands like that used to travel around and play dance halls. Now you have bebop, you have this, you have that—that’s why Vinny and I don’t even call ourselves jazz guitar players. Has jazz influenced us? Of course. But so has folk music, so has rock music, so has classical music, so has Bulgarian music and Cuban music, French music, Italian music…

BBJaze: Why do you suppose that so many different kinds of music get the “jazz” label attached to them?

FV: Because people have to attach it to something. Maybe some marketing genius said that if we call it smooth jazz it’ll be cooler, something like that—now we have a brand we can market.

BBJaze: It’s interesting to call it a marketable brand, because it doesn’t seem like Americans—and I’m generalizing here, of course—really appreciate jazz. It’s no longer what we could call “popular music.” In other parts of the world, it seems that there’s a greater appreciation for the form.

FV: Yeah, grade school kids in Switzerland know who Louis Armstrong is.

BBJaze: Why is that?

FV: Because they study American jazz, American music—jazz and blues. It’s the same in Japan, too. I know players who go to Estonia and sell out auditoriums. But there’s a lot of people who love jazz in America. Our demographic is forty to…forty to death, I say, and those people grew up in the fifties and sixties, and when we play songs that everybody knows, influenced by jazz, we can capture a wide variety of music lovers who love what we do, including jazz guitar players.

BBJaze: I have the sense that in some ways jazz can be off-putting to people.

FV: That’s why we don’t call ourselves jazz guitar players—people think they’re going to be bored, that we’re going to be an introverted act. And we’re the last thing from an introverted act.

BBJaze: You guys do a good show. I brought a friend of mine to see you a couple weeks ago, and he said you were the best guitar duo he had ever seen.

FV: That’s what we are—a guitar duo. It’s not a couple of jazz guitar players. That’s what I love about working with Vinny. He auditioned for me seven years ago on the electric bass for a project I was working on, more of a rock project, and I heard him play guitar and I thought this is great, this guy’s a musician, he was born to do this. He didn’t mind driving to Atlanta, doing a gig, and driving home. He loved it—

BBJaze: Do you still love it, Vinny?

VR: [laughing] Well, it gives me a purpose.

BBJaze: You guys have a lot of humor in your show…

FV: I’m a big fan of Louis Armstrong, I’m a big fan of Victor Borge, of Dean Martin, of Sinatra, of George Carlin—I’m a big fan of entertainers, the way they command a stage. I’m a big fan of Les Paul. I don’t know if you ever heard him play—

BBJaze: I did see him play, during the Fat Tuesday years.

FV: Here’s a guy who was all about the audience. So we’ve developed these little routines, a little dance move. If people have seen us before, they ask if we’re going to do the dance—not “are you gonna play ‘How High the Moon,’ but ‘are you gonna do the dance?’”

BBJaze: It’s fun.

FV: It’s fun.

BBJaze: Vinny was telling me that you do that dance just to make sure that he doesn’t drink before the show.

VR: I was just kidding.

FV: When we’re in Italy we stumble a little doing the dance move, because they drink wine all day long.

BBJaze: The dance move and the humor in general is interesting to me because you’re playing these incredibly difficult arrangements and you make it look effortless—

We Two Get a Kick Out of It
We Two Get a Kick Out of It

FV: While we’re standing on one leg…

BBJaze: Sure, why not? You can play effortlessly, so what should you do? Force yourself to sweat and make it look like you’re struggling? On the other hand, maybe you should, in order not to be cruel to other musicians—most of them, I’d say—who can’t play so effortlessly.

FV: Well, there’s a certain amount of concentration that goes into it. But I think people need to be entertained. I’ve been to a lot of concerts given by great guitar players, but very few of them have held my interest for the whole sixty minutes if the musician doesn’t have a rapport with the audience. We enjoy doing that.

VR: In the end, it comes down to entertainment. Music is a beautiful art form, but you have to entertain. People have to have a good time at the show.

FV: It’s not about us. The audience likes to hear songs they know. Maybe we’ll slip a few originals or obscure tunes in there, but I would say that the audience knows 90% of our material. Everyone knows Beethoven’s Fifth.

BBJaze: You start your set with “Stardust,” right?

FV: Yeah, usually. We will tonight.

BBJaze: On a personal note, I have never been able to hum that tune. Why not?

FV: I don’t know, but if you can’t sing it, you can’t play it. You want to practice it? [starts humming “Stardust”]

VR: [joins in]

FV: Come on! [continues humming]

BBJaze: [reddens]

FV: It’s important to be able to sing it, or you can’t play it.

BBJaze: What about when you solo? Do you hear the notes of a solo just before you play them?

FV: Yeah, but like I said 95% of our stuff is arranged, so we play the same thing every show. We have 150 songs that we have these intricate arrangements for. With the duo, we don’t really take solos. Maybe once in awhile—

VR: Maybe we’ll play something a little differently—

FV: That’s the jazz element of what we do.

BBJaze: You raise an interesting point about the improvisational nature of jazz. Would you say that improvisation is part and parcel of the music? We were talking about Benny Goodman and big bands before, and that music is arranged, but it’s still jazz.

FV: There is a little improvisation in there, but don’t forget that jazz was about the popular song. Big band arrangements are beautiful arrangements of popular songs of the day.

BBJaze: Variations of popular songs—

FV: Yeah, you know, a new Gershwin song would come out and all the jazz artists would have their rendition of it. It’s when they got into bebop that they started extending the solos and it became a kind of whole other thing. I love that style of music, too, even though it’s not something I play, but that’s where real soloing comes in.

BBJaze: Is part of playing jazz putting a personal stamp on an established piece of music?

FV: Yeah, absolutely.

BBJaze: That makes it sort of interesting that jazz is a collaborative form as well.

FV: It sure is.

BBJaze: Obviously you guys share musical tastes, but is there any place in which your tastes diverge?

VR: We did grow up with different styles of music, but I don’t think our tastes diverge. We both like good music.

BBJaze: Is there any kind of music that you guys don’t like?

FV: I’d have to think about that.

BBJaze: This is a BBJaze exclusive!

FV: I’m not crazy about the pop music of today. And I know why I don’t like it—because there’s no performance anymore. It’s all about the technology—which is brilliant, don’t get me wrong—but when I grew up listening to records, these were actual performances. They may have done things to it and added a part here and there, but there was a core great performance, whether it was “Killing Me Softly” or the Beatles or the Stones or Led Zeppelin or Ella Fitzgerald or Louis Armstrong. There was such a “wow” element—what a great instrumentalist or what a great vocalist. It doesn’t happen that way, for me, in pop music anymore.

VR: It seems like there are no live instruments.

FV: If I had to say I don’t like an era of music, it’s the current era.

BBJaze: What about rap music? Is that music? Is it more of a culture?

FV: I’ll tell you what. I heard a group that was one of the first rap groups that a guy named Joel Dorn produced. They did one record, one tour, and they hated each other. And they performed at Lincoln Center, first time in, like thirty years. Black Heat was the name of the band. I’m telling you, these guys played all that rap stuff, and they were seventy year-old men, but it was so good—they were really doing it. These guys were so hip. My kids and my wife went to an Usher concert, and I couldn’t imagine it. My one son said that he couldn’t enjoy it, even with ear plugs.

BBJaze: That happened to me at an Allman Brothers concert. By the end of the show there was no stuffing left in my seat because it was all in my ears.

FV: I’m not putting it down, it is what it is. I heard a tape recently of Whitney Houston, just her singing in the studio. I think she could have been the last great vocalist. Perfect pitch, soul—and this was just her singing by herself in the studio. Usually those things reveal how poor singers really are. And that’s what I don’t like about this current era of pop.

BBJaze: The music is inauthentic.

FV: Even in a lot of the jazz records you hear, you can just tell they’re heavily edited.

BBJaze: That’s what pisses me off about smooth jazz, by the way. If you take away the computerized drum track, you’d actually have some pretty good stuff.

FV: The drum track? It’s not even drums, it’s electronic drums.

BBJaze: That’s what I mean. If you get rid of that track, the musicianship is great.

FV: But if you look at the top of the field—who started the genre: George Benson. There’s a guy that performs 150% every night he plays. So, again, it’s the performance.

BBJaze: Have you ever heard him sing “Stardust”?

FV: Yeah, I’ve heard him sing everything from five feet away.

VR: All this technology makes the live music more appreciated.

FV: That’s why I think we’re having some success and are able to stay in it. How many other guitar duos do you know that actually work more than once a month and also stick together long enough to actually build up a following? It’s thrilling to me what Vinny and I are doing together.

BBJaze: It is, but there aren’t many people who can do what you guys do. There are lots of guitar duos—go to any open mic night. But too many of them play out of tune and are very into it and have no idea of the cacophony they’re producing.

FV: That’s a different level.

BBJaze: Sure. I would attribute your success and longevity to the level of your playing.

FV: Level of playing, yes—

VR: And being out there. The willingness to play when there are opportunities.

FV: The willingness to fly to Dusseldorf and drive down to the south of Italy.

VR: And making recordings, and Frank does a lot of online lessons—just getting out there any way we can, letting people know that we’re doing this.

BBJaze: Are you going to be doing the duo for the long term?

FV: Yeah, absolutely.

BBJaze: You’ve worked with lots of different people and played many styles of music. Is there anything you haven’t done professionally that you want to do?

FV: Collaborate with George Benson. At Carnegie Hall.

BBJaze: That’s very specific.

FV: Absolutely. It’s gonna happen. It’s just a matter of when.

BBJaze: I going to camp out at the box office right now. Thanks, guys.


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