For a life-long New Yorker, Frank Vignola sure has developed a pronounced European accent when it comes to music.
It surfaces in the light, bright expression of his guitar work and expands with his love of jazz in general and the pioneering playing style of Django Reinhardt in particular. But the Euro sensibilities of Vignola’s music also reveal a knack for discovering and highlighting melody in most any kind of composition, be it classical or contemporary.
Such sensibilities are at the heart of the devilishly lyrical European style known as gypsy jazz. The swing variations Vignola has discovered within that sound and throughout Reinhardt’s recorded legacy have led to a prestigious career as a recording/performance accomplice of such disparate notables as Madonna, Donald Fagen, Mark O’Connor and many others. It has also kept Vignola on the road playing upwards of 200 concerts a year with rhythm guitarist Vinny Raniolo, one of which will unfold Sunday at Natasha’s.
“The European artists had a different ethnic music than us,” Vignola said.”For instance, Django was brought up with French musette music with accordion players and singers and everything. So naturally, he’s going to have a different approach when he hears jazz with different inflections, like the vibrato, and the kinds of scales he used. The group he assembled, which essentially started this movement of gypsy jazz was the Hot Club of France with three guitars, violin and bass. So that being brought into jazz was a unique sound, and Django’s playing was absolutely stellar.
“The music was very melodic and influenced by every Louis Armstrong record Django would hear over the radio. Then he would play this music in his style. So it’s interesting with that French background that he was able to develop a very unique way of playing jazz. That’s what attracted me to it.”
As European as Vignola’s music often is, his playing today is not dictated exclusively by Reinhardt. In fact, there are strong parallels to American string music within many gypsy jazz structures, which Vignola readily acknowledges.
“It’s like European bluegrass,” he said. “Bluegrass bands all have all acoustic instruments. You might have three or four guys chunking along playing rhythm. There would be no drums, but you would have a bass player and a soloist. I mean, I’m not an expert on the gypsy sound, but I would consider myself an expert on Django Reinhardt. But I was just as influenced by Led Zeppelin and Charlie Christian and Lightning Hopkins and Paul Simon. The list goes on and on.”
It you need proof of just how multi-cultural the inspirations are behind Vignola’s very singular jazz sound, take a listen to his recent recordings with Raniolo, particularly Melody Magic and Beloved Earth Songs. They toss The Shadows’ surf classic Apache, The Police’s Walking on the Moon, Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 and even the Kansas hit Dust in the Wind to the lean and powerfully melodic swing sound pioneered by Reinhardt.
Placing genre-jumping songs within such a stylistically specific setting is only half the fun, though. The rest comes from performing the resulting music within one of Vignola’s most championed group formats – the guitar duo.
“The duo guitar sound has always been one of my favorites,” he said. “The first four years Vinny and I worked together, we had other people in the band and used different combinations. The stronger we got, the more we tried doing shows just as a duo. So we went out and built a name as you would have to do in any business. It’s like being a traveling salesman. ‘Here’s my product.’ Boom.
“I’ve always liked the concept of working with the same people. That way you really can develop a unique sound, so when people hear us, they go, ‘Oh, that’s Frank and Vinnie.’”