Archive for December, 2013

lap steel driver

a.j. ghent

a.j. ghent.

What does a country band with scores of stylistic resources at its disposal choose as a warm-up act when it hits the road? Well, if you’re the Zac Brown Band, you opt for a band that is even less genre specific.

Enter the lap steel sounds of the A.J. Ghent Band, the funk, groove and spiritual soul ensemble (for lack of a better label) that is so new it doesn’t even have a full length album out yet. But its source material is rooted in sacred steel music, the huge slide-driven sound played on the lap steel and pedal steel guitars born in Pentecostal church services. Ghent is a third generation sacred steel player. But he chose to take the music “out of the box.” In this instance, that means out of the church.

“In the church that I grew up in, that wasn’t really a good thing to do, to take it outside of Pentecostal tradition,” Ghent said. “But I decided to do that. I pretty much decided I wanted to add a little different flavor. Plus, I didn’t want to talk religion all the time. I didn’t want to write religious songs all the time. I wanted to write about life’s inspirations and things that I’ve been through, things that my family has been through and about others around me. So that kind of took me way out of the box and let me do something more.”

First up for Ghent was a stint with jam band veteran Col. Bruce Hampton. Now as one of several decidedly non-country opening for the country stars of the Zac Brown Band this fall (his predecessor was Trombone Shorty), Ghent is delivering a feverish soul-funk sound to arena-sized audiences that have not only never heard of him, they have likely never heard anything remotely like him.

“It’s not too big of a challenge,” Ghent said. “If anything, it’s more a matter of introducing what we do, and we do that for any audience willing to listen. It’s all about going out there and having fun.

“As an opening act, we have to go out and mix so much together in the time that’s given, so it doesn’t always give people a great opportunity to hear the variety of things we’re capable of doing. But we definitely mix a lot of flavors into our music, much like what the Zak Brown Band does. We’re kind of cut from the same cloth. Along with our funk and the soulful sides, we may throw a little rock in there and give you a little Jimi Hendrix to add to it. So it’s definitely a mixture of things that doesn’t put us to where we’re categorized into one sound.”

Utilizing a lap steel guitar of his own design (using a conventional guitar body that allows Ghent to stand as he plays; most lap steels are played sitting down), Ghent enjoys the musical freedom that comes from an instrument with a still largely undiscovered presence in popular music.

“The main thing is there are no rules to it. You don’t have many teachers to instruct you, which provides an opportunity to express who you are on it. For me, honestly, it’s about being free. I play it like I want. I make different sounds with it and it talks to you. Having that freedom… that’s what matters most to me.”

Zac Brown Band, A.J. Ghent Band and Dugas perform at 8 pm Dec. 14 at Rupp Arena.

a fryar in mr. brown’s band

chris fryar

chris fryar of zac brown band.

Chris Fryer doesn’t recall exactly how or when the call was made for the Zac Brown Band to be promoted as a country band. He’s just glad that was the label that wound up sticking.

“I’m not 100% positive about how it all came to be,” said Fryar, who has been manning the drums in the multi-stylistic, Grammy winning troupe. “But I’m pretty sure that’s where we fit most in easily in terms of style. The sort of outward perception was that the band sounded most like country music, and thank goodness that’s where we ended up. The country music fanbase has given us such a wonderful system of support. We couldn’t ask for a better fan club.”

The country leanings are obvious within the music of the Zac Brown Band, from the sturdy Georgia tenor applied by the band’s namesake leader to the combustible hoedowns that ignite within the band’s breakthrough single Chicken Fried to  the sufficiently homespun nature of trucker ballads like Highway 20 Ride.

But roll into an arena performance by the group and you might hear the tropically inclined original Where the Boat Leaves From give way to the Bob Marley reggae anthem One World or the country meditation Free bleed into the Van Morrison classic Into the Mystic. You might hear echoes of blues, folk, pop and jazz-friendly jams. You might hear covers of tunes by The Beatles, The Band and Ray LaMontagne. Best of all, all the meshing of the Zac Brown Band doesn’t just loot the pop mainstream for accents and ideas to pass off as country the way an increasing number of Nashville acts do. In this band’s world, country and whatever other contemporary or roots-oriented inspirations it draws from are equal but distinct partners.

“Every single person in the band comes from a different set of musical influences ,” Fryar said. “The really groovy part about that is all those influences seap in and help color and guide the music. When we’re writing new material and trying it out to see where a song wants to go or needs to go, one of the guys will come up with a blues lick. Another might try out a rock riff. All these little bits and pieces come in. It’s like a big giant melting pot of styles, and that works for us. We don’t want to be known for just one style of music. To us, music is music. If we cross some genres or collide some styles, it’s all music. It’s all the same language. It’s just different dialects all getting blown in together. It’s wonderful.”

Saturday marks the Lexington debut of the Zac Brown Band, but it will hardly be Fryar’s first local outing. The drummer played here a decade ago at The Dame as a member of Oteil and the Peacemakers, a funk and jam ensemble fronted by bass guitarist Oteil Burbridge of the Allman Brothers Band, the grandfather of all genre-jumping Southern bands.

“Playing with Oteil was a huge blessing,” Fryar said. “He is such a free spirit musically. Oteil possesses the ability to play anything and everything that pops into his head at any given moment. That forced me to listen and to always be attentive to what was going on around me. From a stylistic point, he wanted things a certain way with the drums, and that was forcing me to think outside the box from what I had grown up doing. And that really helped.

“I believe every experience we have is a learning experience that helps us further down the road. How that helped me when I got into the Zac Brown Band is that I was able to listen to everything that was going on around me. As things change and evolve, I try to be attentive to it and learn to either to take part in something that’s happening or to sit back and let it happen on its own and let it be its own little thing.”

Ultimately, the Zac Brown Band is exactly that – a band. And since it is promoted and presented as such instead of as a large ensemble playing under a single artist, the successes are all shared. In other words, trophies at the Country Music Association Awards and the Academy of Country Music Awards don’t just go to Brown, they go to all of the band members. Same for the Grammy Awards, where the band took honors as Best New Artist in 2009.

Still, there is no question over who runs this rodeo. When Brown goes on the firing line, as he did this fall in a radio interview with CJJR on Vancouver by saying the increasingly formulaic nature of contemporary country made him “ashamed to be even in the same format as some of those artists,” he held no one accountable for his opinions other than himself. But when it comes down to weaving together the numerous styles and influences behind his songs, Brown increasingly calls upon his bandmates.

“Zac is an amazing individual. He will hear something in his head and, outwardly, that may be different to what you’re hearing. But you just know he’s got something in his head. It’ll be, ‘Hey, I’m kind of feeling this vibe here.’ That’s sort of a starting point. Then you do your best to approach it from right there and then see where it goes.

“But Zac is also very open to trying new things. In fact, he encourages it. He encourages everyone to participate in the songwriting. He encourages everyone to participate in the creative end of making the music that propels the song and lifts the song up to a higher place. There are not many guys out there in the world who would do that. But Zac is certainly one of them. He wants everyone to have input. He wants everyone to put all of themselves into it the same way he would. He’s a joy to work with and work for.”

Zac Brown Band, A.J. Ghent Band and Dugas perform at 8 pm Dec. 14 at Rupp Arena. For tickets call (859) 233-3535, (800) 745-3000 or go towww.ticketmaster.com.

getting beyond dizzy

arturo sandoval 2

arturo sandoval.

Distill the multi-cultural, multi-stylistic and multi-Grammy winning career of Arturo Sandoval down to essentials and everything seems so simple. It is a trek that began with Dizzy Gillespie and has taken him to the White House twice this fall.

But the details in between the two ultimately define the jazz and classical journeys of this celebrated trumpeter/bandleader, who returns to Lexington on Saturday for a performance with the University of Kentucky Wind Symphony at the Singletary Center for the Arts.

Sandoval’s remarkable journey started with Gillespie, a jazz legend as enamored of Afro-Cuban music as the Cuban-born Sandoval was of American-bred bebop.

“Dizzy was my hero before I met him,” Sandoval said last week in a phone interview from Washington, D.C. “He was the very first jazz musician I ever heard when I was young. Some journalists in Cuba played for me a number by Dizzy and Charlie Parker. That changed my mind about music. That changed my life. After that, I became crazy about bebop. I wanted to learn that so bad. Later on, I was so blessed that I met him and started to play with him. It’s such a privilege when you can become a good friend of your hero.”

It was in 1977 that Gillespie, in turn, became aware of Sandoval through the Cuban ensemble Irakere. Columbia Records, then riding the crest of jazz popularity thanks to the fusion movement, released two Irakere albums in the United States. Collectively, this set the stage for an unfathomable American debut by Sandoval.

“Everything got its start because of Dizzy. He came to Cuba in 1977 and stopped there for two days. When Dizzy came back to New York, he started to talk a lot about the musicians and the bands he heard in Cuba. A few months later, the (then) president of Columbia Records, Bruce Lundvall, came to Havana to hear a band Dizzy Gillespie was talking about. That was the beginning of everything. Right after that, he signed Irakere to Columbia Records in June of 1978. Less than one year after that, he brought us to New York to play Carnegie Hall. The very first day I came to the U.S., we played that night in Carnegie Hall. Oh, my goodness.”

Gillespie had one final but life-changing gift for Sandoval. When the two were touring together in Europe, Sandoval defected.

“The thing is, I think the Cuban government made a mistake,” Sandoval said. “They let my wife and eldest son go to Europe with me. That was the opportunity I was looking for. So as soon as we landed in Europe, I went with Dizzy to the American Embassy in Athens, Greece.”

Sandoval’s first album in his new homeland was aptly titled Flight to Freedom. In the ensuing years, his career has touched upon traditional and contemporary jazz, classical, mambo, film scores and collaborations with such varied artists as Frank Sinatra, Woody Herman and Alicia Keys. He even scored an HBO movie about his own life, For Love or Country, with Andy Garcia portraying Sandoval.

Earlier this year, the trumpeter won his 10th Grammy. But the ultimate accolade came last month when Sandoval was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama. The trumpeter returned the favor by performing at the lighting of the White House Christmas tree last weekend.

“Every day brings a good surprise,” Sandoval said. “Still, I go day by day. I concentrate every 24 hours to do my best. The past is history. We have no control. The future is in the hands of God. We also don’t have control. But this day, this 24 hours, that’s what I try to concentrate on.”

Arturo Sandoval with the University of Kentucky Wind Symphony performs at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 14 at the Singletary Center for the Arts. Tickets are $28, $35, $40. Call (859) 257-4929 or go to www.singletarycenter.com.

christmas with the shieks

northside shieks

northside shieks. back row: willie eames, coralee, robby cosenza, lee carroll, smith donaldson. front row: ray smith, mike tevis. herald-leader staff photo by matt goins.

When it came time to ring in the holidays, the roots music specialists of Northside Sheiks turned their interpretive skills to two classic holiday recordings – the first Elvis Presley holiday set, 1957’s Elvis’ Christmas Album, and producer Phil Spector’s 1963 compendium, A Christmas Gift for You (released in later editions as simply Phil Spector’s Christmas Album). This weekend, the Sheiks – an all-star outfit of local musicians that have been playing mid-week sets of early blues and R&B music over the past two years – will offer complete performances of each record, along with other seasonal delights.

“With Christmas shows, you can always run the risk of super-cheesiness,” said Sheiks co-vocalist and co-founder Ray Smith. “But we thought Elvis’ first Christmas album and the Phil Spector Christmas record were pieces of real musical history. So we decided to use those as our focal points.”

The Sheiks – drummer Robby Cosenza, bassist Smith Donaldson, guitarist Willie Eames, keyboardist Lee Carroll and Smith on harmonica, guitar and percussion – take on Elvis’ Christmas Album tonight with help from longtime Lexington roots and rockabilly artist Mike Tevis. That material seems to fit right in with the kind of formative Americana music the band thrives on. But the Spector record – a lavishly produced soul-pop record that featured Darlene Love, The Crystals and The Ronettes – might seem a touch removed from that rootsy base.

“We do a lot of R&B, a lot of Little Willie John stuff, in Northside Sheiks,” Smith said. “Spector represents later R&B and pop, you could say, but I think it’s still in the wheelhouse. We do a pretty soulful brand of music, so it’s not too much of a stretch, really.”

Fellow local faves Coralee and Warren Byrom (on vocals and trumpet, respectively) will augment the Sheiks lineup for the Spector show on Saturday.

“Northside Sheiks is a really fun band because everybody really tries to dig deep into early blues and soul. We circle everything around that style and really tried to be true to it.”

Northside Sheiks perform at 8 p.m. Dec.13 and 14 at Willie’s Locally Known, 805 N.Broadway. Admission is $10 each evening. Call (859) 281-1116 or got to www.willieslex.com.

jim hall, 1930-2013

jim hall

jim hall.

Throughout his astounding career, Jim Hall was a quiet giant – an instrumentalist famous for spotless tone and lyrical accessibility, traits that never wavered during 56 years worth of recordings. Yet his inspiration upon successive generations was unparalleled. Two of today’s most established jazz guitar pioneers, Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell, have cited Hall’s phrasing and deceptively deep improvisational prowess as major inspirations just as Hall has regularly acknowledged his debt to guitar forefathers like Charlie Christian.

Not surprisingly, both Metheny and Frisell have cut duet albums with Hall.

Because Hall’s light, sunny electric guitar sound was so unassuming and so resilient to change, some critics dismissed his music as too safe and predictable. But one of Hall’s many artistic gifts was his ability to compliment and often challenge whatever artist he was teamed with without losing his own musical identity. A great example was his playing on Sonny Rollins’ landmark 1962 album The Bridge, although Hall was a brilliant but unobtrusive presence on recordings by such jazz innovators as Ella Fitzgerald, Ornette Coleman, Jimmy Giuffre, Gary Burton and Bill Evans.

It was with Evans that Hall found a true kindred spirit – a musician equally light of touch and tone and equally enamored of the possibilities of improvising within the most familiar of standards and the most deceptively simple of original tunes. The 2002 remastered Blue Note edition of the 1963 duo album Undercurrents is a gorgeous document of their simpatico. Though the timbre of the piano and guitar are obviously different, it is often difficult to tell which player begins and end the album’s many bits of fascinating dialogue.

Hall died yesterday, just over one week after his 83rd birthday. He was performing as recently as last month.

I got to see him play one time on a mercilessly cold January evening at the Blue Note in New York. He was performing duets with bassist Charlie Haden. That night, Haden made all kinds of remarks about the savage chill outside. Hall paid it no mind. When he put his fingers to the guitar for a quietly regal version of How Deep is the Ocean, it was impossible not to feel warm and at home.

critic’s pick 308: joshua bell, ‘musical gifts from joshua bell and friends’

joshua bellViolinist Joshua Bell may not be part of the classical crossover class that such mavericks as Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer belong to. But a listen to his new holiday album Musical Gifts evens those comparisons considerably. The recording fashions familiar Yuletide fare to a variety of classical, pop, jazz and folk settings that underscore and often enhance his remarkable musicianship. But the real treat is watching such a versed classical voice adapt to the “friends” gathered around him.

Take a duet of Greensleeves with pianist and jazz icon Chick Corea. The interpretation begins with stark, loving finesse by Bell. In terms of tone alone, it’s a dazzling display. But when Corea enters, with typically playful rolls and bursts of piano, the tune takes on an almost danceable air full of autumnal color. It is an exchange marked by cunning, animation and immediacy.

The same can be said for much of Musical Gifts because the majority of the recording whittles the songs down to smaller combo settings. In reading the hearty list of guests on the album sleeve, one is almost predisposed to dismissing the project outright as another glammed up celebrity summit. The album’s serene lightness, however, is ingrained in these sessions. Even the usually slick and over-orchestrated trumpeter Chris Botti sheds the baggage for a loose, fun jazz reading of White Christmas. Then there is the regal but contained vocal power of Placido Domingo on O Tannenbaum that is set against a Bell-led quartet colored by harmonium and a folk-leaning I Want an Old Fashioned Christmas with Renee Fleming, the soprano who has become something of a stylistic minx herself of late.

The sense of subtle invention reaches a zenith during two trio collaborations with cellist Steve Isserlis. The first is a distinctive violin/cello/organ arrangement of Ave Maria that is all lyrical grace. The second subs piano for organ on a beaming and discreetly dramatic Baal Shem: Simchat Torah (Rejoicing).

The vocal group Straight No Chaser is left in the dust by Bell’s dervish string runs on Nutcracker Medley while Michael Feinstein’s singing on The Secret of Christmas offers the only instance where Musical Gifts surrenders to sentimentalism. But Alison Krauss’s ghostly treatment of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen counteracts that to bolster Bell’s holiday offerings with a sound and sentiment that is effortlessly ancient.

in performance: steep canyon rangers/shannon whitworth

steep canyon rangers: mike guggino, nicky sanders, graham sharp, charles r.humphrey III and woody platt.

steep canyon rangers: mike guggino, nicky sanders, graham sharp, charles r.humphrey III and woody platt.

You know a performance evening is going your way when even a mishap works in your favor.

That was the case during last night’s final taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour of 2013 at the Lyric Theatre. The Grammy winning bluegrass troupe Steep Canyon Rangers opened with the title tune from its new Tell the Ones I Love album. A metaphorical train song, it borrowed from bluegrass tradition in its resilient three part harmonies but broadened the musical landscape with instrumentation that built off of cyclical guitar and mandolin patterns, bowed bass and a fiddle rhythm that was strummed before it broke into a dervish-like solo. The resulting music was exuberant but ultra focused.

In short, everything about the song worked splendidly until the taping was stopped. A technical glitch undetectable to the audience had disrupted the recording of Charles R. Humphrey III’s bass work. But when it was announced to the crowd that the song would have to be played again, the crowd cheered. Even the Rangers’ newest member, percussionist Mike Ashworth, gave a visible thumbs-up to the call. Sure enough, the second time through, the song sounded even stronger, especially the subtle harmonies of Sharp, guitarist Woody Platt and mandolinist Mike Guggino.

The other three songs the Rangers played from the album – Stand and Deliver, Take the Wheel (both Sharp tunes) and Camellia (written by Humphrey) established a flight pattern of country-esque narratives buoyed by harmonies, keen ensemble playing and solos by Guggino and fiddler Nicky Sanders. The classically bred but Berklee trained Sanders proved to be the show stealer of the night with solos that meshed speed, agility and a playing style that borrowed as heavily from ‘40s era European swing as it did bluegrass.

The taping also featured Shannon Whitworth, a bluegrasser-turned-folkie whose tunes were light, romantically inclined works that, while performed with guitarist Barrett Smith as her only accompanist, suggested many of the pop influences that are more fully realized on her recordings. Guggino sat in on the title tune to Whitworth’s recent High Tide album while Smith took over vocal duties on a stoic cover of Paul Simon’s Duncan.  Both were nice additions to what was a fairly colorless set.

power rangers

graham sharp

graham sharp of steep canyon rangers. photo by jacob blickenstaff.

The title song to the Steep Canyon Rangers’ new Tell the Ones I Love album doesn’t scream bluegrass – as least, not initially.

The first sounds are gentle, but restless notes generated from mandolin and guitar that seem to hang effortlessly in the air. Then singer Woody Platt sets up the storyline. It’s a saga of departure with the mode of transportation being the final outbound train leaving the station. In short, what is presented is the last chance for a life-changing exit.

Then the harmonies swell while maintaining a sensibility more in line with the early country-folk sounds that came out of Austin, Tx. during the early ‘70s than of bluegrass. Even an emerging chatter of banjo works against convention, because it serves as a rhythmic device against that most un-bluegrass of instruments – drums.

The percussion starts to gallop as the chorus tells us this train to a new beginning is running late. “There ain’t no end of the line,” Platt sings.”The hardest part of heaven is making it wait.”

The tune is one of six songs on Tell the Ones I Love penned by Rangers banjoist and harmony vocalist Graham Sharp. Two of them lead off the album, the remaining four close it. Two additional works he co-wrote are sandwiched in between. So if anyone has a feel for the modernization of this once staunchly traditional bluegrass band, as well as the unlikely artistic alliances it has made in recent years, Sharp is the guy.

“It’s always fun to bring songs to the band because stuff turns out in a way that you never really imagined,” said Sharp, who will perform with the Rangers at the final taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour for 2013 on Monday at the Lyric Theatre.

“The music just sort of takes on a life of its own. You have a song in your head that you hear in a certain way. Then you bring it to the band and maybe half the time it turns out that way and the other half it turns into something that is noticeably different. It’s a fun process. As a songwriter, I’ve learned to be very open minded. There is a lot of talent in the band and a lot of good ears. So the excitement comes from just putting these songs out and seeing what happens.”

Tell the Ones I Love is an album that benefits from what has been a very busy and fruitful few years. The band’s preceding record, Nobody Knows You, won a Grammy while the Rangers’ second career as back-up ensemble for comedian/banjoist Steve Martin bloomed into a 2013 tour and album that brought aboard pop songstress Edie Brickell.

“We learned to go with what we picked up from some of Edie’s material. We learned different ways to put the songs together, like holding some of the fire in a song for a certain section rather than just coming out with a whole song blasting in your face. We let some words get out there first and then kind of introduced the elements as we went. It was just part of our musical growth. We’ve been such a focused bluegrass band for so long. Now we’re starting to branch out and do some other things.”
One of the biggest things to come the Rangers’ way outside of the Martin/Brickell project was an invitation to join Americana hero Levon Helm at one of the Midnight Ramble concerts presented at his barn studio in Woodstock, New York. That, in turn, led to an offer to record Tell the Ones I Love there. Sadly, Helm died before the Rangers’ recording sessions began with producer Larry Campbell.

“We went to the Ramble just a couple of months before Levon died,” Sharp said. “They told us when we went up there that the only place we have for you to sit during the show was right behind his drum kit. So we were like, ‘Oh, wow. Don’t throw me in the briar patch.’ So we ended up sitting directly behind him. To hear Levon and how he plays that way was just amazing. Then we got to meet him afterwards and he was really complimentary of the set we had done before his band played. That’s when he mentioned they had never made a bluegrass record at his studio and that he would love to have us bring the band up there and do that.”

“Honestly, there was almost no indication at the time of the severity of Levon’s condition. But the offer to record at his studio was always out there for us. There was no way we were going to take that lightly.”

Steep Canyon Rangers and Shannon Whitworth perform at 7 p.m. Dec. 9 at the Lyric Theatre, 300 E. Third, for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. Admission is $10. Call (859) 252-8888 for reservations.

loving a melody

frank vignola

frank vignola.

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.’”

take 6 on the 6th

take 6

take 6: joey kibble, alvin chea, mark kibble, david thomas, khristian dentley and david thomas

For the duration of its 25 year recording career, Take 6 has almost always had timing on its side. You can hear it at work within the vocal group’s sublime harmonizing, its balance of myriad musical styles and even its understanding of the right occasion to mark an artistic milestone.

In fact, the only noteworthy instance that comes to mind when timing even remotely failed the Grammy winning ensemble came with its last Central Kentucky appearance – a 2011 collaborative concert with the Lexington Philharmonic. That performance came only four months after the release of Take 6’s third holiday album, The Most Wonderful Time of the Year. Unfortunately, that was one month too many, as the show fell in January – a time when the call for Christmas music isn’t exactly plentiful.

Take 6 makes up for lost time, so to speak, this weekend with a holiday-themed program at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville.

“I’ve always felt that Christmas songs, in general, are some of the prettiest songs ever written,” said group singer and founder Claude McKnight. “A lot of them also lend themselves to the kind of arranging that Mark Kibble, our primary arranger (and, next to McKnight, its most longstanding member) does. These shows are really fun because we have some really cool arrangements of these songs. So it’s great to bring them out every year.”

A primarily a capella vocal ensemble (although, some recordings, like 2008’s jazz-directed The Standard album, make use of minimal instrumentation) Take 6 has touched upon elements of gospel, soul, pop and jazz ahead of its holiday themed music. In doing so, it has taken home 10 Grammy Awards, collaborated with a vast stable of high-profile pals (including Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, Ray Charles and McKnight’s celebrated younger brother Brian McKnight) and toured regularly around the world. As recently as last month, Take 6 performed in Moscow and Istanbul.

“The thing about music is that it really is a universal language,” McKnight said. “A lot of these places get into jazz-type music and gospel, both of which we do, because it’s so different from things they may be used to. Being a capella, as well, matters, too. I think sometimes whether or not they know who we are, they want to come to see what this music is all about.”

McKnight formed the vocal group that eventually became Take 6 as a freshman at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama. He had little reason to believe the troupe would achieve much by way commercial popularity simply because he never imagined it as a full time professional enterprise.

“Quite honestly, when I started the group, it was basically a hobby. We were in school. We were part of a college that was known for its a cappella groups, so I wanted to have a group, too. I had no clue that this would be something we would be doing all these years later. It’s a blessing that we’ve been able to latch upon this and continue doing it.”

Along with work on an upcoming album of duets, Take 6 will release next year a fully re-recorded version of its self-titled, platinum selling, Grammy winning debut album from 1988.  Why revisit and recreate a past triumph? Simple. The album is out of print. At present, Warner Bros. Records, which initially released the record, has no plans of re-issuing it.

“Since a lot of people found out who Take 6 was from that first record, we wanted to re-record it in almost exactly the same way 25 years later with better technology and, hopefully, better voices and everything. For us, it’s very much a nostalgic piece.”

Take 6 performs at 8 p.m. Dec. 6 at the Norton Center for the Arts, 600 West Walnut St. in Danville. Tickets are $24-$46. Call  (877) 448-7469 or go to www.nortoncenter.com.

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