The Frank & Joe Show: Looking for a Long, Happy Run
“ We look for the collective sound too. We Joe Ascione ”
Imagine if such a feeling were to be transposed to those who actually knew what to do with it?
Imagine no longer. That’s the essence of the Frank & Joe Show, a new group on the scene headed by veteran musicians Frank Vignola and Joe Ascione, who have proven to be virtuoso players in various settings, but who are now embarking on their “own thing.” It’s based on the improvisation and sometimes rhythms of jazz, but it encompasses many other factors. Some tunes have island rhythms. Classical elements creep into others. Pop and funky stuff. The intricate and... well, even the silly, if the mood strikes.
It’s the Frank & Joe show. Based on a musical kinship and a longtime friendship, the ensemble Vignola and Ascione have put together plays with integrity no matter what the riff or motif. They play tight arrangements and allow for experimentation. They go after a group sound and feel, and will use any song — originals, pop songs, Latin, classical — if they feel it fits into that particular feel — identity, almost — and something interesting can be done with it.
The Frank & Joe Show is more than music. Its spirit and élan come from the co-leaders, who are as quick with a joke or sly comment as they are with their hands on their respective instruments. Getting a chuckle seems to be as important as hitting the right note. They’ll joke about Vignola’s bowling game (which the guitarist takes seriously, and excels) in just about the same breath as espousing the quality and sincerity of their music. If, as Frank and Joe say, they want people to feel good and enjoy the musical moments, the germ of that feeling is within the players themselves.
To avoid description with words, go to their first CD released in May, 33 1/3 on Hyena Records. It captures the spirit, although in a live concert , the feeling comes across even stronger, as is usually the case with improvised music. “Flight of the Bumblebee” taken at breakneck speed; “Paper Moon” is turned from sappy to buoyant. The Spiderman” theme played jazzy and hip, “Along Again, Naturally,” a sweet ballad.” This “Begin the Beguine” is a romp that has a Latin tinge. Each has elaborate interplay, but it comes from a relaxed mindset. Sometimes the dexterity of Vignola’s rousing guitar work can get lost in the strong groove and group sound. And that’s OK.
The songs are carried by Vignola’s remarkable guitar work and Ascione’s vast array of rhythms. Both have speedy hands that compliment each other. But each member has a role and fills. The rhythms are moved along by Chuck Feruggia and Rich Zukor who both play percussion. Gary Mazzaroppi provides impeccable bass and Ken Smith is extremely adept at rhythm guitar.
It’s intricate and improvisational, but also, as Ascione is quick to point out, uplifting and fun. It’s intended that someone catching their show will hear quality music, but will go away tapping their toes or smiling... or both. The group is beginning to tour outside its New York City base, but when their not on the road, the Frank & Joe Show plays sets at 8 and 10 p.m. Sundays at Sweet Rhythm on Seventh Avenue.
Vignola, 38, is a virtuoso from a musical family who started playing at the age of 5. He was influenced by Django Reinhardt, Wes Montgomery and other mainstream artists, as he grew up listening to the music his father loved: jazz. But he also came to know Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa, and found time to take note of rock musicians, as well as Ellington, Monk and other jazz greats. Known for his facile technique, he was working as a teenager and in his 20s formed the Hot Club USA band, which was a tribute to Django It brought him widespread critical praise and spread his reputation. He’s played on numerous albums with the likes of Woody Allen, Manhattan Transfer, Frank Wess, Elvin Jones and many more. He still plays Monday nights at New York City’s Iridium nightclub with the legendary Les Paul.
Ascione, 43, is also an incredible technician. He started at the age of 2 and had his first drum set at age 4. He’s appeared on more than 60 albums and is known for his astounding technique. Perhaps it’s osmosis from sitting close to Buddy Rich night after night as a teenager as the drum wizard toured the Northeast. Ascione has an inquisitive musical mind. And a facile mind. In fact, he gave up a lucrative career as an engineer (“took an $80,000 pay cut,” he jokes) to become a full-time drummer.
The two good-natured took time to speak with All About Jazz just before a gig at The Egg, a wonderful egg-shaped structure in downtown Albany, NY, that contains two classy and comfortable theaters. The Egg has become a friend of jazz in recent years, and the atmosphere seemed to agree with these two friends who seem to like nothing more than to get on stage and see where the musical path will take them Between jokes and ribbing members of the band as they passed through the dressing room, the pair conveyed their excitement about music and the group they hope will stay together for years to come.
All About Jazz: Let’s start at the beginning. Not the beginnings for you both, but...
Frank Vignola: It all started in a small town in Pennsylvania...
Joe Ascione: I was conceived...
AAJ: Your musical association goes back before this record. How did that come about?
Joe: Around dinner time. About a half hour ago.
Frank: 1989 was the first time we played together.
Joe: A mutual friend kept saying, “you got to get together with this guy Frank.”
Frank: And he kept saying, “you got to get together with this guy Joe.”
Joe: And we hooked up. And everybody else got fired and we started playing and never looked back.
Frank: It’s true. It was just really magic from the beginning.
AAJ: This was down in New York?
Frank: This was in Connecticut and Massachusetts.
AAJ: You guys just hit it off?
Frank: I couldn’t stand him [laughs]. The drummer was pretty good and he knew how to do the fastest drum roll in the world, and that hooked up with my [guitar] picking. And it was like... he’s kind of a big jerk.
Joe: Frank stopped drinking coffee, so I had to start — to catch up with his right hand. Actually, it was very exciting to play with Frank because musically... I wanted the opportunity to be challenged musically and to take what’s done on the instrument and explore it with somebody I could have musical empathy with, and play, and break a sweat, and share the musical ideas and excitement, and see where it’s going to take us. So it’s always a challenge. It always widens the scope.
AAJ: You guys had other things in common, like age and the New York thing.
Frank: We know the American repertoire. Songs from Long Island. We know a lot of the same bands outside of jazz. So after jazz gigs we could clear our heads by listening to Frank Zappa and stuff like that. It was just a lot of fun from the beginning and it hasn’t stopped being fun. We just really enjoy each other’s company, and I think that goes for everybody in the band. One of the percussionists actually has chicken pox.
Joe: We quarantined him and left him behind.
Frank: He’s in his room in Brooklyn under quarantine, unfortunately, but he’s been with us.
Joe: His son is named Joseph after me. My godson. He’s 12 or 13. So everybody in the band is good friends, socially.
Frank: Gary, the bassist. I played with him with Les Paul since the 70s, so we’ve been hanging out for about 20 years.
Joe: You met Ken out west. I met Richie through a mutual friend, a drummer friend, about seven years ago. We always joked around that it would be fun to play together, but we’re both drummers. How could that happen? So here we have three drummers. It’s amazing. When something goes on, it just goes on. Things fall into place.
Frank: What’s really cool about everybody is that everybody is such an amazing musician. But everybody finds their role in this band. And everybody just really enjoys playing with one another. Being a part of the same thing, for lack of a better word.
Joe: We look for the collective sound too. We’re all of the same mindset or goal to make the music sound as great as it can. There’s room for spontaneity. There’s room for interaction. There’s room for authenticity. There’s room for arrangements where we see fit. There’s room to explore original material. There’s room for vocals.
Frank: We’re not really boxed in at all.
Joe: Yeah. It’s not a jazz group. People need labels in order to talk about it, which I understand. But it’s just good eclectic music with a rhythmic flair and great textures and harmonies and beautiful melodies that always sing. That’s important.
Frank: Good material really can happen with the repertoire. That’s what Joey and I have always done for years now is to try to find tunes and do something different with it, or just kind of develop our own thing, instead of just picking a tune and seeing what happens.
Joe: We maintain our musical integrity. And we have this innate governor on the music that we do. We’ll try and explore it naturally, and we let it go because it’s not going to be something do again. Or somehow it sticks, and we keep utilizing it and exploring it and putting our little Frank and Joe flair and twist and sound on it. Even with the vocalists on the record. They weren’t just random tunes and random vocalists that we’re fortunate and excited to have on the record. But based on what we do and our sound, the Frank and Joe thing, they fit well into that.
Frank: Joel Dorn was definitely in tune enough to pick the right vocalists and say, “Hey. Why don’t you try this song?” It’s a lot of fun right now.
AAJ: It doesn’t seem like jazz per se.
Joe: And you know what? Interestingly enough, our home base that we have, which is Sweet Rhythm, in New York City, downtown Manhattan, one of the owners, James Brown, said this is a fascinating project because — and these are his words, but I really appreciate what he said — he said because after every one of your shows, the vibe in the room is happy. It’s uplifting. People are enthusiastic and energetic. There’s a buzz. Sometimes you hear music and everybody’s just back in their own head. Here, there’s a buzz. There’s a camaraderie, there’s a friendship. It’s uplifting.
AAJ: You guys, based on your ages, probably didn’t come up listening to that much jazz.
Frank: I did, actually. Until I was about 14, I didn’t hear anything but Joe Pass and John Smith.
AAJ: Was that from your parents?
Frank: Yeah. I was playing lots of gigs with my dad, playing rhythm guitar. He was a banjo player. Then I started hearing stuff like Van Halen. I said, “Wow. Listen to that!” And Hendrix. I just wasn’t exposed to it because my father didn’t listen to Hendrix.
Joe: My first exposure to jazz was Gene Krupa into Benny Goodman into Count Basie. I appreciated it because the drumming chair was challenging. That excited me. I have an older sister. She was listening to the pop music of the day. So because of that, that opened my ears up to the pop music of the day. Just to hear a great melody and explore that and seeing what’s going on musically there. So it was natural to go on to another horizon.
Frank: Also, I’d hear Charlie Byrd, his trio records. It was great, because he would pick Beatle tunes and have nice little things going on. “Listen to that. You can play some Beatles tunes in a jazz way.” But then Hendrix was like, “Wow!” We’d get some of that. Then we started turning up, at one point. After we got done with a jazz gig we’d go up in the studio and put the Marshall on and get Mark Eagan to play bass and crank out on some original compositions. Never really performed it, but it would be so much fun to play that music together, you know, rather than “Seven, Come Eleven” by Charlie Christian and Benny Goodman.
Joe: The other thing is, this isn’t something that’s brand new; it’s almost musically come to fruition right now with the quote-unquote Frank and Joe Show. Because years ago on other projects, during a sound check, we would play and interact and catch grooves and play tunes in this style, Frank and Joe style, 10 years ago. And we’d look at each other like, “Wouldn’t it be fun to put something together and really be doing this?” So it’s been a work in progress. It almost subconsciously was moving in that direction.
Frank: A thousand gigs later... [laughter]
Joe: And Frank went from playing with Ringo Star and Madonna and Hank Jones and many people in between. And we mentioned Hendrix. I got to play with Noel Redding, his original bassist. < B>Frank: And Cab Calloway the next night.
AAJ: Frank, you played with Ringo Starr and Madonna?
Frank: I was on a record with Ringo. A Leon Redbone record. The Madonna experience was a big flop of a film she did called “Bloodhounds of Broadway.” So I was in the soundtrack and the filming. And I remember we all got food poisoning. I actually got to have lunch with her. We were sitting at a table and I was 19. And I was like, “Wow. Madonna. Wow.” Whew. It was funny. She was pretty normal. So it was a great experience. I’m just lucky to have had those opportunities. When you think about it, breaking out to be a musician, number one, is like, “What are you, nuts?” But then to have those kinds of opportunities, it’s just real fortunate. It’s been a slow process to kind of get to where we are now.
AAJ: Now that you got the thing together, is there any set intent? Was it more of a plan than people might think? Or less structure?
Joe: There’s no structure, but there’s every structure. To me it’s innate. We know each other well and the sound, and what we’ve been weaned upon, it all comes together. For me, it’s almost an automatic, innate response. But that didn’t come overnight. It came from all these years of doing things. There’s that signature. So for us, it seems automatic and natural, but it was a long time coming.
Frank: I think too, being musicians and freelance musicians where we have to do things with all these other people, it’s hard to have a structured plan. Although you do have structure to the music and you have your ideas and you try to move forward, the furthest you can go with structure... Yet at the same time there is structure to open up for opportunities to come in. There’s no set way to go about having a successful act. It’s not easy. You’ve just got to work hard and believe in the music, I think. That’s the start for me, anyway.
Joe: All those various opportunities, they allow you to experience different situations and I think you eventually start extracting your own voice and your own sound.
AAJ: Frank, you pretty much play acoustic with this group?
Frank: Yeah, I have an amp on stage. It isn’t miked. It’s my little monitor. And in a smaller venue like this [The Egg] it works where you don’t have to use any mics, because once you start micing things, you’ve got to mic everything. So we’re keeping that acoustic thing in the smaller venues. But I do have that amp on stage so we can hear it, so we don’t have to deal with five monitors. That seems to work well.
AAJ: Joe, you don’t use the standard drum set at all in this group.
Joe: Not in this ensemble. We were doing something one day and ironically enough, there wasn’t the standard kit available to us. So I took the djembe and we started using that. And because it’s a thinner goatskin head, it sounded great with the brushes, but it wasn’t a true snare to get in the way of Frank’s playing. It blended well. I used to take the snare drum sometimes and drop the snares and play it with my fingers. But you’re trying to play a hand drum using the snare drum. But this drum [djembe], that is a hand drum. So it became versatile. So whereas with a snare drum you play brushes and try to play hand drums, this is a hand drum, but it wasn’t like I tried to play brushes. It sounds really good.
Frank: He’s really got the whole thing going. He’s got the djembe here, kind of like a snare drum. He’s got bongos over here, kind of like the tom-tom. You have your Turkish ride cymbal. The clave pedal on the left foot. Something on the right foot.
Joe: Occasionally the tambourine, just a color to utilize. But there are more sounds. Even on one of Frank’s records years ago there was a tune we did that let it happen.
Frank: Actually, a couple of tunes on that record.
Joe: Yeah. There was no drum set years ago. It was bongo, shaker, triangle. Natural.
Frank: I’m sort of bummed out you’re not going to see the other percussionist, because he’s a body builder. During the show we feature him. He does a couple of (body-building) poses. [laughter] It’s hysterical.
Joe: And he’s a salsa dancer. He’s a professional teacher. He gets a groove going, he’ll get someone up on stage and dance with them.
Frank: And then Ken Smith. I think he’s one of the greatest young guitar players ever, if not the greatest. He has a law exam today. He loves to learn and he loves to read. He’s not even 30, or maybe just turned 30. He has a master’s in sociology. He has a bachelor’s in jazz performance. He just finished his first year of law school today. He’s on the train to Poughkeepsie. His brother’s picking him up to get him here by 7:45 [for an 8 p.m. hit].
Joe: His colors and textures are just... It’s like what Andy Summers did for the Police. He just fills it in. Like a bowl of cereal, you pour that milk in...
Frank: And Gary Mazzaroppi, one of the great bass players. He’s played with every great guitarist there is. It’s a good band.
AAJ: Is this show something you constantly revise if a tune comes to you, or do you kind of stick to a format?
Frank: Every time we play, we have a sound check or whatever you want to call it. Rehearsal. And each time, I try to try something new, whether it’s a groove, or whether it’s a whole tune that I have, or whether it’s Tom Jones’ “Delilah.” Not that we’ll ever perform it, but what it does is open up the way to say, “Hey, that works.” Like you were saying before, things either stick or don’t stick. So, we’re always looking for new material. But at the same time, we realize we have some chestnuts that we really enjoy playing and we know it’s going to feel good and sound good, so you would never abandon the top material. But at the same time, always looking for new. A few weeks ago we started this thing with an odd time signature, 7/4 instead of 4/4. After a couple times of that, now we came back with a melody to it. Then we add some vocals to it. It’s starting to shape up. So we’re always exploring.
Joe: It’s a work in progress. I equate it to: If you climbed Mount Everest the last 15 or 20 years. Climbing it now with this project, that’s hitting a plateau. Now you’re up there. Now you want to spend a good chunk of time once we’re there. Put the pole in, the flagpole. We’ve arrived. Now let’s explore what this is. So we’re always checking things out and exploring.
AAJ: You’re not afraid to go after pop tunes if you like them.
Frank and Joe: Oh, nooo.
Joe: A great melody is a great melody.
Frank: There’s a new one we’re going to play tonight called “The Bowling Song.”
AAJ: I’m sure you guys know you can get vilified for playing pop tunes.
Joe: That’s OK. That’s alright.
Frank: I think by the jazz press, sometimes.
AAJ: The big discussion now is the Bad Plus because they play some other stuff.
Frank: You know what? The Bad Plus is out there touring all over the place for 80,000 record-buying fans.
AAJ: And they’re far from the first ones to ever do that. For some reason, they’ve stirred up the debate.
Joe: Whenever there’s a rebel, they’re gonna stir things
Frank: That’s a great trio too. They’ve got a great sound. They put on a real good show, I think. I think it’s pretty good. I think it’s pretty cool and, you know, I think it’s also — they have a band. And whenever you have a band, as opposed to just jazz musicians getting together for a couple of weeks a year, I think you’re going to develop a unique sound and unique material, and that’s going to open you up to all kinds of criticism. A lot of it will be really positive, and then a portion of it being negative. The same as if we were to do a Django Reinhardt tribute band. We would have a lot of it being positive, and a portion of it saying, “Geez, it would be nice to see them expand and maybe try a ’70s tune.” You can’t really win, you’ve just got to be honest.
Joe: Enjoy the journey.
Frank: Because for tunes that aren’t normally associated with jazz playing, [they work] if you play them honestly, and it really does feel right, instead of trying to do something because you think it will give you broader appeal. That never works. One of my records is like that. Just very poor production. I was trying to do something that really wasn’t happening. [laughter] Thinking you can market it anyway because it’s “this.”
AAJ: So we can expect new things like “The Bowling Song.”
Frank: Oh, “The Bowling Song.” I’m excited because my bowling career is going pretty well. So it inspired me to write a bowling song. [laughter] It all started when I found out Django Reinhardt only had two fingers, when I was 8 years old. I used to bowl a lot then. I said, “I wonder if he bowled.” Then I found out he was not only a great pool player, but he bowled. He was like a bowling shark.
Joe: You notice the shirt that’s hanging up there. [Points to where Frank’s shirt for the gig is hanging up].
Frank: This is my team shirt.
Joe: It’s Frank’s team shirt. If you look closely there [in the design], you’ll see remnants of bowling.
Frank: So I wear that on gigs too. Sometimes, I come [to the gig] from matches on Sundays, so my hands are a little sore.
Joe: The amazing thing is, he plays guitar righty and bowls lefty.
Frank: So we wrote a little song called “The Bowling Song.”
AAJ: You’ve got all kinds of songs. “Spiderman,” “Mozart Jam”...
Frank: Cole Porter, Bach, Mozart...
Joe: Doobie Brothers.
AAJ: You guys are happy with the way it all came together on the record?
Frank: I’m really excited about the record. We were given the opportunity to come up with the best record we can. We were not under time constraints. We spent three days in the studio. The way it actually came about was Joel Dorn signed the Hot Club USA, which was a group that Joe and I co-led. Kind of like a Django Reinhardt band. On the first tune, Joe and I go back into the studio to do a sound check. We did a kind of groove and I started doing “Begin the Beguine” in a Latin ... I hate to call it Latin..
Joe: A little rhythmic flair...
Frank: And he said, “What’s that?” “Oh we were working on this... it’s kind of what we do.” The whole session changed. He said, “That’s what I want.” A year and a half later there’s the record. We did it in his [Dorn’s] office. Gene Paul engineered it, who’s one of the most brilliant engineers I’ve ever run across. I play with his dad [Les Paul] all the time on Monday nights. He learned a lot from Les. They spent a lot of hours in the studio together.
Joe: He spends a week on a tambourine hit. Or a week on tuning a guitar string and trying it and living with it for a week to see what it sounds like. He has amazing ears. On tentative mixes, he says, “Hey, what did you think of that?” I said, “Gene, I lost you three mixes ago. My ears couldn’t catch what you’re going through.” He’s incredible.
Frank: You had to hope that the elevator didn’t come up during quiet recording. All of the sudden you hear the button go, “cha-ching.” “Can you shut that damn elevator off!” [laughter] It was recorded in a little office.
AAJ: Do you think the Frank and Joe Show will go on for a while?
Frank: Well, if we have anything to say about it, I think yes.
Joe: We finally got here. It took 20 years to get here. Now I want to stand on that mountain with that flag pole and stake our claim. Now let’s explore for the next 20 years. Make some great music.
Frank: We have a lot of fun being together too, as friends. And that makes, to me, all the difference in the world. When you can have people you enjoy being with, which isn’t bad...
Joe: It’s like a marriage.
Frank: Well, let’s not get crazy. [laughter]... And then at the same time, everybody’s like a great musician and we can make really great music together. I don’t mean that egotistically, I mean it like it feels great to be playing the music.
Joe: It’s life-giving. It’s very energetic.
Frank: After a gig, we can drive back to New York. We could drive to Kansas if we had to. We’ve done it before with other projects.
Joe: If we were working in Kansas tomorrow, we’d drive to Kansas today.
Frank: It’s that kind of enthusiasm. I could live with that.
Joe: And it comes out on stage too. It comes out on stage.
Frank: You know, I often think ... I don’t know why, maybe it’s because Joel Dorn and Gene Paul produced and engineered the Modern Jazz Quartet for Atlantic and they were together 50 years, but I just remember being at a festival and Percy Heath was playing right after John Lewis passed away. Actually, I was in John Lewis’ group, Evolution, the year before. I remember Percy Heath was sitting back stage. All of a sudden he busted out crying. I just happened to be there. It was the first time I’d met him. I was like, “Oh, man...” And he’s like, “You know, it’s the first time it hit me that John isn’t here anymore.” I thought to myself, “Man, these guys were together for fifty years. He told me, “Every time we were getting ready for a tour, I got that same excitement as I did for the first tour. By the end of the tour, I was ready to get away from everybody and go fishing,” because he loves to blue fish. But he said, “A couple of weeks would go by and I’d be dying to see those guys again.” And so that’s why it finally hit him. That’s kind of what I always wanted and why I got into the business is because I’ve always had the concept of: I want a band. I want the same people. I want to really do it with a band, instead of this freelance mentality.
Joe: The first time I’d met Frank and got invited to play the first gig we did together, I was really excited not only for all the musical reasons, but it was because of that thing: there was some arranged parts; there was freedom to play, but it was that ensemble collective sound going on. So it was not just a free for all like jam sessions.
Frank: It’s deep. He [Percy] spent more time with those guys than with his family. And that’s the way it is with musicians, with a band. So that’s kind of what I aspire to is having that kind of longevity with the band. Those guys [MJQ] got along so great. Just to hear John Lewis talk about [MJQ drummer] Connie Kay. He’d be like, “Man, you never got a chance to play with Connie?” After 50 years, he’s still talking so highly about the guy’s musicianship and being. That’s deep, to me, being a musician and all it entails. Sitting on planes in airports, and stranded, and driving through the night to get to the gig together. You got to like the music and then the people.
AAJ: Does the musical climate bother you? People having trouble getting gigs and things?
Frank: We’re doing everything wrong. [laughter] It’s a six-piece band, a startup group, basically. The little careers we’ve carved out for ourselves as Frank Vignola and Joe Ascione, now it’s the Frank & Joe Show. It’s a startup group. We’re doing everything wrong. We didn’t make a jazz record. But it just feels so right that we just kind of have to roll the dice and work as hard as we can. We played at Border’s Bookstore for 12 people this afternoon. We’re just doing anything we can to get the music out there, because we know. We’re 40-year-old men, you think we’d be, like, “nah...” But it just feels so right.
AAJ: A lot of musicians are down on things. They try to stay optimistic, but...
Frank: Well, it’s not easy being a musician, number one. And it’s not easy being a jazz musician, number two. Especially nowadays. Because if you get a gig in a club for 20 bucks, you get excited. Well, I got three kids. How am I going to support them? So, I’ve been fortunate I’ve been able to eek out a living. But, at the same time, you’re either a musician, or you’re not a musician. People who are musicians are going to remain in the business. People who really weren’t given that talent or that gift or that drive or whatever you want to call it, won’t last.
Joe: It weeds you out. You either say, “I'm going to do this” or “I’m not going to do this.” That’s your choice. But what I’ve experienced is that it continually draws you in. You’re almost compelled to do it.
Frank: [Joe] was an engineer with McDonald-Douglas. Living on the beach in Huntington Beach, California.
Joe: Living like a big shot. I used to throw my checks on my desk. I didn’t even need them. After a month, I was like this. [drums his fingers on the table in boredom]. With all those checks. I was like, “what am I doing?” I always make a joke: I took an $80,000 pay cut. Went back to New York with my sticks. I sat in and it was: “Ah. I’m home!”
Frank: Even with music teaching, I think it’s the same thing. I went out to Arizona for two years on a grant to start the jazz guitar program at Arizona State University. The best thing that happened to me was I met Ken. We became good friends. He was one of my students. Believe it or not, I heard him play for the first time and said, “OK, forget about this student-teacher thing because you’re too good. Let’s go get you some gigs so you can get out and play.” So after two years I was ready to hang myself out there, seeing a therapist. Finally I said, “You got to cool back to New York.” The next thing I know... back and feeling better than ever being a musician.
Joe: Everything’s in a constant state of change. Life is not static. So [older musicians] say, “Years ago, we used to do 40 sessions a day.” Well, it’s not like that today. And people are going to come up and we’re going to say, “We got to play with Billy Mitchell and John Lewis...” It’s cyclical, and every dog has his day.
Frank: A group like the Bad Plus comes out and there you go. A couple of new kids on the block. The new Medeski, Martin and Wood, if you will. Now people are talking about, “they’re doing pop music in jazz.”
[Mazzaroppi and Zukor enter the room and ball-busting jokes abound; good-natured ribbing... Rich shows off his Kiss shirt, “the greatest jazz band of all time,” he grins.]
AAJ: I’ve got one thing from both your backgrounds to ask you about. Joe, you were a roadie for Buddy Rich as a teenager. What was that like?
Joe: I was right out of high school. A friend of mine and I used his red van to travel around the northeastern portion of the United States and show up at Buddy’s gigs, informally. And every night we’d ogle the band and hang around and start helping them lug the gear and put it in the bus, and I gravitated toward the drums and gravitated toward the next gig. They’d say, “You here again?” The next thing you know, I was setting up the drums and breaking them down; setting up the drums and breaking them down. It started out as something very informal, out of sheer joy and enthusiasm to hear Buddy Rich, and then I was sitting this far away [a matter of a few feet] every night hearing him and was mesmerized. Just like somebody said to Frank, “You didn’t get the chance to play with Connie Kay?” Well, I can tell anybody in my life I got the chance, night after night, to sit this far away from Buddy Rich and experience that intensity. And that’s something that will stick with me. There’s nothing like it. That was an experience.
Frank: [tongue in cheek] Is that that singer with the white hair? That Rich guy? Who was that?
Joe: Charlie Rich?
Frank: I had the wrong guy.
AAJ: Frank, you were grand national banjo champion in Canada as a teenager?
Frank: I am the national grand banjo champion of Canada in 1982. That was my big year. [toilet flush from the adjoining bathroom]
Joe: And there goes Gary Mazzaroppi passing dinner. Continue, Mr. Vignola...
Frank: Straight from the dressing room of the Frank and Joe Show... [laughter]
AAJ: Was that a banjo competition?
Frank: It was a banjo competition. My father played tenor banjo. He still does. I started on guitar, but at about 12 years old I started picking up the banjo a little bit. He took me up there to this competition in Canada. There were three categories: five-string, four-string tenor, and four-string plectrum, which are two different styles of four-string. And I won the grand champion at 13 and I was kind of this little prodigy. And I only played, like, for eight months on the banjo. I played “Limehouse Blues.” That was the end of the competition.
Joe: Sure beats a milk route or a paper route.
Frank: I like the banjo, but it’s like a novelty instrument. When you have a guitar, compared to a banjo, for any stringed instrument player there’s just so much more to do on the guitar. It was pretty thrilling, actually.
Joe: And he became the Buddy Rich of the banjo...[laughter]
Frank: I just got the trophy back from my mother. She was going through some boxes.
AAJ: You guys do other stuff as well and keep pretty busy;
Joe: It’s an interesting time. Yes. This is a stepping back, or looking at it from afar. It’s a big, interesting transitional period. Because we’re naturally moving in this Frank and Joe direction, which is the culmination of a lot of music. The answer to your question is: yes. There’s a lot of variety in the career, in the craft, being an itinerant musician or an independent artist getting calls for recordings and tours and things like that. But it’s an interesting time right now because we have this project and it’s a big transition.
Frank: I kind of do three and a half things right now. I play with Mark O’Connor and his Hot Swing Trio. And then I play with Les Paul every Monday. And then for the half, I do a lot of little guitar things. Like I’ll do something with Bucky Pizzarelli or Gene Bertoncini, kind of like my heroes. It’s really fabulous to be able to play with my heroes, if you want to put it that way. And then the other thing is the Frank & Joe Show. I try to juggle all the schedules, while watching the Frank & Joe Show move ahead. It’s like the Kentucky Derby. “Come on, Frank & Joe! Come on, Frank & Joe! It’s Frank & Joe by a nose!”
AAJ: You guys both did that Goodfellas album with Joey DeFrancesco.
Joe: Two-thirds of the Goodfellas project is sitting right here. Actually half. Joey’s a big guy. [laughter]. That guy can swing you right off a bandstand.
Frank: He can eat you right off the bandstand too, I tell ya. It took us like three hours to make that record. We would go to the studio. We would hang out. Tell jokes. Then someone’d say, “OK, let’s try ‘O Solo Mio.’” And we’d go in there. At the end of the record, we said, “Oh wow. We did all Italian songs.” [laughter]. The amazing thing about Joey DeFrancesco is, from the first recording I heard of him at 17 years old on Columbia [ All of Me , 1989], he plays like no one else.
Frank: Unbelievable. Then I heard him with McLaughlin . He just sort of showed up on that gig. John showed him all the parts. That night, he had John McLaughlin’s book down! On the sound check.
Joe: Really. He said he brought [the sheet music] to the hotel room and it was all this chicken scratching and he said, “I can’t read this shit. Are you kidding me?” and he tore it apart. He shredded it. He’s incredible.
Frank: It’s amazing.
AAJ: He revitalized that whole instrument. Now there’s a lot of B-3 players out there.
Joe: And he probably owns 50 percent of the B-3s on the planet. He’s got like 30 of them.
Frank: Yeah. In a warehouse in the desert in Arizona. That’s where he lives. It’s all in a climate controlled room. He has, like 70 organs. He goes on the road and he goes to churches. Someone will tell him there’s a B-3 for sale and he’ll go buy that.
AAJ: You guys have great attitudes. It’s healthy.
Joe: It reflects life. Do some fun things. Celebrate. Have a little joy. Play some great music. Smile. Get people involved.
Frank: [Parting shot, said deliberately loud enough for Mazzaroppi to hear in the next room:] Now if you know any bass players that are available...
AAJ: I’ll look around...
Visit Frank and Joe on the web at www.thefrankandjoeshow.com .
"Live" and "With Joel Dorn" by Judith Schlesinger