The Frank & Joe Show: Looking for a Long, Happy Run

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We look for the collective sound too. We —Joe Ascione
Back in the 1960s, after the British Invasion, it seemed every block had a band and anyone who knew three chords on a guitar joined in. Maybe they couldn’t really play guitar, and the drummer might have sounded like he should be washing pots and pans, not banging on them. But it was all among friends and it was fun. It was a feeling.

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.

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