Guitarist Frank Vignola has never downloaded an MP3, but that isn't stopping him from launching a new online store featuring unique albums with some of his favorite players.
VMdownloads.com by Venture Music, launched with an initial collection of eleven albums and more scheduled for release soon, features a number of just-recorded projects by Vignola, Bucky Pizzarelli, Joe Ascione and others in mostly small guitar-oriented groups. In many ways it feels like a musician's music store, with players cranking out projects without strong commercial considerations and selling them without the frills typical Web consumers might expect.
"This is the best record I've ever recorded," says Pizzarelli, a self-taught icon on the seven-string guitar who's been playing since the 1950s, in his promotional description of Don't Blame Me, a collaboration with Vignola. Recorded in September of 2006 with the help of "coffee, doughnuts and a lot of music books," it's a 44-minute mellow dialogue between the masters, with a number of short standards and a 10-minute "Concerto De Aranguez" serving as the showpiece.
Vignola, 41, who's been playing guitar since the age of 5 with influences ranging from Wes Montomery to Eddie Van Halen, said the concept for the store was born only a few months ago during casual conversations and grew as other artists he knew expressed interest. Being able to launch everythingincluding new recording projectsduring that short time has been a novel twist on a lengthy career.
"The great part is in the last month what I've seen is when you record a 'record' it takes a year to come up for sale and by then you've moved on to other things," he said. "What I love here is you record something, you mix it, and you put it up."
"Albums are mixed a bit differently for the online store, with a boost to high and low frequencies, to compensate for smaller speakers" Vignola said. "It also helps overcome some of inferiority of compressed digital audio compared to standard CDs." The recordings, expected to number as high as 50 during the next year, are not being sold as conventional CDs at present.
It's also a chance to bring attention to material recorded earlier, such as At John's House, a 2001 jam session with Vignola and John Pisano playing Joe Pass-style swing tunes at the latter guitarist's house in Los Angeles.
There's still some rough edges at the site indicative of a start-up effort. Site navigation is awkward and may confuse some initially. Everything is done within a small, slowly scrolling text box, with three-fourths of the fixed-size page (which doesn't even fill an 800x600 pixel space) merely for show. Those looking for an easy, if unglamorous, way to browse can right click on the text window and choose the "open frame in new window" option or simply access it directly at www.vmdownloads.com/cdtitles.html.
Sound previews are available, but shorter than most sites and not available for all albums. Lengths for albums and songs are not provided, which may irk some customers who pay $10 for an album they discover is less than 40 minutes long. One example is AV Express by drummer Joe Ascione, an energetic unreleased 2000 project with Vignola and bassist John Goldsby. As with other aspects of the site, its value will be highest among purists appreciative of the players involved. Casual listeners can find albums by most of these musicians cheaper at other online stores (i.e. about $2-3 at eMusic.com) and Vignola doesn't hesitate to recommend people do so in those circumstances.
Finally, the song files are missing most of the usual tags containing album and performer information, requiring listeners to type them in to keep things organized.
A low-cost way to sample the store is the four-song, 16-minute Foursome album featuring Jackie "The Joke Man" Martling as a guest with Vignola and Ascoine, selling for $1.69. The gutteral folk is definitely not family friendly and a long way from those who associate Vignola with the likes of Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian, but may be of interest to those who've heard him as part of The Frank and Joe Show (their album Submarine Bus is available at the site). It's worth noting the collection is essentially four arrangements of the same song, which may diminish its value for some.
Other notable projects include Swingin', with 89-year-old flutist Frank Wess leading a quartet featuring bassist Mark Egan during a 2002 New York studio session, Gypsy Jazz Caravan, a new set by the contemporary Django-style quartet, and a classical guitar compilation by Fareed Haque.