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

R.J. DeLuke By

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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.

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.

Frank: Right.

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.
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