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

R.J. DeLuke By

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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.

Joe: Close.
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