Learning and teaching, teaching and learning; jazz guitarist Jack Fragomeni often seems to do both at the same time. He teaches at The College of Saint Rose and Schenectady County Community College, and he plays in the Empire Jazz Orchestra and jazz clubs and festivals.
The proof is in the playing, and Fragomeni plays on Friday at the Stockade Inn; however, his pedigree of musical pedagogy is positively eye-popping. Son of a musical mother, he rocked on “Louie Louie” and discovered jazz in high school, survived a reluctant professor at the Crane School of Music, and was guided by an academic adviser at Clarkson University, by a would-be employer who denied him a job, by local saxophone colossus Nick Brignola, by guitarists Atilla Zoller and Bucky Pizzarelli, but most of all by his own curiosity.
The Jack Fragomeni-
WHERE: The Stockade Inn , 1 N. Church St., Schenectady)
WHEN: 7 p.m. Friday
HOW MUCH: No cover
MORE INFO: 346-3400, www.stockadeinn.com or www.laspina.com
At age 4, Fragomeni watched his mother give his older brother a piano lesson. “Then I sat down at the piano and played the lesson,” he said last week from home in Cohoes.
Trombone lessons in elementary school didn’t last, but the theory he learned from his mother’s piano lessons did, even as rock ’n’ roll beckoned. “I wanted to play ‘Louie, Louie,’ ” he said. “So I got a cheapo guitar, picked up a book on chords, took a few lessons from a guy named Charlie Orsini, and that was it; I was playing in garage bands at school dances” — in bands he laughingly refused to name.
Mont Pleasant High School music teacher Dr. Cleveland Howard provided another that-was-it moment, playing a Jimmy Smith record in class. “Definitely a case of being at the right place at the right time with the right guy,” Fragomeni recalled. “The theory and harmony I learned from him, I took it to the piano, and then I put it to the guitar.”
He put the guitar away to study chemical engineering at Clarkson, a three-year detour. In his junior year, doubting his path, he enrolled in a 20th-century composition course at Crane School of Music nearby. “What the hell are you doing in this class?” demanded professor Arthur Frackenpohl. “He really didn’t like me because I was a Clarkson student and I wasn’t a music major, but he ended up giving me a B-plus,” said Fragomeni, delighted that alphabetical order put their compositions next to each other in the Crane archives. (Years later, compositions by each premiered together at the Kennedy Center in a national convention of compositions for low-brass instruments.)
When Robert Shaw, Fragomeni’s adviser at Clarkson, spotted the composition course at Crane in Fragomeni’s transcript, Shaw — a hobby-level saxophonist — asked about music. Hearing Fragomeni’s love of playing, he advised him to explore it. Undecided, Fragomeni applied that summer for a job running a chemistry lab, but the same thing happened. In the third interview, Fragomeni again told of his love of music. “The guy said, ‘I’m not giving you the job. I’m doing you a big favor,’ ” Fragomeni said. “And he did.”
Fragomeni didn’t go back for his senior year and soon was playing six nights a week and teaching. “I was about three lessons ahead of my students,” he said, having studied classical guitar at Crane with Richard Stefan and here with Alan Alexander. After he met jazz guitarist Gene Bertoncini, Fragomeni found he didn’t know enough about jazz to study with him.
“I wanted to learn about jazz and I called Nick Brignola up,” said Fragomeni. “He would play [jazz chord] changes on the piano and I would look and put them to the guitar,” said Fragomeni, who became teacher as well as student. “You teach me guitar and I’ll teach you jazz harmony and theory,” Brignola proposed.
When Brignola had no more to teach Fragomeni, guitarist Zoller took over. Zoller played with Brignola and taught Fragomeni, a very motivated student.
“I was practicing eight hours a day and playing six nights a week,” recalled Fragomeni. He wore out two copies of Joe Pass’s “Virtuoso” album, transcribing and learning every note. “Then I realized, I’m playing Joe Pass’s stuff and he’ll do it better than I can every time, and Atilla said, ‘There’s a lot of guys that can cover other people but there’s nobody who can play you.’ ” Fragomeni said, “The only way you can do it is to develop your own voice, and that’s what I’ve tried to do.”
Bucky Pizzarelli suggested how, after Fragomeni met the jazz guitar giant at the Van Dyck in Schenectady. “You ought to get a solo gig, one that maybe pays you ten or twenty bucks and a sandwich and a beer, just to get out and practice,” Pizzarelli told him. “Go play, and force yourself into a situation where you have to perform and learn tunes.”
Fragomeni did, playing every Monday for three years at the Grog Shop, even after he began his 10-year stint in New York, where his first gig was with jazz bassist Eddie Gomez.
The Van Dyck is also where Fragomeni met duo partner bassist Steve LaSpina, who was playing with Marian McPartland and agreed to sit in at the Grog Shop. “I would throw some changes at him to see how he responded and he would be doing the same thing back at me,” Fragomeni said.
“We would both be doing the same thing to each other, at the same time.” Their duo has evolved over decades, and produced their “Friends Indeed” album, which they’ll have for sale at the Stockade Inn on Friday.
Songs by committee
Fragomeni said they will choose songs to play “by committee,” as he enjoys the evolving tone of his new Campellone guitar, which he likened to sonic cheese. He said, “You know that feeling when you bite into a chunk of cheese? I always allude to food, but I want that to be the sound going into your ears.”
He said the new guitar has a substantial sound, with thickness, density, brightness and a beautiful singing quality. “It’s only going to get mellower with time,” he said. “It’s already changed since I got it, and it’s only been about two months.”
It certainly sang through the roar of the Empire Jazz Orchestra on April 8 with the orchestra featuring guest saxophone great David Newman.
Fragomeni leads another big ensemble on April 23 at St. Joseph Hall at The College of Saint Rose — the 10-instrument Guitar Ensemble for which he writes and arranges.
Categories: Life and Arts