It had to surprise some Frank Vignola fans when the guitarist, long associated with swing and Gypsy jazz, came out with an album of George Gershwin standards last April. For Peter Lesser, executive director at The Egg in Albany, discovering the album was a magical, happy accident.
Lesser and his staff at The Egg had been planning a multi-date Gershwin tribute as part of the venue’s New York Living Legacy project. And that Vignola, known largely as a Django Reinhardt stylist, was already thinking Gershwin turned out to be the icing on the cake.
“I had no idea he had done a Gershwin album,” Lesser, who has presented Vignola several times, said earlier this week. “I was Googling — as I was madly throughout this whole process — ‘Gershwin tribute.’ And there it was, ‘Vignola plays Gershwin’ . . . more like Django Reinhardt meets George Gershwin.”
When Lesser approached Vignola about the tribute, the guitarist agreed right away to perform, joining a series lineup that includes the Marcus Roberts Trio with the Albany Symphony Orchestra (Jan. 19), and Bill Charlap and Sandy Stewart (Jan. 27). Vignola’s performance, which will feature vocalist Jane Monheit, is set for Saturday.
If some fans were surprised at this latest turn in Vignola’s ever-widening repertoire, Vignola himself didn’t bat an eye. Reached at his home in Warwick, Orange County, late last month, he agreed he might be an oddity in his age group, but noted that Gershwin and his contemporaries are in his blood.
“I know. Pretty bizarre for a 40-year-old man to know more about the music of the ’30s and the ’40s than about today,” he said. But “I’ve been playing Gershwin tunes for 35 years now, believe it or not. It’s the music I grew up with. My father always had it playing in the house. And if it wasn’t Gershwin, it was the other composers of the era. So to do the ‘Vignola Plays Gershwin’ record was a real thrill.”
In fact, Vignola and the band he assembled for the record had digested Gershwin throughout their careers — to the point that it only took 31⁄2 hours to cut the album. And that brief session was fine with Vignola. He said he didn’t want to do take after take. He didn’t want to play around too much with the arrangements either.
“It was more of a celebration of his music,” he explained, “rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. And how many times can you play ’S Wonderful’? After two, it’s going to start to sound stale. And again, everybody was so up on the music, and have been playing the tunes for years and years and years that we didn’t need days [in the studio].”
Anything written on Vignola always seems to mention Django Reinhardt, the great Gypsy jazz guitarist (he was literally a Gypsy) and the first European to make a huge impact on the genre. While Vignola cites Reinhardt as a major influence, there are others he’s channeling as he shifts from style to style. Joe Pass, Les Paul, Tony Mottola and Bucky Pizzarelli are all listed as influences.
But don’t let Vignola’s comment about knowing more about ’30s-era music than contemporary material fool you. His online biography cites his admiration for rock guitarists such as Eric Clapton and Eddie Van Halen. And he’s been known for doing swing and gypsy jazz renditions of Slayer tunes.
But the Reinhardt influence still looms the largest, and suits his fast, highly technical — but emotional — style the best. “I really do think that he’s probably the best Django stylist from America,” mandolin player and collaborator Jamie Masefield told The Daily Gazette last year. At the same time, Masefield added, “Frank isn’t Django and he really doesn’t want to be.”
Long Island Youth
Vignola grew up in the suburban Long Island town of Islip. Taking up the guitar at age 5, he was immersed in music by his teens. His parents, he said, knew he was neglecting his studies in favor of practicing. So they enrolled him in the Cultural Arts Center of Long Island, a high school program where he could devote time to music. By the time he graduated, he was playing eight to 10 gigs a week.
Throughout the 1980s, he worked primarily as a sideman until his reputation as a virtuoso grew to the point where Concord Jazz signed him and put out his first record as a leader. That was in 1993.
By now, several albums have followed, and Vignola finds himself today embracing classical. A classical guitar album is already in the can, ready for release later this year. And lest anyone accuse him of another massive paradigm shift, Vignola sees the tie in between Gershwin and the old masters.
“It’s kind of interesting to take my style and play some of these classical works,” he said. “It’s also interesting because Gershwin was obviously influenced by Mozart and Beethoven and Bach. You can hear it in a lot of his music. I think that night [at The Egg] we might even take a few key pieces from some of the classical composers that Gershwin was influenced by.”
When pressed why making a Gershwin album appealed to him — beyond the fact that he grew up listening to him — Vignola just marveled at the fact that this music was the pop of Gershwin’s day. And he talked about the era passing in which the direct lines to the composer are melting into history.
“A lot of the great jazz musicians who grew up in that era . . . are actually dying off,” he said. “There are very few of those guys left. The music, in another couple of decades, is going to be like Bach or Mozart, where there won’t be any connection to the people who knew him.”
As for Lesser, he said The Egg opted to pay tribute to Gershwin because the composer’s music is so indelibly tied to New York. And in a way, he represents the New York experience.
“He was just such an obvious, obvious choice,” Lesser said. “He was born here, was the poster child, if you will, for the immigrant son makes good in America.”
Then again, if you’re putting on a tribute show, Lesser added, it’s good to have someone with the depth of a George Gershwin, someone who has multiple sides to explore.
“So many artists have recorded entire albums of his work. All the musicians we’re presenting have done that, some of them more than once. . . . His music can be interpreted in so many different ways, in a classical vein, and then there’s the jazz element, and the show tunes and pop music. So there’s enough variety there that you can pull off doing, I think, all of these different concerts of Gershwin music — hear it different ways and different times and still like it.”
Vignola added: “They’re timeless melodies. They’re classic, American standards. You can’t go wrong with that.”
Frank Vignola Quintet with Jane Monheit
What: Part of The Egg’s New York Living Legacy tribute to George Gershwin
Where: The Egg, Empire State Plaza, Albany
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
How Much: $24
More info: 473-1845, www.theegg.org