Imagine guitarist Frank Vignola playing a solo on his knees at the edge of the stage in Giants Stadium to Benny Goodman’s 1938 “Sing Sing Sing,” a wall of speakers behind him, two elevated drummers thundering in the back, the huge screens zoomed in on his magical finger work, blowing the minds of 60,000 people with his ridiculous speed and clarity, as he no doubt would if he had the shot.
He did tour with Madonna and the likes years ago, but doubtful they let him loose.
So Thursday night at the Egg’s Swyer Theater, with no props, just a chair for him, his longtime partner Vinny Raniolo, and the elder jazz legend Bucky Pizzarelli, their three acoustic guitars, and a small amp behind each of them the size of a printer, the trio gently blew away the mostly filled theater.
Pizzarelli, now 87, sat between the two, contributing his tasteful chords, syncopated rhythms, and wonderful solos.
Vignola was his usual self, playing with beautiful touch, articulating every note and phrase, even at his freaky speeds. No one really plays like him these days. The surprise was Raniolo, who seemed to steal the show more than he has in the past, clearly capable of carrying his own torch.
They carried on with their usual wiseguy shtick throughout the show, commenting on anyone who came late, stopping their playing to pose for a picture from an audience member, and telling Vaudevillian jokes between songs.
At the set break, Vignola said the trio would be in the lobby signing CDs. Pizzarelli said he had 78s in the car if anyone wanted them.
“What do you want to play, Bucky?” Vignola asked after the third song.
“Nuages,” Pizzarelli replied. He played a pretty intro to Django Reinhardt’s song, his fingers floating over the strings like they belonged to a 30-year-old before the rest of the trio joined for a nice version.
“It’s my grandmother’s 107th birthday today,” Raniolo said to applause. “She died 20 years ago.” Laughter. “I want to go like her, asleep peacefully, and not like her screaming passenger.” Big laughter. No rim shot.
Typically the two players accompanying the soloist kept rhythm together, strumming in sync, even accenting in the same spots, offering a nice, full sound for the Swyer’s acoustically sensitive room.
Vignola said the three of them play around 10 to 20 times a year together, and they introduce a new song each time. Thursday night they performed Al Jolson’s “Avalon,” impeccably of course. Pizzarelli used his solo time to strum interesting chords, sliding up and down the fret to create unusual combinations.
They performed “Swan Lake, scene 1,” sans Pizzarelli. The duo played and pranced around the stage to a weakly choreographed dance. Having seen it before, to me it was more a distraction than entertainment. However, through the shenanigans, the playing was on the mark. They moved into a hoppy version of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, part humor laced with skilled guitar picking.
There are so few still playing the American songbook, and even fewer able to draw crowds like Thursday night. Pizzarelli has been at it since the 1940s, playing on NBC’s “The Tonight Show” in the ’50s.
Vignola continues to take the songs and his guitar work to new levels. With a young Raniolo by his side, we can expect them to carry on for decades more, hopefully pulling up a few more players in their wake.