Frank Vignola Proves that Les Is Still More

“Our music is not what some people consider jazz nowadays,” says Frank Vignola, guitarist with the Frank and Joe Show. “But that’s because I grew up listening to Count Basie and Les Paul, which to me is real jazz. Jazz became a concert art with emphasis on the soloist in the ’50s, but it was originally conceived in dance halls by musicians trying to relate to their audience.”

The Frank and Joe Show, the ensemble Vignola co-leads with percussionist Joe Ascione, should have no trouble relating to audiences with their latest CD, 66 2/3 [Hyena]. It’s an appealing blend of pre-bop swing infused with Cuban rhythms and enlivened by Vignola’s penchant for melodicism. It also boasts tight ensemble arrangements that will excite fans of both the Quintet of the Hot Club of France and Santana.

On 66 2/3 you play with a rhythm guitarist, Ken Smith, which is unusual for a jazz combo.

I prefer harmonic support from a guitar because I like the sound better than a piano. The trick is to make two guitars sound like one. I’m more interested in coming up with a band sound than being a soloist with a rhythm section under me.

What guitar did you use to record 66 2/3?

I used my Guild Benedetto Frank Vignola model. It’s an acoustic archtop about the size of a Maccaferri, with a floating Seymour Duncan pickup. It was miked acoustically, miked through an amp, and taken direct. Then all three signals were blend- ed together.

The overdubbed guitar harmonies on “Sway” and “Hungarian Dance No. 5” remind me of Les Paul’s early multitrack recordings.

I’ve been a Les fan since I was a kid doing sound-on-sound recordings in my room. His son Gene Paul helped record, mix, and master 66 2/3, and brought a tremendous knowledge of what we were trying to do via his dad. I also played with Les for five years at the Iridium in Manhattan.

What did you learn from that experience?

Les has a tremendous sense of how to play a melody to an audience. I can’t define it in musical terms, but he can express things like humor, romance, and sarcasm with his playing. Essentially, he speaks to them through his guitar. It’s beyond jazz, beyond theory, and beyond stylistic boundaries. It’s pure communication through music.

Jazz improvisation is often taught from a harmonic perspective—play this scale over this chord—but your approach seems more melodic.

That’s because I really can’t play jazz [laughs]! Thinking about where to play the Super Locrian mode gets me all screwed up. If you plot solos around every IIm-V-I change, you’ll wind up playing notes instead of music. My approach is actually rhythmic, and rhythm is even more neglected than melody. I’m influenced by Cuban rhythms like the 3+2 clave. You can base a whole solo just on that rhythm! Once you have rhythms under your belt, learn the melody of a tune inside and out. Alter a note or rhythm here and there and bang! You’re improvising melodically.

I’ve heard veteran jazz guitarists encourage students to think like a horn player and transcribe sax and trumpet lines. Do you agree with that?

Not really. Guitarists should think like guitarists. The guitar is essentially an accompaniment instrument and the first thing young players should do is learn to be an effective accompanist. That doesn’t mean knowing a ton of hip substitutions, it means knowing how to complement other instruments by sustaining the groove and not interfering with the melody.

Any advice for young players?

Get a gig. I’ve had the opportunity to play with Les, Lionel Hampton, Elvin Jones, and Billy Mitchell, and I learned more onstage with them than I did in practice rooms by myself. Get in a situation where you’re relating to an audience and other musicians, and you’re on your way.