Back on stage: Guitarist extraordinare Frank Vignola comes to the Valley

  • Frank Vignola took up the guitar at age 6 and hasn’t stopped since. The instrumental virtuoso is known for adapting a wide range of music, from jazz standards to The Beatles to Beethoven, to guitar.

  • Frank Vignola says he and his guitar trio will play a range of music, including popular American songs from the 1920s to the 1980s, when they come to Gateway City Arts in Holyoke on Friday. Facebook photo

  • Legendary jazz guitarist Les Paul, left performs with Vignola at the Irium Jazz Club in New York City. Vignola was 19 when he first met Paul, his guitar idol.  Facebook photo

  • Frank Vignola, in center, has performed with many musicians over the years, including fingerstyle guitarist Tommy Emmanuel, at right, Facebook photo

Staff Writer
Published: 1/23/2019 4:28:11 PM

Jazz guitarist Frank Vignola has played thousands of shows across the world during 40 years of performing. He’s known for his virtuosity in adapting popular songs to the guitar, from jazz standards to The Beatles, surf rock and Classical music, using a fluid and melodic picking style that relies on tone as much as speed.

Vignola has also worked with many world-famous musicians, including fingerstyle guitarist Tommy Emmanuel, lead keyboardist/vocalist Donald Fagen of Steely Dan and his guitar idol, legendary jazz guitarist Les Paul.

This Friday, Vignola heads to Holyoke’s Gateway City Arts with his Hot Jazz Guitar Trio. Ahead of his performance, Vignola spoke in a phone interview with the Gazette about being a lifelong performer, working with other famous musicians, and how a devastating ATV accident in his backyard in 2017 changed his perspective on life and music.

Vignola said he’s been working with guitarist Vinny Raniolo and bassist Gary Mazzaroppi for more than a decade. For several years, he and Raniolo also toured as a duo after Mazzaroppi became a father and took time off from performing.

Now the three have reformed their trio and have been “hitting it heavy the last several months” on the road. With an estimated 1,500 shows together, Vignola said, the three friends have an ease and comfort when it comes to arranging songs.

“When we come up with an arrangement, it takes us 15 minutes now after we learn the song,” he said. “I’ve always been a big fan of bands, even in jazz.” A lot of times, he notes, jazz gets associated with soloists, but for him, some of the great bands of the modern era are jazz groups such as the Dave Brubeck Quartet and The Count Basie Orchestra.

“When guys play together all the time and travel together, you really get a great chemistry going if you find the right people,” Vignola added. “There are other bands that end up in fist fights — go figure!”

For the trio’s show at Gateway City Arts, he said, they’ll play selections from the great American popular songbook: popular music written in the 1920s up to the 1980s with great melodies, as well as Classical music from Beethoven and Mozart.

“They’re like gypsy [jazz] songs — Mozart and Beethoven [use] the same [chord] progressions as a lot of the gypsy standards and the great American songbook. They’re the same progressions; they’re just done a little differently.

“We try to, again, look for great melodies and great songs,” said Vignola. “We do a version of Beethoven’s [Symphony No. 5] and it’s so fun to play it … And then we improvise on it just like jazz folks do.”

Meeting a legend

For Vignola, befriending Les Paul, whom he first met in 1984 as a teenager, and having the opportunity to play music alongside his guitar hero was a childhood dream fulfilled.

“He inspired me at the age of five and six years old to want to play guitar,” Vignola said. “So, to finally meet him when I was 19 years old in New York City when he emerged from retirement, that was a big deal. And then we were friends for many years. In 2000, he called me to sub for him because he was sick, and then he came back and asked me to stay on.”

Vignola said he played regularly with Paul every Monday night in clubs in New York City for years, which in turn gave him the opportunity to meet many other musical icons, “especially rock because everyone plays a Les Paul guitar! One week Slash [guitarist of Guns N’ Roses] shows up, and one week Paul McCartney walks in.”

Vignola also met Emmanuel, a native Australian who now lives in the United States, through Les Paul. He said when he first saw Emmanuel, a fingerstyle guitarist, perform, he was so impressed by his musicianship that he couldn’t sleep the night after the show. The two later became friends and played at a 2004 guitar festival in Italy, after which they did a world tour together.

Vignola’s playing was abruptly sidelined in 2017 after he hit a tree in the backyard of his Orange County, N.Y. home while riding an all-terrain vehicle. Airlifted to a trauma center in Patterson, New Jersey, he was treated for four broken ribs, a right shoulder broken in two places, a broken arm and collapsed lungs. He spent a year and a half recovering at home with his family and was forced to cancel 100 concerts in 18 countries.

“Any major event where you almost die, I would assume would change one’s outlook,” he said. “It was great to be home with my wife and kids for a year straight. I wasn’t at one place for two or three weeks at a time basically since I was 13 years old. So, it ended up being a very good year. Once I realized that I could walk, that I could talk, that there was no real head damage … [then] it was just broken bones that needed to heal.”

And, Vignola said, “I think I became a better musician and guitar player and a better person. I know I do not want to end up on the road 250 days of the year anymore. Maybe after the kids are out of the house, never say never. But I don’t know if I would want to live that lifestyle again to that excess.”

But that said, Vignola added, “To get back to performing without any pain, in some ways I feel better than ever.”

Chris Goudreau can be reached at cgoudreau@gazettenet.com.

Frank Vignola’s Hot Jazz Trio performs at Gateway City Arts in Holyoke this Friday starting at 8 p.m. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door. For more information or to purchase tickets for the show, visit www.gatewaycityarts.com/




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