If you’re like me, the name Frank Vignola probably doesn’t mean much. I only know of him because he’s playing at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center next week. If you look up his name online (at Frankvignola.com), you’ll find that he’s a 51-year-old musician who bills himself as a “guitarist extraordinaire” and “one of the most extraordinary guitarists performing before the public today.”
Sure, I scoffed too, until I spoke with my friend Tom Conway, a talented guitarist in his own right who plays gigs all around Maui, including Thursday nights with Willie K at the King Kamehameha Golf Club. According to Conway, Vignola is extraordinary–a true musical genius. In fact, Conway was so effusive in his praise for Vignola that I’ll just let him finish this story:
I first heard of Frank Vignola when I was playing a lot of Gypsy jazz about 10, 12 years ago. Not that many Americans were playing that. He’s played with Mark O’Connor, Jimmy Rosenberg. Frank is one of America’s best acoustic guitar players, for sure.
Gypsy jazz is like American swing music, but instead of being orchestrated for a big band, it’s for guitars and violins, with no drums and then some little Gypsy inflections added in. It was first pioneered by the great Django Reinhardt. It’s American jazz with European elements. Django Reinhardt was the prime architect of that style, and he was a musical sensation (he died in 1953).
From what I know about Frank, he did a residency with Les Paul–Frank was his rhythm guitar player. Frank is a great all-around guitar player, but I’m most impressed with his rhythm guitar playing. A lot of guys can pick hot licks, but Frank is incredible. He can get moving on that guitar like nobody’s business. I’d be terrified to play with Frank–it’s a very tough genre, and not that many Americans play this way.
I haven’t met him, but I have DVDs of some of his concerts. He did a solo of “Donna Lee,” an old Charlie Parker song. It’s a challenging song–the guy’s versatility is really deep. Frank is able to reach way back into American jazz from the beginning.
When I was playing Gypsy jazz, I knew of most of the players in Europe, but at the time, there were very few Americans playing at that level. Frank, however, is a Gypsy jazz master.
We had a niche here on Maui–at the time, we were the only band in the state that played this kind of music. But if I had to sit around at home waiting for the phone to ring from people wanting us to play Gypsy jazz, I’d have to get another job.
Because not a lot of people have ever heard of Gypsy jazz. I could walk into Bounty Music and ask 20 people, “Do you know Frank Vignola?” “Nope.” Even my musician friends don’t know who Frank is. I subscribe to Guitar Player magazine, and he’s not someone you see there a lot. I only know about Frank because I’m a guitar nut.
Still, you hear this kind of music a lot–mostly in commercials. Johnny Depp plays it in the movie Chocolat. And Willie Nelson’s favorite guitar player is Django Reinhardt. Most people may not know much about the genre, but most old time metal and rock guys cite Django as a big love.
It’s physically demanding–not just a brain thing. It’s acoustic music played with the power of rock. You can’t be a wimp playing Gypsy jazz. It’s not for everybody, but I like it. And I can tell you Frank is one of the best guys playing it.</p>
With Vinny Raniolo
Thursday, Jan. 14 at 7:30pm
Tickets: $38, $48
Maui Arts and Cultural Center
1 Cameron Way, Kahului
Tom Conway plays a variety of gigs around Maui–for more information, check out TomConwayguitar.com.
Photo (L to R: Frank Vignola, Vinny Raniolo) courtesy Lazer Bear Productions