Imagine you are a technically gifted acoustic guitarist. You can play anything you hear and even improvise on it. A Bach Partitia for solo violin? No problem playing it on a six-string. You can even add flourishes here and there for pizzazz. Mozart? A great artist to jam with. Broadway scores and standards? Child’s play; maybe have a female vocalist provide color by singing the lyrics while you strum. Louis Armstrong or Latin jazz? Sure thing, swinging rhythms make the picking more fun. Heck, you get so bored by what’s out there that you compose your own tunes just to show off your stuff. Such is the case with guitarist Frank Vignola. He’s a gifted performer who seems able to play guitar in whatever style he wants.
Frank’s partner, percussionist Joe Ascione, provides the kind of accompaniment most guitarists dream of. He’s unobtrusively in the pocket; the kind of drummer one usually doesn’t hear until he stops hitting the skins. Then one realizes that beat in the back of one’s head came from somewhere. While Frank can get flashy, strumming at the speed of light on a tune like the untitled bonus cut that closes the album, Joe tends to take it nice and easy. For example, his intro to the Rodgers and Hart tune “Manhattan” sets the right tone and tempo for guest vocalist Jane Monheit before the other instrumentalists join it. The sparse arrangement is so darn nice one wishes the song remained a duet between the singer and the drummer.
Other highlights include The Frank & Joe Show’s gentle instrumental take on the Georges Boulanger / Jimmy Kennedy chestnut “My Prayer” (best known in its vocal harmony incarnations by groups like the Ink Spots and The Platters), a playful and spirited cover of Osvaldo Farrés’s “Quizas” and a Latin-tinged version of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s “It Might as Well Be Spring”. Frank plucks the guitar strings with precision and something more. On these cuts he’s more than just technically proficient. His guitar work brings out the subtle accents of the music and shows the richness inherent in seemingly simple melodies. Joe’s drumming complements Frank’s contributions, and the two employ a top notch band (that includes Mark Egan on bass, Dave Valentin on flute, and Ken Smith on rhythm guitar; among others) to help fill the musical spaces.
On the down side, sometimes Frank and Joe seem to playing only for their own benefit, especially on the self-written material and the classical pieces. Tunes like the self-penned “After Hours” and “Mozart Jam” tend to be showy in the look how fast or complicated I can play mode more than as interesting pieces of music. Still, the original “City Samba” has a cheerful eloquence. And the Franz Liszt inspired “Hungarian Dance, No. 5” has a playful if not downright silly edge. So it isn’t a straightforward matter of the band not performing its own material or shying away from classical compositions. The players are too talented for such a simple analysis. But on the whole, the more modest the ambitions, the more rewarding the listening.
The old standard “Glow Worm” provides a great example of this. Guest vocalist Janis Siegel sings the lead, and apparently through the use of overdubs, harmonizes with herself. Her splendid articulation diverts the listener from the sparkling music flowing underneath. But Frank’s Django Reinhart-style choppy accompaniment creates a merry backdrop that also keeps perfect time. And Joe’s brushwork never misses a beat and perfectly accents the rhythm. The tight instrumentation actually drives Siegel’s singing and takes her gently through the paces and propels her forward. The seemingly relaxed pace never lags and makes the lyric’s humorous sexual innuendos more coy and provocative in the did she just say that mode.
Most importantly, The Frank and Joe Show always seem to be having a good time. The musicianship may be serious, but the band performs the material with wit and positive energy. There’s not a sad or somber tune on the disc. They even perform the wistful “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans” as a song that invokes pleasant memories rather than heartaches. That’s not an easy thing to do. So if you’re looking for something sweet to lift your spirits, this disc is meant for you.