Frank Vignola, Vinny Raniolo wreak ‘Melody Magic,’ tripping through familiar covers
Frank Vignola and Vinny Raniolo have put out a fun album of distinctively familiar covers done in the most unlikely fashion. These guitarists — one a seasoned professional, the other just staring out — whip through classical and pop pieces like giddy little schoolboys, at times trying to beat speed records, and at others really trying to factor in as much of the core melody in lingering, lasting bits.
Their first album together is called Melody Magic, out on Azica Records/Naxos Of America since January 29, 2013. It’s a fitting title, because melody is what these two fine guitarists hone in on every time — even when the going gets a touch goofy. “Eye Of The Tiger!” “Walking On The Moon!” “If I Fell — Here There And Everywhere!”
With special guest artists Julien LaBro (accordion), Zach Brock (violin), Mark Egan (bass guitar), Cassidy Holden and Mat Wigdon (double bass), the one-two punch of Vignola and Raniolo does the trick.
Vignola takes charge throughout most of the tracks, using his ear for the swing in melody, with finesse and flourish — a tricky balance. He uses the guitar as the central figure in the music, but never makes it something it’s not. With every stroke and pluck, it’s plain to hear his pure love for the instrument. This is a professional who knows how to make the guitar shine through a variety of genres.
Born in Long Island as a child prodigy, Vignola quickly found his grounding in jazz, classical music, rock, pop, and R&B, admiring and following an equally eclectic group of artists such as Frank Zappa, Les Paul, Django, and Eddie Van Halen. His work as a sideman for Madonna, Ringo Starr, and Leon Redbone deepened that versatility and broadened his musical scope.
In 1988, Vignola stepped into the role of a band leader when he took a deeper look at the Hot Club Of France, a tribute to gypsy jazz that gained major favor from the New York Times and led to a Django Hot Club copycat band resurgence. By 1993, at age 27, Vignola was more than ready to start making records with Concord Jazz and his first effort as a leader in Appel Direct.
He would go on to gig with one of his idols, Les Paul, as his side man business amped up, backing Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, Queen Latifah, Wynton Marsalis, and Mark O’Connor.
He broadened his reach, from gypsy jazz, pop, and rock to Gershwin in a collection of recordings. Vignola Plays Gershwin hit #2 on jazz radio. And he began only recently to collaborate in duets, with Tommy Emmanuel (“Just Between Frets”) and David Grisman (“Frank-N-Dawg, Melody Monsters”).
His most recent duet, with guitarist newcomer Vinny Raniolo, takes classical, rock, and pop pieces and wreaks Melody Magic.
From straightforwardly exquisite — “Swan Lake Suite, Scene 1” — to downright goofy — Survivor’s “Eye Of The Tiger” (from Rocky III), most of Vignola’s arrangements work.
Everyone’s heard most of these songs. But not everyone’s heard them done quite like Vignola and Raniolo does them. “Swan Lake Suite, Op. 20 a: 1. Scene” is already lyrical, soft and lilting, a classic masterpiece denoting the fragility of nature and first love. In Vignola’s hands, the fragility takes on a slightly masculine tone with a funky, sloping after-effect, married to the expansive, tentative, contemplative elongation of notes.
Kansas’ “Dust In The Wind” was a smooth, rock opera from 1977, all pensive vocals in a minor chord setting. Vignola arranged his cover to be lighter, almost a smooth jazz radio play, were it not for the furtive, fragrant notes of jazz amplifying a dramatic, larger-than-life soundtrack feel. While Kansas originally meant for the song to play as a sort of meditative dirge, Vignola wants it to soar, as he takes the core melody and pushes it — through his magic two-man guitar orchestra — higher and higher, until hope takes over completely.
The Police’s 1979 song, “Walking On The Moon,” sounds quite offbeat and alternative to the average pop audience. With liberal swaths of reggae and strange lyrics having nothing to do with falling in love, it definitely stood alone in its time. Fans of Police and its band leader/songwriter Sting, however, knew toe-tapper when they heard this song. They reveled in its strange, hypnotic chord pattern that almost bordered on K.C. And The Sunshine Band repetitious. (Sting wrote this particular number while drunk out of his mind, trying to walk but walking in circles in his Munich hotel room.)
Vignola amplifies the reggae even further, then embellishes the lines with crystal-clear notes that favor the warmth of the 1960s-70s Jobim-laced pop, some 1930s gypsy jazz, and a touch of avant-garde jazz with shades of Zappa in its fanciful, mid-stream flights. He takes a strange song with a stupid title (by Sting’s own admission), and transforms it into a mind-blowing, easy-listening, but fuller-bodied jazz-fusion piece that seems to come from nowhere and everywhere at once. Most notably, he makes Sting look like a freaking genius.
The most beautiful rendition of the “Peer Gynt Suite №1, Op. 46: I. Morning Mood” is found in this album. Vignola and his band take the haunting, melody of the Baby Boomers’ soundtrack and just flick the light switch on. The romantic melody’s brighter, lovelier, and catchier.
In the end, that’s Frank Vignola and Vinny Raniolo’s Melody Magic. They’re able to beef up already memorable melodies and sustain the artistry throughout while remaining a mysterious kind of jazz fusion.
Review first appeared in Examiner July 15, 2013.