Although it’s windy and cool outside the Grunin Performing Arts Academy in Toms River, NJ, this Sunday, March 27, 2022 afternoon, it’s warm and cozy inside as jazz lovers await a live concert performance by Frank Vignola and Vinny Raniolo.
Frank Vignola is a virtuoso guitarist who has performed with the likes of Madonna, Ringo Starr, Donald Fagan, Leon Redbone, Tommy Emmanuel, Jane Monheit, David Grisman, Mark O’Connor, Bucky Pizzarelli, and Les Paul. Vinny Raniolo is an in-demand guitarist who has appeared on public television and amassed such musical film credits as HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, Woody Allen’s Cafe Society, and Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman.
This afternoon’s event takes place inside the Grunin Performing Arts Academy’s recently dedicated Gia Maione Prima Studio Theater. The theater, located on the campus of Toms River’s Ocean County College, consists of an intimate black box performance space with rows of overhead stage lighting and three walls of pull-out tiered seating.
In a performance which is part of the Grunin Center’s Jazz On A Sunday Afternoon series, emcee Sanford Josephson welcomes the audience to today’s program and tells them about upcoming events before introducing the “melody magic” of Frank Vignola and Vinny Raniolo.
Vignola and Raniolo enter the performance space carrying their guitars. After calling out a welcoming “Hello” to the audience, they begin the show with a trio of songs by composer Richard Rodgers. Opening with an up-tempo Latin-inspired rendition of “It Might As Well Be Spring,” Raniolo deftly accompanies Vignola on his Collings cutaway acoustic as Vignola artfully plays the melody on his Gibson L-50 archtop.
As they percussively pick, strum, and chord together, the natural sound of their instruments rings out clearly in the performance space, putting smiles on the faces of patrons and setting many audience members’ toes to tapping.
Moving on to “Blue Moon,” Vignola is featured on the melody as Raniolo plays a walking bass part with chords before the guitarists switch and Raniolo handles the lead. In this intimate concert setting, audience members can see, hear, and almost feel every pick and strum along with the tapping of the musicians’ feet as they play.
Before starting the next number, several latecomers to the theater are seated as Vignola quips, “You didn’t miss much,” and without dropping a beat, the duo replays the first few bars of “It Might As Well Be Spring” and “Blue Moon” for the surprised patrons. Impressed audience members giggle and the duo launches into their third Rodgers’ selection, “My Favorite Things.” Arranged as a jazz waltz, Vignola strums and intricately fingerpicks the melody on his solo and Raniolo’s fingers spread across his fingerboard when he solos. The pair effectively utilizes dynamics to play softly and sweetly before crescendoing and picking up speed prior to the arrangement’s satisfying conclusion.
Following well-deserved bows, Vignola tells the audience about Richard Rodgers’ composing styles with collaborators Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II, revealing that Hart wrote lyrics to Rodgers’ music whereas Rodgers wrote music to Hammerstein’s lyrics. He goes on to introduce a medley of songs by Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim which not only includes “The Girl from Ipanema,” a bossa nova number on which the musicians intermittently pause and encourage the audience to vocalize the lyric, “Aah,” but also the well-known Jobim composition, “Wave.”
Next up is a trio of jazz standards including Tommy Dorsey’s “Getting Sentimental Over You,” on which Vignola’s fingers effortlessly fly over his fingerboard, and “September Song,” where audience members hum the melody on this happy-go-lucky country-sounding tune. Raniolo takes over the lead playing in octaves before handing it back to Vignola and the duo completes their trio of standards with Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust.”
Riffing on this classic composition, the musicians make their guitars sing as they turn the melody upside down and sideways. Vignola and Raniolo slide up, down, and around their fingerboards on this arrangement which leaves the crowd avidly applauding.
Vignola tells the audience that he and Raniolo have been working as a duo for ten years and have performed over 2000 shows together before joking, “We’ve still got it!” and the pair high-fives one another. A highlight of the afternoon immediately follows as the duo performs a medley of Spanish songs. Opening with “Concierto de Aranjuez,” a guitar concerto by Joaquín Rodrigo, jazz aficionados in the crowd recognize the piece as the basis for such other well-known jazz compositions as Chick Corea’s “Spain” and Miles Davis’ “Sketches of Spain.”
As they tackle the “Concierto,” Vignola’s rapid-fire finger flying elicits “wows” from the audience.
In the midst of playing fast as they decrescendo and then crescendo louder and louder, an audience member’s cellphone goes off playing the theme from The Godfather. Much to the audience’s surprise, Vignola and Raniolo begin to expertly play the theme along with the patron’s phone until it stops ringing and then go right back into “Concierto de Aranjuez” without missing a beat. Vignola takes a moment to joke, “As you can see, we take ourselves very seriously!” before the pair launches into Ernesto Lecuona’s well-known “Maleguena.” On this Spanish-sounding piece, the pace quickens and intensifies as the arrangement progresses. The musicians stamp their feet and Raniolo claps his hands overhead as Vignola plays at a furious pace. The audience quickly joins in on the clapping and the two musicians end the piece together to “bravos” as Vignola quips, “That’s how we get our cardio workout!”
Next up is a medley of Cole Porter tunes beginning with “Anything Goes,” on which Raniolo takes the lead to Vignola’s accompaniment and audience members softly sing the song’s lyrics from their seats. The duo segues into a quick and stylized arrangement of “Begin the Beguine,” a piece which Vignola initially describes as “a 100-measure song” before jokingly shouting out “Measure 31!” about a third of the way through the performance. A snappy version of “It’s Delovely” follows, and the duo ends with tremolo strumming while lifting their legs and wiggling their feet on a passionate rendition of “It’s Alright By Me.” As the crowd enthusiastically applauds, an audience member remarks out loud, “Wonderful!”
Vignola talks about the duo’s time working with well-known guitarists Les Paul and Bucky Pizzarelli, and the pair follows up with a medley of songs associated with these artists. Included are a sweet, gentle version of “It’s Been a Long, Long Time,” a beautiful arrangement of “Via Con Dios,” and an upbeat and jazzy performance of “How High the Moon.” The pair ends this segment with “That’s All” — a song Vignola calls “one of my favorites” — which has patrons in the audience delightedly humming along to the pair’s inviting sound.
Following hearty applause, Vignola addresses the audience inquiring, “So how are you? Are you enjoying?” to which the crowd replies with avid hand-clapping. Vignola reveals that in addition to his partner’s musical skills, Vinny Raniolo is a trained pilot who started flying jets during the pandemic. Here, Raniolo wows the audience with his clear tone and precise guitar playing on a solo version of “Come Fly with Me.”
The crowd whistles and cheers as the duo recombines for a musical segment which commences with Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade.” Fingers fly and the music swirls around the performance space on this up-tempo arrangement. Vignola gently plucks his guitar eliciting ringing tones as Raniolo sturdily accompanies him. Then, the pair launches into yet another highlight of the afternoon as they segue into a “hold-on-to-your-seats” rendition of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee,” both musicians playing at lightning speed before ending with a flourish. The crowd responds with hoots, hollers, and a standing ovation for these tremendously talented musicians.
As we make our way out of the theater, we catch up with Frank Vignola who is out in the lobby chatting with fans. Remarks Vignola about the afternoon’s experience, “This is such a wonderful venue, and it’s fun to be back playing in front of people again!” Recalling, “Before the pandemic, we were playing with symphony orchestras — at the Sydney Opera House we even danced to Swan Lake on stage,” Vignola also comments on the nature of his partnership with Raniolo when he points out, “We’ve played thousands of shows together over the past ten years and that’s what explains our musical chemistry.”
Next, we chat with Vinny Raniolo who acknowledges, “It’s a lot of fun playing with Frank! We’ve done about 2000 shows together, and I feel so fortunate to be able to play these gigs.” Continuing, “We have great fans who support us and it’s great to be back playing and seeing everyone so enthusiastic about hearing live music again,” Raniolo concludes by noting, “It was wonderful playing in this very cozy and intimate venue — it really lifted my spirits.”
In addition, we chat with several audience members who share their opinions of this afternoon’s performance. Whereas Bob from Lakewood calls today’s show, “Very entertaining,” Dorothy from Toms River exclaims, “Wow! Frank Vignola and Vinny Raniolo were fantastic — beyond fabulous! Their talent is amazing and they were so enjoyable, I want to hear them again.”
Mary from Toms River calls today’s concert, “Terrific,” explaining, “I recognized all the songs, and it was so entertaining!” Vicky from Toms River agrees, describing it as “a wonderful show, and so easy to listen to,” while Karen from Manchester contends, “Frank Vignola and Vinny Raniolo were spectacular — they played familiar music, but in a different way, and I loved it.”
Andi from Toms River acknowledges, “After the pandemic, it’s been so great to hear live music again! The guitar leads were amazing, and the sound was so good, too, in this intimate venue.” Marcus from Beachwood describes today’s show as “Phenomenal!” confessing, “I listen to jazz CDs all the time, but since there aren’t too many local outlets for jazz, getting to hear live jazz so close to home was a real treat.”
Lastly, we chat with Joanne from Westfield who exclaims, “How refreshing it was to have a whole afternoon of great music! I loved that they played acoustic instruments — the sound was so pure,” before concluding with a grin, “You don’t often get to hear real music played that way so, today, I really got my happiness fix!”
For information on Frank Vignola, please go to frankvignola.com. To learn more about Vinny Raniolo, click on vinnyraniolo.com. For info on upcoming performances at the Grunin Performing Arts Center — including The Charlie Appicella Trio on May 22 — please to go to grunincenter.org.
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