Live Jazz: Grand Opening of Guitar Night at Vitello’s

By Don Heckman

The new John Pisano Guitar Night series kicked off with a bang Tuesday night at Vitello’s in Studio City.  Notice that I did not say “Upstairs” at Vitello’s.  Although the venue’s upstairs room has been rapidly emerging as one of L.A.’s prime jazz destinations, Pisano opted for a more intimate downstairs lounge with a bar, believing that it has the right vibe to perpetuate Guitar Night’s long established, laid-back jam session environment.

Frank Potenza and John Pisano

It will no doubt have that laid-back quality on future Tuesday nights.  But there were bigger plans in mind for the opening, with the room packed to the gills with jazz fans eager to experience and be part of, a memorable event.   Pisano structured the program around a tribute to Joe Pass – the ultimate guitarists’ guitarist – with Frank Potenza as the initial featured artist.  Bassists Jim Hughart and Chris Connor (later in the set) and drummer Enzo Tedesco provided sturdy support.  By the time the evening was over, well past the scheduled closing time, more than a dozen of L. A.’s finest six string exponents had offered a sample of their impressive musical wares.

In the process, several aspects of the importance of what Guitar Night has come to mean over the 12 years of its existence were illuminated.  The first was its insistent affirmation of the growing credibility of the jazz guitar, at a time when the instrument has been viewed by many from a very different — louder, more electric — perspective.  Coming to the genre as a significant player much later than the horns, piano and drums, co-opted by the rockers in the ‘50s, ’60s and beyond, its jazz authority has been maintained by a relatively slim line of master players (compared to the trumpeters, the saxophonists, etc.).  Pass, of course, was one of the most important.  But the collection of guitarists on stage Tuesday night – reaching from the veteran Bob Bain to twenty-something Andreas Oberg, (with a substantial number of players still waiting to perform when the program came to a close) — underscored the extent to which the instrument has become a solid, jazz citizen.

Anthony Wilson, Enzo Tedesco and Andreas Oberg

There was, in addition, the far-reaching display of the guitar’s jazz versatility.  Despite the fact that no fusion or smooth jazz surfaced during the program, and that there was very little blues (aside from Phil Upchurch’s delightful take on “The St. Louis Blues” and a hard swinging romp between Potenza and Carl Verheyen), it was nonetheless a performance rich with highly personal improvisational perspectives.  In the opening set, Pisano and Potenza moved easily from funk and bossa nova to Django Reinhardt’s “Nuages.”  Barry Zwieg’s “And I Thought About You,” Larry Koonse’s “How Much Do I Love You?” Jamie Rosenn’s “Body and Soul” and Tom Rotella’s “Just Friends” offered far-ranging views of how to bring imaginative interpretations to American Songbook standards.

Other pieces revealed one of Guitar Night’s most vital aspects – the musical sparks that can fly when a pair of guitarists, either similar or dissimilar in style, encounter each other in a jam situation.  Pat Kelly and Potenza’s take on “It Could Happen To You” was a highly charged encounter between a pair of players whose inventiveness triggered fascinatingly compatible interaction.  And a pair of Anthony Wilson duets led to strikingly different musical adventures.  First, an animated romp through a Reinhardt tune with Pisano.  Then, in a marvelously engaging final number, a provocative set of atmospheric exchanges with Oberg.

Ultimately, of course, Guitar Night comes down to John Pisano, to his persistence in keeping the franchise alive, to his remarkable ability to creatively adapt his playing to whomever guitar player is sitting in the seat across from him.  And he couldn’t have found a better way to announce to the world in general, and jazz fans in particular, that Guitar Night is alive and well.  Even more, that – at Vitello’s — it seems to be starting on a path toward bigger and better accomplishments.

Photos by Faith Frenz

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