The lively Frank Vignola is bringing something new to The Minstrel, June 16: A near-death perspective

Frank Vignola Trio
Frank Vignola Trio
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Want to bring your life into sharp focus?

Smash your All Terrain Vehicle into a tree.

“You find out who your friends are when something like this happens,” said guitar great Frank Vignola, who learned he has legions of friends after the accident that nearly killed him on his upstate New York property in March 2017.

He will thank many of them this Saturday, June 16, 2018, in Morris Township at The Minstrel, his first New Jersey gig since his muddy dinnertime spin out more than a year ago.

FRUSTRATED BALLET DANCERS? Watch the video of Vinny Raniolo and Frank Vignola and judge for yourself. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
STILL KICKING: Frank Vignolo, right, pictured with Vinny Raniolo at The Minstrel in 2013, is returning after a near-fatal crash. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Five mph faster, he figures, and trio mates Vinny Raniolo and Gary Mazzaroppi would have been playing a memorial show this weekend.

Fortunately, they are part of a comeback that may rank with the legendary second acts in guitar history.

Les Paul ordered doctors to set his splintered arm in permanent strumming position after a car wreck. Pat Martino re-learned his instrument after amnesia from an aneurysm. Django Reinhardt, Vignola’s hero, re-invented himself as a three-fingered sensation after a fire mangled his fretting hand.

Vignola, 52, sustained eight broken bones, with collapsed lungs, internal bleeding and a concussion from the impact that split his helmet in two.

Doctors inserted a titanium plate to hold his arm together. Then it got infected. “It was a dirty accident,” Vignola explained. He endured four surgeries, with this disclaimer from doctors:

“Worst-case scenario, we take your right arm off.”

Recuperation has been grueling. For six weeks he could not lay down to sleep. Getting off the couch required all his strength. Playing guitar? He could not even make a sandwich. The ordeal was a crash-course in left-handedness.

He canceled nearly 100 shows. Gone, too, he said, were the impish looks that had been a trademark. He joked about writing a self-help tome: How to Age 10 Years in One Year.

Those are merely the facts. One thing you won’t hear from Frank Vignola is a complaint.

“Considering what happened, I feel like the luckiest guy in the world,” he said.

His wife Kate and sons Max, Jack, Luke and Leo helped buoy his spirits through physical rehab–which he insisted on doing without prescription painkillers. Raniolo, Vignola’s guitar protégé, was a regular visitor. Mazzaroppi was supportive. Cards and emails poured in from all over.

Vignola gushes like Paterson’s Great Falls praising his care from nurses and physicians after being medevaced to St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center.

GUITAR SUMMIT: From left: Frank Vignola, Bucky Pizzarelli, Ed Laub and Gene Bertoncini, at the 2013 Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
GUITAR SUMMIT: From left: Frank Vignola, Bucky Pizzarelli, Ed Laub and Gene Bertoncini, at the 2013 Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

He is especially grateful to surgeon Robert Masella. (“He looks like the ‘Lost Pizzarelli,'” Vignola cracked, referring to New Jersey’s royal family of jazz). The doctor’s attention to detail included piping Vignola recordings from Spotify into the operating room, the musician said.

Anyone who has seen Vignola’s animated stage act knows what an antsy character he is. Down time was a new experience. It could have been as devastating as the injury.

“The attitude is everything in this situation. You have a choice: To get depressed, or make yourself better,” he said.

It was not a wasted opportunity. To sustain his family, Vignola continued giving online video instruction–editing out his moans of pain. (His lightning riffs were a lot slower, which students probably appreciated, he acknowledged.) He taught himself Charlie Parker hits, and got immersed in Leonard Bernstein’s glorious Young People’s Concert series.

Vignola’s right arm still cannot lift a guitar case. Yet miraculously, he professes to play pain-free. In some ways, he feels even better than before. Bursitis in his shoulder has vanished, he said.

The toughest adjustment has not been physical at all, asserted Vignola, who has eased back onstage with a handful of shows.

(His February comeback at Les Paul’s old haunt, Iridium, drew a huge crowd, usually a challenge for Vignola in New York. “I have to hit a freaking tree to get them out?” he deadpanned.)

“I didn’t want to get too crazy. There’s a whole emotional side to getting back out there. When you face death like that, there’s an emotional side that takes over, getting back to something you love doing so much,” said Vignola, who has performed with Madonna, Ringo Starr and Tommy Emmanuel, among other stars.

Frank Vignola, left, and Al Caiola share a laugh at the Sanctuary. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Frank Vignola, left, and the late Al Caiola share a laugh at the Sanctuary in 2015. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

He said he is eager to return to The Minstrel; he is a favorite there, and at First Night Morris County, and the late, great Sanctuary Concerts in Chatham.

Still, staring down his mortality has made him re-think his peripatetic career.

“I realized I didn’t enjoy being on the road 200 days a year. I did it because it was there. People get caught up in it, and do and do and do. I didn’t want to do that anymore. I want to see my kids grow up.

“I’d go away for six months and come back, and they’re bigger. And then a call would come. ‘Want to go to Russia for three weeks?’ ‘Sure!’

“I realize there has to be a better balance in my life, while still taking my career to the next level,” Vignola said. Everyone can benefit from some long, hard reflection, he now believes.

But you will have to find your own ATV.

“I got rid of all that stuff,” Vignola said.

MORE ABOUT FRANK VIGNOLA

The Frank Vignola Trio, with opener Windborne, comes to The Minstrel in Morris Township at 7:30 pm on Saturday, June 16, 2018. Tickets: $10, plus voluntary contribution. Children 12 and under, free. At the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship, 21 Normandy Heights Road.

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