Seemingly ubiquitous and unquestionably tireless guitarist Jimmy Vivino has revived his sporadic Black Italians band bigtime, with a just-released album 13 Live, recorded late last year at Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock.
On Nov. 30, 2012, Vivino—also on piano and vocals–and vocalist Catherine Russell, harmonica player/vocalist Felix Cabrera, keyboardist/trombonist/vocalist Danny Louis, bassist Mike Merritt, drummer James Wormworth and percussionists Mike Jacobson and Fred Walcott performed a public rehearsal at the late Helm’s famed barn studio, then recorded 13 Live there in concert the next night.
The set included original songs by Vivino, the music director and leader of the Conan show’s house band as well as guitarist/vocalist of the Fab Faux and any number of other semi-regular and one-off groupings; it also featured cover tunes from the likes of Bob Dylan, James Brown, Traffic and Johnny Winter, ending with Vivino’s “Song For Levon” and The Band’s “Shape I’m In.”
Vivino formed the Black Italians 20 years ago around a residency at midtown Manhattan’s Downtime Music Bar where he, Merritt and Wormworth had been serving as the band for legendary Rock and Roll Hall of Fame pianist Johnnie Johnson. The gigs started attracting local and national touring musicians, who came in to jam on what Vivino calls “Third World blues with New Orleans swagger.”
As the musicians represented various ethnicities, he called them the Black Italians, a name, he explains, that signified their being “soulful cats.” The group lasted about two years, after which Vivino became too busy with his TV work.
Then last September, Vivino and John Sebastian, as Johnny & Jimmy, performed together at City Winery in Chicago.
“Jerry Del Giudice from Blind Pig Records showed up, and said, ‘How about doing a Black Italians record?,’” says Vivino. “It’s a blues label, but the band—and the album—is not strictly blues: We don’t want to be bagged as one thing but play everything with one sound. There’s a tip of the hat always to Little Feat, The Meters, The Neville Brothers and that New Orleans sound with all its percussion, and we can’t avoid the comparison to Santana. It’s a soul band!”
But what’s really great about 13 Live, says Vivino, “is that we did it!”
“That we could get eight people together from 30 years ago who are still alive at this time—all eight from the original lineup!” he marvels. “And it was a ‘revolving door’ kind of band, getting busy people to do something once a week—the dream band for the Downtime experience: Anybody in the neighborhood who was playing at the [nearby Madison Square] Garden would waltz in and we’d start at 10 p.m. and go to 3 a.m. It was a musicians’ destination and hang.”
“Those were the days of misbehaving, walking out with sunglasses on and feeling really bad about ourselves–and gearing up and doing it all again next week!” Vivino adds.
But it was a great band, too.
“A lot of these people have a lineage—and real soul roots–that’s apparent when you hear them play,” he notes.
“Felix is from Cuba, which is why we have three percussionists! He’s been around since the early ‘70s, and is a great musicologist. My next longstanding friend is Danny, who’s now with Gov’t Mule. The rhythm section of Mike and James were on my Johnnie Johnson journey, while Fred was percussionist for David Johansen. Catherine’s just a magical person: Her father Luis was Louis Armstrong’s piano player and arranger, and her mother Carline Ray was a great singer and bass player–so she comes from real royalty, same with Mike, whose father Jymie played bass for Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers.”
But the Black Italians is really all about “personalities,” Vivino says.
“That’s always been very important to me,” he says. “I don’t want to dictate the personality for the band, but have it come together through the players. The Black Italians is a band project that’s certainly not about me, or a ‘guitar wanking through’ project. It’s not Jeff Beck!”
Rather, evoking the host of the classic 1950s Sunday afternoon Super Circus children’s TV show, Vivino considers himself to be “pretty much Claude Kirchner—the ringmaster. I’m like a traffic cop directing traffic, and the ball can drop in anybody’s court at any time. That’s why there’s so many of us.”
And as Vivino has indicated, they’re all “students of all kinds of music,” whose mutual goal was “never intended to be anything but fun–and still was after 30 years when we got together at the barn.”
The band recorded 35 songs over the two nights.
“We reached into our pockets to see what came out,” analogizes Vivino. “Some of them had too much lint to use, but some were clean. They were all one take, with a couple original tunes and some great covers that meant a lot to me.”
He singles out Bob Dylan’s “From A Buick 6” and “Maggie’s Farm,” noting that Dylan is present “everywhere in my musical life”–and also represents a big part of New York’s music scene. Helm, too, is hugely significant.
“I feel like the last chapter I’m in began there in the barn with Levon,” says Vivino, who played with Helm countless times. “So it seemed fitting bringing the Black Italians together with the barn. Unfortunately, he wasn’t there, but I have stuff in the can with him and eventually it will come out.”
“But there’s some magic there in the wood—notes that went in there that stuck, and creep out while you’re playing,” he continues. “Everyone who ever played there is with you when you play, and it’s really a cathedral, like playing at the Ryman Auditorium, or visiting Graceland. You get the same feeling when you’re there—of being in somebody’s home that’s filled with love and music.”
The first video from 13 Live, fittingly, then, is a new version of “Song For Levon,” filmed last month in Tarrytown, N.Y., with Vivino singing and on piano, accompanied by guitarist Byron Isaacs.
“It is always a very emotional trip whenever I try to sing this song for Levon,” concludes Vivino.
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