“Published Aug. 10, 2006 at 5:10 a.m.
Of course, there are plenty of humble and unassuming musicians, but Milwaukee jazz bassist Frank Tarantino Jr. is nevertheless a breath of fresh air. Modest, self-deprecating and genuinely eager -- to say nothing of his sharp wit -- after more than two decades, to improve his skills and his music.
I've been working in a factory for 30 years and I still have that same dream of being a competent bassist and I still ask to 'let me be frank,'" he writes on his Web site. "I am a neophyte -- a novice -- in this great world of wonderful truly original music and I only hope to pay homage to all who love this music.
Tarantino, 55, released his first CD as a leader a few months back and it showcases not only his skills as a bass player, but also as a singer on a couple tunes. It also records him in his most comfortable setting: with the musicians who have become his friends and bandmates over the past 20-odd years: guitarist Gary Williams, drummer Mike Murphy and pianist Theo Merriwether.
The music on "Let Me Be Frank" is wide-ranging, including readings of Charles Mingus' "Nostalgia In Times Square," Horace Silver's "Sister Sadie" and Duke Pearson's "Jeanine," alongside vocal-laced renditions of Bobby Hebb's 1966 hit "Sunny" and standards like "Fly Me to the Moon" and "Moonlight in Vermont.
We recently asked him about his career and the record.
OMC: Maybe you can tell us a bit about your musical background.
FT: I grew up in a musical family as far as mom and dad sang in church and dad sang light opera with The Shorewood Light Opera Company. I went to St. Peter & Paul's grade school and met Sister Gabriel Mary. She's the one who I really owe it to, but that is a whole long story. We had a piano at home; my sister Louise took piano, I took accordion. You know, Italian boy.
The accordion didn't work out but I wanted to play bass from the first time I heard and saw one. So messed around with basement and garage bands. I was always singing everything I heard. Dad loved Frank Sinatra and mom loved Ella (Fitzgerald), Dinah Washington, Sarah (Vaughan) and on and on.
Having some basics from St. Gabriel Mary then going to St. John Cathedral High -- music was a requirement for freshmen -- was a great starting point. I really didn't get serious until I met Lynn Roginski at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. She introduced me to Hal Miller, who introduced me to Don Linke and so forth. So I studied with Hal, Tony King, Don, Tom Megirr and Gary Williams.
OMC: Is this your first record?
FT: Yes this is my first recording.
OMC: How did you assemble your team?
All of us have been working together for quite a while now. I think Mike Murphy and I have worked together 25 years. Theo (for) 10-12 and Gary 20. For the most part, this is the band. Obviously in the music world everyone must work as much with whomever as possible ... but these gentlemen are my guys.
OMC: You say on the record that the musicians didn't know the tunes in advance. Had you selected them in advance and did you all choose them together from a pool of songs?
FT: I worked the list of songs myself first by choosing my own favorites. Then I would bring the songs to gigs and we would play them and I could try different arrangements. Then when I found an arrangement I liked, I worked on that alone till the next gig. So when it came time to do the project I knew what worked.
I have found that it is fresher to just play the tune then let someone know and get something preconceived in there head. I remembered an interview with Bill Evans talking about how fresh and spontaneous it will keep the music. We only did two takes of two tunes and I found out after the pressing that we still took the first takes of thoughts two tunes also, that was kind of cool.
OMC: It's an interesting selection of material, with the Mingus and Duke Pearson tunes alongside standards like "Fly Me to the Moon" and "Moonlight in Vermont" and a pop tune, "Sunny," by Bobby Hebb.
FT: Well I think that comes from music in abundance. We all hear and have heard music everywhere and even in the early days of far less media the pop tunes of the day became the great jazz standards of today. So my influences have been all over the map, you know: Gilbert and Sullivan (Shorewood Light Opera) to Zappa to Johnny Hartman to Paul Chambers.
Mingus was someone Lynn brought me to. Pearson always has an R&B feel for me. "Fly Me to the Moon," well, if you're an Italian boy you best be doing a Frankie tune. "Moonlight" is another Lynn tune but also Johnny Smith. Man, what a guitar; that sound.
Now "Sunny" is my little secret. Not even the band knew until after the pressing, in jazz there is a form or section called "fours" where solos are taken in four bars each i.e. guitar four, drums four, piano four, drums four always going to the drummer. Well I've known this tune "Sunny" since it came out and if you listen to it close you will hear during the last verse the band is playing fours while I sing through the last verse. It was just my way of having fun with the band and being Frank.
OMC: How did you approach the lyrics on the tunes like some of those mentioned above? Some of them seem mostly instrumental but with a bit of singing in the mid-sections.
FT: I look at the vocalist as another instrument, I know, duh, but I just didn't want another vocal song -- i.e. singer, guitar break, piano and back to that singer. I also have done so many duo and solo gigs that it brings a different flavor to the arrangements and it's so cool to see peoples reaction … who's singing?
OMC: Are you working on another record?
FT: I am it's in the very first stages at this time. I can say this much, it will be solo, duo, trio and quartet.
OMC: Do you play gigs often?
FT: Not enough to stop the day gig yet but God willing. I'll play with Theo at his house gig Moceans, Gary and I are at Ozaukee Country Club every Friday. Mike has a house gig at Henry and Wanda's in Racine and we try to show up. And of course freelance as much as possible. We are in the rotation at Trocadero. Other than that nothing steady and public.
- Bobby Tanzilo