Is This Jazz? An Interview with Frank Potenza

 

Jazz guitarist and recent Rhode Island Music Hall Of Fame inductee Frank Potenza returns to the area to play Chan’s on September 22. To prepare for the gig, I asked him a few questions about his music and local ties.

Ben Shaw: What got you into jazz?

Frank Potenza: My father, Frank, had a record collection that included things like the Mills Brothers, Frank Sinatra, Count Basie, etc. He was an avid music fan who saw all the famous touring big bands when they came to New England. My mother, Twin, was the quintessential stage mom who loved music and the performing arts with a passion. The first piece of furniture that she had moved into her third floor tenement as a newlywed was an upright piano. She was self-taught and had great ears. She could pick out any song and play it by ear and as kids, we just thought she was a genius. My folks went to great lengths to make it possible for all of their children to study music and perform and I’ll be eternally grateful for their limitless encouragement and support.

BS: Was guitar always your chosen instrument?

FP: No. I took accordion lessons with Joe Petteruti at Twin City Music while I was in the first and second grade. My sister Norma took guitar lessons with Bob Petteruti at the same time. After she quit taking lessons, the guitar was laying around the house and I started trying to play it by ear. My cousin Jimmy is 11 years older than me and he was already out playing in club bands. He showed me a lot of cool stuff on guitar and got me totally hooked and I never looked back. But I really made the most significant progress during the years I studied with Tony Evangelista. He turned me on to a lot of great guitarists and ultimately got me ready to attend the Berklee College of Music. He was a terrific guy. Many years later I played at Allary (a Providence jazz club that I practically lived in for the last several years I was in town) as a featured soloist with the house trio that included Bob Petteruti on bass, Paul Schmeling on piano, and Artie Cabral on drums.

BS: What did it mean for you personally to be inducted into the RI Music Hall Of Fame?

FP: I was deeply touched by the experience and I truly appreciate the recognition. It’s an honor to be included among so many incredible musicians. I had the good fortune to rub elbows with many of the area’s most respected players when I was coming up – Art Pelosi, Dick Johnson, Diamond Centofanti, Hal Crook, Duke Bellaire, Tony and Joe Giorgianni, Paul Phillips, Ted Casher, Red Lennox, and on and on. I learned so much from working with them. They were extremely generous in sharing their time and their knowledge and I have many fond memories of my early years in the Providence music scene.

BS: What has it been like coming back to RI to play?

FP: I love coming home. All of my remaining immediate family members still live in Rhode Island, so it’s food for the soul to be back where I did pretty much everything for the first time. My in-laws live nearby too — and I don’t have to tell you how much I miss the great food here, do I? I gain a few pounds on every visit and I leave with as much as I can carry on my flight!

BS: What’s it like sharing the bandstand with your brother, bassist Joe Potenza?

FP: It’s a joy to make music with Joe, with my youngest brother Jery, and with all of my musician relatives. Being family adds a special closeness for sure and Joe has grown so much as a musician since I left in 1980 that I’m always knocked out with what he brings to the party.

BS: What new musical concepts have you been working on?

FP: I’ve been focusing on playing solo guitar concerts for the past several years. I still play in a number of trio and quartet formats and I’m singing a lot more these days, but my main obsession is to become a better solo guitarist. For me it’s the most challenging thing to do on the instrument.

BS: What can we look forward to hearing at Chan’s?

FP: The night before the Chan’s date I’ll be attending my 50th high school reunion – the Mount Pleasant High School, Class of 1968! That got me thinking about all the music from the years when I was a high school student and I realized that I’ve played and recorded a fair amount of those songs over the years. So, I’ll be doing my arrangements of things like California Dreamin’, Ode to Billie Joe, and a lot of other surprises. I can’t wait!

Visit chanseggrollsandjazz.com for tickets and information.

Ben Shaw is a local composer and performer. Find him at ahueofshaw.tumblr.com.

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