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AN ECLECTIC ENSEMBLE

Jimmy Vivino reunites Black Italians to record concert album

Jimmy Vivino and the Black Italians.jpg

Just like he does today, guitarist/singer Jimmy Vivino had a lot going on musically around 1992-93.

Back then, he and brother Jerry Vivino were working on their Chitlins Parmigiana album. He was in rehearsals with the other members of The Max Weinberg 7 for the debut of TV’s Late Night With Conan O’Brien show.

Jimmy Vivino also had a regular gig at Manhattan’s Downtime bar with the rotating collective known as The Black Italians. It gave him the opportunity to play “Third World blues with New Orleans swagger” once a week with “the perfect mix of Italians, Cubans, Jews and Afro-Americans.”

“We stopped as I got busier and busier,” Vivino says. “I couldn’t do every Tuesday night anymore after work and play until five in the morning. I had to stop for sanity and health and everything else.”

Thanks to a label executive with a good memory, Vivino recently had a chance to gather up The Black Italians and record a reunion concert.

Last year, Vivino — currently the music director/band leader for O’Brien’s TBS show and a member of the Beatles tribute band The Fab Faux — was in Chicago to play a gig at the new City Winery. In attendance that night was Blind Pig Records executive and Vivino friend Jerry Del Giudice.

After the show, Del Giudice made a surprise pitch: Why don’t we record The Black Italians? Vivino couldn’t believe his ears.

“I’m like, ‘You’re pulling my leg. This is a joke. Somebody put you up to this,’ ” Vivino recalls. “He said, ‘No, I really want to record The Black Italians. I’ve heard so much about it. It’s kind of legendary.’ And I said, ‘I’m not really looking to do any kind of record project. But if it was The Black Italians, I’m interested because we never documented it.’ ”

The first step, Vivino says with a laugh, was to “see if everyone’s alive.” He didn’t have to look too hard to find bassist Mike Merritt and drummer James Wormworth, fellow members of Vivino’s Basic Cable Band for O’Brien’s show. After Vivino secured commitments from singer Catherine Russell, harmonica player/singer Felix Cabrera, keyboardist Danny Louis, percussionist Mike Jacobson and timbales player Fred Walcott, The Black Italians convened at Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock, N.Y., for two days in late 2012 to rehearse, then record the show that would become the Blind Pig album 13 Live.

“I couldn’t overthink it much because we weren’t really going to have a rehearsal; we were going to have a night of recollection and a night of reflection after that,” Vivino says. “I did have a rough draft [for a set list], and then it changed because people would remind me of songs.

“ ‘Fat Man,’ the first song, we used to open with that all the time, so all I had to do was play it, and everybody fell into line. I wrote ‘Song for Levon’ on the plane. This is a band that’s not afraid to try anything or not afraid to not know what’s coming. There were some things we obviously worked on; Johnny Winter’s ‘Fast Life Rider’ doesn’t really come off the top of your head.

“[Bob Dylan’s] ‘From a Buick 6’ was the last thing we played [at our public rehearsal], just off the top of my head. I started playing the ‘Last Train to Clarksville’ riff, and I thought, ‘This kind of fits ‘From a Buick 6,’ and it just turned into that.”

13 Live, Vivino says, is “an honest representation of what we would do in the club. It’s a band, not so much a solo album. It’s not a guitar album — surprise! It’s really an ensemble, and that was the beauty of that band.”

So, does the release of 13 Live mean there’s a future for The Black Italians?

“We have the luxury of waiting another 20 years to make the next record,” Vivino says, laughing. “It’s so hard for us all to get together unless I feel like throwing myself a party and paying for everybody to get there. It’s possible that we will play together again, but the fact is, this [album] is kind of a document of something that might not ever happen again, and that I certainly didn’t think ever would, so we’re already ahead of the game.”

— By Chris M. Junior