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Jimmy Vivino may be best known as Conan O’Brien’s musical director and leader of The Basic Cable Band on late night TV. It’s a gig he’s been working (albeit under Max Weinberg’s leadership until his recent departure) since Conan first debuted on NBC in 1993 as David Letterman’s replacement.
Just before he started working in television over 20 years ago, Vivino formed his band The Black Italians and held a residency at the famed Downtime Music Bar on West 30th Street in New York City. The group served as the house band for legendary pianist Johnnie Johnson (Chuck Berry’s co-writer and pianist). The music was so hot, that famous local and national touring musicians flocked to their shows to jam with Johnson and the Black Italians. Vivino describes the wild mixture of music and musicians as “Third World blues with New Orleans swagger.” He jokingly dubbed the communal group of musicians of various ethnicities as “The Black Italians”, which he says simply means that they were all “soulful cats.” The Downtime Bar residency ended after two years, once Vivino became too busy working on Conan’s show.
On November 20, 2012, the band reformed for a live show and recording at the late Levon Helm’s studio/performance space in Woodstock, NY. It proved to be a first-rate undertaking that reflects the same diversity as Vivino’s original Black Italians from the early ‘90s.
Vivino, who handles the guitars and vocals and contributed several original songs, leads a multi-piece band through rave-ups, blues ballads and straight up jamming. All are notable players at the top of their game, however, these Black Italians are not trying to outdo one another; they work very much as a unit to keep a groove together nicely.
Vivino shares vocal duties throughout with knockout singer Catherine Russell, who sounds sexy and sassy on “Soulful Dress”. On Vivino’s own slow blues, “Fool’s Gold”, a torch song about facing life’s regrets, Russell releases a slow burn of emotion that rises to challenge and complement Vivino’s guitar.
Vivino is again complemented on his Chuck Berry-influenced composition, “Heaven In A Pontiac” by the swinging rhythms of drummer James Wormsworth, Mike Jacobson (congas, percussion) and Fred Walcott (timbales, percussion). Keyboardist Danny Louis appropriately adds his ivory pounding Johnnie Johnson style to the rockin’ road song.
A little more than halfway through their set, the group pulls out a respectfully improvised version of Traffic’s”Light Up Or Leave Me Alone”, again accentuated by Vivino’s dynamic guitar and Danny Louis’ versatile keyboards.
Russell takes over lead vocals again on one of the show’s highlights, James Brown’s “What Do I Have To Do (To Prove My Love To You)”. She soars along with the entire band, particularly Felix Cabrera’s harp, Danny Louis’ trombone and Mike Merritt’s bass guitar, which is finally showcased.
The Black Italians put their own spin on two Bob Dylan songs. “From A Buick 6” drives full speed ahead with a hard blues-rock groove to Dylan’s gritty lyrics. Their version of “Maggie’s Farm” takes the listener out of the country and smack into uptown with an arrangement featuring congas, a blues harp and a healthy chorus shouting: “No, No, MORE!”
The hip-shaking groove of “Animalism,” an original co-written by Felix Cabrera, sounds like Talking Heads meets War, thanks to Cabrera’s bluesy harmonica as the lead instrument, backed by the band’s hot Latin rhythm section and Louis’ punchy, quirky keyboards.
Appropriately, the group winds down with Vivino’s soulful “Song For Levon”, with the poignant lyric, “It ain’t what you take with you, it’s what you leave behind”.
They close things out with a rollicking version of The Band’s “The Shape I’m In”. No doubt they chose this tune to doubly honor Levon Helm, the third member of The Band to pass on; it’s most appropriate and closes a fine, memorable live album by an outstanding group that we are glad to see has reunited.
Source: JIMMY VIVINO & THE BLACK ITALIANS - 13 Live
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1955-01-10 to ?