Johnny Frigo

Happy Birthday, Johnny. And while we’re on the subject, how does an 80-year-old man, recently recovered from bouncing off a car and onto the sidewalk, continue to play jazz violin with a dexterity and facility that musicians half his age can’t quite attain? Frigo spent a good part of his professional career as a jobbing bassist, putting in time with the big bands of Jimmy Dorsey and Chico Marx (!) in the 1940s and the Soft Winds trio in the 50s, when he composed the smoky hit ballad “Detour Ahead” and the kicky “I Told Ya I Love Ya, Now Get Out.” Then, after returning to the violin (his first love), he emerged as one of the most exemplary improvisers on that instrument. His style, dazzling and even flirtatious, is a bit of a hybrid: it falls somewhere between the rough and tumble might of Joe Venuti and the precision craftsmanship of Stephane Grappelli. And his fingers remain surprisingly spry, enabling him to negotiate the trickiest rococo ornamentations, to produce a true and sweet intonation, and to swing as hard as his surroundings dictate. (In the world today only Grappelli–the greatest jazz violinist in history–surpasses Frigo as a swing-era-style improviser.) He also has a relentless sense of humor, which he delivers with perfect deadpan–verbally as well as musically, as he innocently tosses in comically inappropriate quotes worthy of Spike Jones. For what has become his annual birthday gig, he’ll play with a quartet comprising his son Rick on drums, his forever partner Joe Vito on piano, and the endlessly inventive bassist Larry Gray. Saturday, 8 PM, Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway; 773-878-5552. Frigo and Vito also play as a duo every Monday, 8 and 10 PM, Toulouse Cognac Bar, 2140 N. Lincoln Park West; 773-665-9071. NEIL TESSER

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Johnny Frigo photo.