This saxman is more than meets the ear...
by Andrea Conley
It’s just past 11:00 on a damp, chilly Saturday night in Dallas, Texas. But inside a small, East Coast-inspired jazz café, things are sizzling hot. People wriggle and writhe. They stomp their feet and roar their approval, while trying their best to remain seated. But alas, there is no use. In two’s and three’s, patrons leave their apple martinis, crab cakes, draft beers, buffalo wings and their inhibitions behind and take to the tiny spaces between their tables. In wild abandon they dance, creating such a bottleneck that a waitperson gives up trying to pass through and opts instead to just shake it with the rest of ‘em.
At the center of all this commotion is sax player Joseph Vincelli. Backed by hulking bassist ‘Big Daddy’, and well-known keyboardist Linny Nance, whose skillful fingers conjure the sound of a Parliament-Funkadelic-type brass section, the good-looking Italian guy out front is seemingly blowing fire from a tenor saxophone. For several minutes after he plays the last note of the long, extended version of Stop Six, the audience, sweat beads glistening on their faces, continues to shout and applaud.Who is this Joe Vincelli, guy, anyway? And what does he know about Stop Six?
Well, for starters, he prefers Joseph, thank you. And he knows plenty about Stop Six. If you have ever spent time in the southeast Fort Worth community, you might recognize the verve, cadence and raw soul of the tune Vincelli ‘accidentally’ co-wrote with former band members some four years ago.
Vincelli, bassist Rick Rigsby and the late keyboardist Marvin Washington had been playing in front of a small audience one night, and began, as Vincelli puts it, “experimenting” with Secrets in the Dark, a song from his 1998 album, Touch. “Rick starts a different groove…and then Marvin joins in…it felt so good I said ‘hold that – don’t move! We must have played it for about 20 minutes. “ Later, they went home and tweaked the song,, with Vincelli finally declaring, “We got ourselves a hit!”
“We had been on tour, and we were out eating breakfast at 5:30 in the morning. I asked the guys what we should call the song. Rick said the song reminded him of his old neighborhood, so he took me out and drove me around Stop Six so I could get a feel for it.” Vincelli agreed with Rigsby, and thereby christened what would become a smooth jazz staple for the next several years.
Mark Sanford, Program Director for 107.5 The Oasis said, “(Vincelli) is doing great! He’s competing with the big boys, (like) Richard Elliott, Boney James and Kenny G. Stop Six has been on our playlist for four years, which is unusual, and we still get a lot of requests for it on our listeners’ ‘dream sets.” The haunting groove - which is both moody and funky, has obviously struck a deep chord with smooth jazz listeners – even those who know nothing of the neighborhood that was, after 1975, most widely known for Dunbar High school’s perennially undefeated basketball team.
So is Vincelli a one-trick pony? Hardly.
He is, of course pleased with the continuing success of his hit song, named for the community that was, back in the day, the sixth stop on the trolley route from downtown Fort Worth to Dallas. Still, he’s got other things on his plate besides music – literally.
Vincelli tours throughout the U.S. and abroad, and says the touring is now more sporadic due to the slow economy. He and wife Lisa had recently come back from playing in paradise -- Hawaii to be exact. Vincelli often plays such posh gigs for corporations who hire him to play at their conferences, retreats, and the like.
But if you’re really lucky, says Lisa, he’ll cook for you in the kitchen, rather than on stage. Since the age of 5, Vincelli says cooking has been his “first love.” Asked what dish he makes the best, his wife readily answered “Macaroni and cheese!” After protests that his fans would definitely clamor for something ‘sexier’, she added, “well…his seared pork loin is amazing!” Vincelli says he likes to shop at places like Central Market because he finds high-quality meats and produce. “I like to just walk in without a menu and create something” he smiles. Growing up in an Italian family, there’s little surprise that he’s deeply in love with his food and wine. He is also deeply involved in charities like Kids Who Care Performing Artists Foundation, which brings local chefs and celebrities together to raise money for children’s causes.
And although his musical prowess runs deep (also an accomplished flutist and an alumni of the storied Berklee College of Music) Vincelli has still other irons in the fire.
He may not look the button-down, “Wall-Street type”, but Vincelli is a registered stock trader. He says he does it because he “likes the challenge” of trading on the market, and he relishes the chance to rely on sensitivity, fact, brainwork and logistics” as opposed to music, which relies almost solely on creativity. A challenge, he says, is something he often looks for. That’s how he learned to play the flute. “The sax isn’t rocket science” he says. So after playing it for years, he put it aside and took up the flute, which required him to stretch a bit.
Vincelli names jazz legends like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Maynard Ferguson among his early musical influences. But many fans would be surprised to know that just a few years ago Vincelli jammed with the likes of Ice Cube? In the early 1990s he lived in Los Angeles, and began doing session work with the rapper-turned actor. He continued to get work after a chance meeting with 60’s heartthrob Bobby Goldsboro, who was working on music for the television series Evening Shade. A few phone calls and a clandestine meeting on an Albertson’s supermarket parking lot (“it kind of reminded you of a drug deal” he recalls) and Vincelli was whisked away in Goldsboro’s limo to a recording session.
He got many gigs by word of mouth, but often the music didn’t quite cover the expensive LA rent. For a time, Vincelli sold ad space for the SCLC’s magazine. SCLC as in the civil rights group Southern Christian Leadership Conference? Yes. He lingers on the memory of this, one of his more interesting ‘day jobs’. “In LA there’s a saying – you can be drinking champagne and eating pinto beans…” referring to the paradox between images of glitz and stardom, and the realities of struggling just to keep body and soul together.
Vincelli came to Dallas-Fort Worth in 1994, “looking for peace and quiet.” That year he landed a spot on stage at Grapefest. The Fort Worth Star Telegram took notice, and featured him in a one-half page story. He says that, in part, was a springboard for his success here in the Metroplex. In fact, smooth-jazz radio personalities and others often mistakenly refer to Vincelli as “Fort Worth’s own”. Vincelli doesn’t mind, but in fact, he was born and raised in Eatontown, New Jersey.
Vincelli has authored several books and teaches music occasionally. Still, his passionate love of performing is evident now as he bobs fervently back and forth, bounces up and down on one foot, then the other, seemingly in a world of his own.
The scene plays out at Brooklyn Jazz Café, one of the few such venues Vincelli will play. “I’d rather stay home” he says, than play in a “club.” But he makes an exception for Brooklyn because he says, he loves the artistic freedom he has while playing there. Owner Lorna Tate says “as long as it’s good (music)…as long as they play with passion, they can play whatever they want.”
That sits well with Vincelli, who usually plays at the Oak Cliff hot spot twice a month. And although usually at some point during the evening he will acquiesce to the crowd’s persistent shouting (requests for Stop Six) he likes that he’s not required to stick with what’s ‘radio-friendly’. Revealing his love for old-school jazz and blues, he often launches his first set with Cannonball Adderly’s classic, Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.
Speaking of passionate love, Vincelli and former fashion model Lisa Richardson are still newlyweds – of sorts. Now married for about a year and a half, the pair of 40-somethings whisper and canoodle much like 19-year-old co-eds. Richardson, a statuesque blonde from New York City often sits near the “stage”, whistling and shouting non-stop encouragement to her man. She says the two were ‘just friends’ for at least 6 years before “the light came on” and he finally asked her on a ‘real date’.
Before that, they would hang out on occasion, and commiserate about how things weren’t quite working out with whomever each of them was dating at the time.
These days they enjoy each other – and the fruits of his increasing popularity, like the recent trip to Hawaii. But Richardson says they’re both happiest when they’re at home sharing a good plate of pasta and a bottle of wine, or working side by side in their yard.
And though he’s often heating things up at that cute little café until past 1:00 a.m., Richardson says on nights when her husband is at home, he’s an “early to bed, early to rise” type of guy. “I feed him dinner and afterward he sits in the chair and starts snoring” by 7:00 or 8:00 p.m., she laughs. “We’re so boring!” she chuckles. If he plays until 1:00-2:00 a.m., it usually takes until 3:30 before they can wind down to sleep. “But there he is, up, moving around and being noisy by 5:00 or 6:00 a.m.” she says. “So I just get up, because even though he’s trying not to wake me, I’m awake anyway.”
So Joseph Vincelli is clearly not the average, cookie-cutter smooth jazz saxophonist. “He’s a husband, an author…and a great musician” says Lynn Briggs, longtime friend and host of the 107.5 Oasis mid-day show. “Every time we play Stop Six the phones instantly light up” she said.
Some east Fort Worth baby-boomers like me, hear what is by now Vincelli’s signature tune, and wistfully recall spending a breezy summer afternoon at Bunche Park. Or annual road trips in March, for the Flying Wildcats’ playoff games, or Saturday nights/Sunday mornings after 1:00 a.m. trying to squeeze into Skinners, a tiny, overcrowded barbecue shack on Ramey Avenue. One of my aunts found their ribs and sausages so tempting that she would smuggle them in her luggage on her flights back to Los Angeles.
Still, others may have no idea that Stop Six is anything more than a catchy title somebody thought up for a song. But jazz lovers know what sounds good to them, and many of them agree on this: that Joseph Vincelli really knows his way around a groove.