Guitarist Larry Tamanini shares his backstage experiences of the recent Rocky Mountain Archtop Guitar Festival 2023 in Arvada, Colorado.
Every year in early to mid-September, Arvada Colorado becomes the epicenter of the jazz guitar universe thanks to Peter Henriksen and his Rocky Mountain Archtop Festival. Peter is known for crafting high-quality amps but he also meticulously curates this incredible celebration of jazz guitar. Only someone as well respected in the guitar community would be able to summon over 30 of the world’s foremost guitar builders showcasing their work, along with a dizzying array of world-class players, teachers, and clinicians offering player workshops and concerts around Olde Town Arvada. Over 60 hours of music and 30+ different workshops and clinics will be hosted by various local businesses over the weekend, all within walking distance of one another.
This was my first time participating in this truly amazing event and I am still feeling the euphoria almost 3 weeks later as I am writing this article. I have nothing but positives to report and I will attempt to describe what I witnessed as best as I can.
I flew in from Philadelphia and arrived at the hotel ‘Round Midnight (lol) upon arrival I noticed a group of people hanging outside and having a great time. Upon further inspection I was able to make out some familiar faces, it sure looked like Frank Vignola, Pasquale Grasso, Vinny Raniolo, Ken Smith, and a bunch of other folks with whom I would end up meeting over the next few days. I introduced myself and checked into my room anxiously awaiting the next day. Still being on East Coast time my body was up at 5am Colorado time and after some morning warmups I headed down to the lobby for breakfast and was immediately greeted by Jimmy Bruno.
We were slated to play together later that evening and decided to have breakfast with some of the early arrivals just hanging out, telling stories, and sharing jokes. There is so much I could say about my experience with Jimmy and his lovely wife Peggy who were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary at the festival and I certainly left Denver as the biggest Jimmy Bruno fan in the world but I’ll get back to that soon.
After breakfast and getting acclimated to my surroundings it was almost a shock and awe experience just watching all the guitar greats check in to the hotel. It was literally impossible to not bump into people I had wanted to meet for a long time and after being greeted by Peter and his amazing staff I spied Ron Jackson & Howard Alden having a casual conversation in the lobby and decided to introduce myself, I’ve been a fan of them both for a long time, especially Howard who has been a hero of mine for many years. We even managed to break into an impromptu jam in the lobby and I was on cloud nine before lunch started. After lunch, Peter’s crew and the amazing hotel staff transformed the lobby of the Hilton into ground zero for Archtop Guitars and this was the first festival that I ever played where I didn’t need to worry about the amps being cool.
As our 7pm showtime inched nearer the energy in the building was mounting and everyone was getting excited. Taylor Roberts kicked off the festivities with a marvelous solo set that Jimmy, Peggy, Barry Greene, Bob Bakert, and I all enjoyed tremendously. The New West Guitar Group with Perry Smith, John Storie, and Will Brahm played after Taylor and I was completely blown away by the arrangements, skill, and showmanship on display. I was almost having a bit of “Little Red Corvette” moment and hoping I still had enough gas but I knew I had Jimmy in my corner and any chance you have to play with a true virtuoso you just know that they are going to raise the bandstand and bring the best out of you. Jimmy’s command and stage demeanor is masterful, it was really an honor to represent the rich history of Philadelphia Jazz guitar with him and celebrate our friends Tom Giacabetti, Pat Martino, & Sonny Troy- especially Sonny because we were both so close to him and Sonny was a real gem and genius of the guitar, I was happy that Jimmy spoke on the mic and spoke about Sonny while we played a blues I had written in his honor and we ended our set with a brilliant arrangement of Jimmy’s that had us alternating from “Girl From Ipanema” and “Joy Spring”. You just had to be there!!!!
After the post-set festivities, I made my into town to catch Rodney Jones and Ed Cherry playing organ with an organ trio. Rodney and Ed are two of my favorite players and their set literally elevated Denver another mile higher and guitar players were lined up in the street to witness the show. While I was there I met Brad Rabuchin and so many other amazing players it was head-spinning. I went back to the hotel around 10 and had an amazing hang with the same crew of players I saw the night before when I checked in plus Jimmy & Peggy. I laughed so hard my face hurt when I woke up on Saturday.
I knew I had to split early on Sunday so I really made the most of Saturday. I had a 10am clinic and was really surprised at all the awesome players that came by to hang with me. It was a great mix of students, players, and fans that were so fun to interact with and even Perry came by and played some tunes with me which was super cool.
After my clinic, the luthiers started to set up and it was hard to not nerd out amongst all the high-quality guitars and amazing craftsmanship that I was seeing on display, I really wished that I could have played them all but the guitars I was able to play definitely made a big impression. I really wanted to check out the Koentopp guitars because I had interacted with Danny online and my friend Tony Richards raved about his Koentopp. He wasn’t lying! The guitars were fantastic and I truly enjoyed my time hanging with Danny and his wife Anjuli they almost made me want to start cheering for Chicago sports teams but I was able to reign it in and try a few other builds namely a few Thorrell guitars, some of Tim Bram’s hip builds, and Gary Zimnicki’s guitars….. all outstanding instruments.
There was so much going on it was hard to check everything out but I did my best to hit a few clinics, seminars, and shows. I checked out clinics that Dr. Wayne Goins and Beth Marlis ran and was impressed by their unique approaches and was happy to see Rodney Jones aka “The mayor” attending both clinics as well. One thing that I took from Rodney was his kindness, positivity, and respect he showed everyone, and was very generous to me with his time and knowledge. Thanks, Mr. Mayor! Another big high was checking out the women in the jazz guitar panel that featured Beth Marlis, Lisa Liu, Jocelyn Gould, and Jamie Stillway. This was one of the cooler panels I have ever checked out and I think diversity is so important in this male-dominated idiom. It was hip to hear a different perspective and I really like that all four of these great players had different styles that gelled together quite seamlessly. I also thought it was cool that they mentioned one of the attendees who I believe will be on this panel next year, guitar phenom Ponpon Chen who dazzled everyone with her skillset and talent, guitar players be afraid!
There were so many amazing performances on Saturday afternoon that it was head-spinning! Howard, Frank, and Jimmy reprised the great trio record they made for Concord and Sean McGowan played a burning trio set following them. I was really impressed with Sean’s playing and his wife Andrea made some amazing wood prints for the festivals which I was happy to purchase. I went back into town to catch Fareed Haque playing a dynamite organ trio gig with Tony Monaco. Fareed was on fire and everyone was enjoying his group. He even brought Jocelyn and Rodney up for some tunes and they totally killed “Chitlins Con Carne” and if that wasn’t enough the Benedetto show was getting ready to start and I caught Beth and Dr.Wayne playing some burning duo with a rhythm section. I really wanted to stay at the hotel all night but I knew Bruce Forman was playing a solo set and I wanted to check him out and was not disappointed. Bruce played a few tunes with Howard Alden which was really special and played a version of “Shadow of your Smile” with some “Round Midnight” counterpoint that completely floored me and the audience. I went back to the hotel and while I was walking back I could hear Frank Vignola’s All-Star Guitar night with Pasquale, Kenny “The Jet” Smith, Vinny, Gary Mazaroppi, and of course Jimmy. The music was literally in the air and they all sounded so good. I went back to the hotel to check out Barry and Rodney and put a cap on the night.
Sunday might have been the most happening day but since I had to leave early I didn’t get a chance to do much but I did manage to play some tunes with Wayne Goins and hang with Jimmy and Ed before I flew back to PHL the only not positive thing I have to say is that I wanted to check out so much more! I really wanted to play and hear Mason Razavi and Nate Lopez because I feel like I sort of know them and others from social media but nothing beats the real thing. They also had an amazing jam in town on Saturday where Bruce Forman and the great Pat Bergeson let people play Barney Kessels’s and Chet Atkins’s guitars- talk about boots that are too big to fill! I also had a hilarious conversation with both of them and even Bob Bakert came by to chill with us! There was just so much talent in Arvada that weekend and I speak for all of us when I share another heartfelt thank you To Peter for putting this all together.
In conclusion, this is a must-attend event if you are a fan of archtop guitars, great jazz, and outstanding camaraderie. I already punched my ticket for next year and I hope to see you next year!
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