John Viviani certainly knows his way around a fingerboard. You'll blow out your eyeballs trying to get a bead on his fleet digits as the music expands your ears and mind. The Rochester guitarist is better known and responsible for the sophisticated drive behind the funked-up, jazzified jump of the now-disbanded Filthy Funk. Viviani led the band's get-up-and-get-down crusade for roughly 10 years, but found himself getting comfy, relaxed in his own talent and ability to challenge himself.
"I'm known mainly as a guitar player," Viviani says. "I've been playing around town for years. When Filthy Funk wrapped up, I wanted to do something different and I had always kept singing at arm's length. I had always found someone else to do that. I had only focused on the guitar."
So he reached back into his initial rock roots for material and decided to sing, not as a default, but as a trip to a frontier he hadn't set foot on (or opened his mouth in) — and to get that old creative uneasiness and discomfort back. That led to Viviani's new outfit, Blue Falcon, and its sterling debut EP, "First Flight."
"First Flight" bristles with an understated intensity clearly based around the guitar's initial hook. The disc opens with the ominous laying-in-wait slow groove of "Slow Drag" before moving into the minor-keyed minimalism of "Telling Lies." By the time "Growing Up American," with its self-deprecating jingoistic lyricism, starts to spin, the band is hitting on all eight. "Internet Celebrity" is pure power pop and the closer "See Ya Self" is a forgotten soul classic that never was.
Vocally speaking, Viviani doesn't sing like the guy in the band who lost the coin toss. His vocal ease is a perfect fit, even for a newbie.
"I was like, 'Man, I gotta give this a try'. So I took a couple of vocal lessons. It was a new thing for me to explore, a new challenge," he says.
Often the voice gets dismissed with musicians in the band winding up with mic duty by default. "It's a different instrument," says Viviani. "I have gained a lot of respect for it. There's no doubt about it, it's the original instrument, besides beating on stuff with sticks." Viviani's background being strapped to a guitar helped him translate, decipher, and adjust.
"I think the guitar helped me a lot as far as melodies and having a sense of pitch, my intonation," he says. "It definitely helped. There are so many aspects to the voice, the technique involved, and the aspects of tone and all the different shades. When you write a song you have to figure out how to sing it and how to get in character for that song." Viviani's still a bit bashful about it, even at home.
"As long as no one's around when I'm recording it, fine," he says. "If the wife's upstairs and I'm working on something, I tend to be more reserved. I like the fact that it makes me a little nervous, because with the guitar I was comfortable."
So Viviani, along with drummer Devon Tramell and bassist Ben Stephanus, set out on the Blue Falcon odyssey, clutching his guitar and a microphone while adjusting his approach and defining his identity without simplifying or dumbing down, as some might assume.
"I think the rock stuff is a bit simpler than the stuff I was doing before," he says. "Most people know me from a funk/soul/jazz background, even though Filthy Funk did some rock stuff. And when I sat down to write songs for this, it kind of felt like a return to my roots, which was bands like Zeppelin, Cream, The Yardbirds, Hendrix. And I found myself feeling much more comfortable, writing songs with my guitar, playing a simple chord and just kind of going from there."
Blue Falcon clearly isn't a dumbing down of Viviani's extensive riff and chops vocabulary but rather the addition of a more immediate aggression and dynamic edge. It packs more of a direct wallop. Still, taking on this new project required a little letting go for the guitarist.
"When you've been in a band for a long time," he says, "you've got a network of people you're really tight with and comfortable with, and you have a lot of chemistry, you can bounce ideas off them... This project came back down to me starting from scratch and having to rely on myself to some extent in order to finish these songs. I think that it's been good for me."
For fans of Viviani's work, there's still plenty for them here. Blue Falcon isn't a radical about-face departure or detour. Besides, Viviani still gets his funk fix in the cover band Shine.
"I'm not looking at this as I'm not playing funk/soul music anymore," he says. "This is exciting and interesting enough to me that I feel like I'm going to be doing this for a while. Even though this started out as a blues-rock thing, I think there's going to be room for those other [funk/jazz] influences. Over time, once I've gotten more independence playing while singing, I think some those influences will come back. The people that were into Filthy Funk, I think there's something for them here with Blue Falcon. And I think a lot of them are finding that. The people that were into the hip-hop end of Filthy Funk, that aspect of it, maybe can't connect." Perhaps they should embrace the pioneer wonder and un-ease that Blue Falcon preaches.
"Anything you get comfortable with for too long, you get stagnant," Viviani says. "It's like eating the same cereal for breakfast every morning. I don't want to have Chex ever morning."