A master sideman comes into his own as a bandleader and player.
Full disclosure – I was at Berklee College of Music when Tony was also a student there. When I knew him he was a full-tilt shredder who eventually got attention from Sharpnel Records’ Mike Varney. Back then, Tony was a guy who could crack you up with his humor and over the top playing. His skills got him gigs with people like bass god TM Stevens and Dale Bozzio of the Missing Persons. Since then he’s played in innumerable bands in the Boston area and, of late has been leading his own group The Savtones: with Mike Levesque (David Bowie, Seven Mary Three, Dave Navarro) on drums, Tom West (Peter Wolf, Tom Jones) on keys and piano and Sean McLaughlin on bass guitar.
While Tony’s sense of humor is still the same, (he refers to Savvy Tonarino as the fourth album in his guitar trilogy) his playing is like a good whisky that’s only gotten better over time. The whisky comparison is particularly apt here because this recording sounds like a retro film soundtrack in the best way possible (except that few film scripts could ever have the plot twists and turns that the spy / surf / country / ambient / fingerstyle / bar band instrumental music played here would accompany).
This album his vibe for days and is highlighted by spot on guitar tones and playing. While the influence of players like James, Burton, Jimmy Bryant, Jerry Reed and Danny Gatton are apparent in Tony’s playing – stylistically his approach here is closer to a countrified Howard Roberts. Technically, Technically, Tony can play more notes in a solo than some guitar players have played in their entire career but flash has been set aside here for vibe, attitude, emotiveness and cool note choices.
There are a number of highlights but for guitar playing and arrangement – my favorite guitar performance is I only had eyes for you. The arrangement is close to the Flamingo’s 1959 version of the song, but Tony’s playing really channels the longing and loss of the 1947 Peggy Lee version by way of Hank Garland.
There are a number of cool covers here that highlight Tony’s arranging skills. The Shadows, Eddie Angel (Los Straitjackets), Henri Mancini, John Williams, and Angelo Baldamenti (Twin Peaks) all get great treatments here. There’s a surf medley of two Star Wars themes The Imperial March and Tales of a Jedi Knight/Throne Room by way of Apocalypse Now (Rebels don’t surf) that you won’t believe hasn’t been done before. Tony’s cover of The Pink Room is slow, sleazy and nasty in the best ways possible and will instantly bring you back to the fever dream of the Twin Peaks show.
The band is also a critical component to the success of the recording. It sounds like they’ve been playing together forever with a really special interplay that makes you feel like you’re in the room listening to them as they’re tracking it.
If I had one criticism, I wish there were more originals as Tony is a talented writer as well. His second track, Mustang Savvy could have easily opened the album, and Om Mani Padme Hum (dedicated to his mother Paola Maria Savarino who passed in 2017) is my favorite track for the raw yet refined emotion and intimacy of the performance.
Where some guitarists play music to play the guitar, Tony is a musician who just happens to use a guitar to play great music really well. Savvy Tonarino is both a diary of where Tony has been and a postcard of where he is now. It marks a player shedding off shreddy baggage of his youth and truly coming into his own. And like that aged whisky, this recording goes down just fine.
For more information about Tony see his website at http://tonysavarino.com .