When Sasso’s Restaurant on Marco Island hosts Dan Vass, the ambiance in the lounge is like opening up your home and inviting 30 or 40 of your closest friends and family over for drinks, dinner and a little entertainment. Except for the ties and crisp white shirts of Sasso’s staff, the comfort level is that inviting.
Turning on the Old World charm, replete with an exotic-sounding accent, Vass entertains using either his great musical gift or his personable nature. He creates sounds on his Yamaha keyboard reminiscent of a grand piano, accompanied by a few background tracks. Vass’ tone could be equated to your favorite Uncle Harry on the family piano, if Uncle Harry was classically trained.
The lounge at Sasso’s is intimate enough to allow interaction between guests and the entertainer. With a dance floor just big enough for a few careful dancers, no one needs to take more than a step or two to make a request, which Vass obligingly provides.
Moving easily between Etta James’ “At Last,” to Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman,” and then on to something from “Phantom of the Opera,” Vass makes the transition from style to style seamless.
Provoking some fancy footwork from a few retired couples on the dance floor by playing standards from Chicago or “Mack the Knife,” Vass then turns his attention to a table of ladies having a night out and, in a heartbeat, has them all on the dance floor, enjoying “Hotel California.”
The ladies, four from Marco and four from out of town, enjoyed the evening’s performance. “He’s world-class entertainment,” says Helen Pass, of San Francisco. Resident Annette Ingoglia agrees, recalling Vass well from other places around the Island.
Along with his casual, accommodating nature, Vass plays a stream of melodies that cannot disguise his extensive musical training, which began early in life. “I used to play violin when I was little. When I started going to music school; some of my classmates said it wasn’t ‘cool’ to play violin, so I stopped,” Vass says.
He fortuitously opted for piano training, specifically focusing on the classics, while growing up in the Ukraine. He graduated from Drogobych State School of Music with a master’s degree in music theory, piano, conducting and composition in 1978.
Studying music in a part of the world rife with political unrest and turmoil was precarious at times, particularly when he became interested in an unconventional music form: jazz. It was not met with approval, but Vass could not be deterred.
He began absorbing the stylings and techniques from various recordings he heard. Eventually, he could dissect the different parts of the music and write them down to study.
But Vass credits Oscar Peterson as being his first teacher, asserting that he learned from one of the best by simply listening to Peterson’s recordings. Peterson, who died last December at 82, was a renowned jazz pianist and is considered one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time.
Occasionally, Vass pulls out a pan flute, adding a sweet, haunting sound to his playing. With it, he creates a unique version of “The Music of the Night” from “Phantom of the Opera.”
Vass came across the pan flute after emigrating to the U.S. in 1996. He was in Lacrosse, Wisc. at the annual Riverfest, in 1999 when he saw performers with one. “Guys were playing (the flute) in the street, and I liked it.” Afterwards, Vass got a pan flute and proceeded to teach himself how to play it, although he claims he doesn’t try anything too complicated.
Vass has varied his musical experiences, having played in symphony orchestras as well as jazz and rock bands. Personally, he likes all kinds of music, except rap. “I can’t stand rap. I like music that is logical — organized for people,” he explains.
He doesn’t share his favorite musical genre or song, because he feels it betrays those excluded. Vass likens it to the way Pablo Picasso answered inquiries about which painting was Picasso’s favorite, by asking the questioner which finger is preferred.
Besides playing at Sasso’s, Vass appears at other Marco locations, such as the Marco Polo Restaurant, Almost Famous Mel’s and Hideaway Beach Club. But more than that, Vass is employed seasonally on a Disney cruise ship. “I work for Mickey Mouse,” he muses.
A full-time Marco resident, except for the cruises and summers in Europe, his wife owns Tonga’s Design and they have two sons; Yuriy, 28, and Dennis, 22.
Vass has brought years of entertainment and joy to Marco residents, as well as those fortunate enough to enjoy his music on one of the cruise ships.
Check Vass’ schedule online at danvass.com.