Jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli on Sinatra, Nat King Cole and playing the JAS Café
Special to The Aspen Times
IF YOU GO …
Who: John Pizzarelli
Where: JAS Café at the Aspen Art Museum
When: Friday, July 19, 7 & 9:15 p.m.
How much: $55
Musical dexterity is John Pizzarelli’s forte. How else can you define a major strength of this jazz guitarist whose career dates back to 1980 and includes a string of albums that have found him paying homage to a broad array of influences?
Along with expected nods to giants like Duke Ellington and legendary Great American Songbook composers Richard Rodgers and Johnny Mercer, the New Jersey native has also tipped his cap to more contemporary artists, including The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Steely Dan and Tom Waits. Over the past two years, Pizzarelli has paid homage to a pair of major influences, the Chairman of the Board (Frank Sinatra) and Nat King Cole. The 2017 release, “Sinatra & Jobim @ 50,” was a nod to the storied 1967 album “Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim.” Having worked with Jobim’s grandson, Daniel, on the 2004 “Bossa Nova” album, Pizzarelli reached out to his longtime friend for this project, which not only found them revisiting numbers from the original Sinatra album, including “Baubles, Bangles and Beads,” “Dindi” and “I Concentrate On You,” but a pair of bossa nova-flavored originals.
Now Pizzarelli has marked the 100th birthday of the late Cole with the February release of “For Centennial Reasons: 100 Year Salute to Nat King Cole,” an album that features the Pizzarelli Trio performing a selection of classic songs by the legendary vocalist. He’ll bring the Cole tribute and more to the JAS Café at the Aspen Art Museum for two shows Friday.
Having grown up as the son of renowned session guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, who himself continues to play gigs, it’s easy to see how the younger musician went down his diverse career path. Sharing a home with two older sisters meant hearing plenty of Beatles records, which would often vie for playing time on the family hi-fi alongside discs by the likes of Wes Montgomery, Dick Haymes, Count Basie and of course, Sinatra. Oftentimes, these were recordings his father played on, although according to Pizzarelli, his father was rather low-key about his day job.
“My brother found all the books from all the places that (my dad) played in the 1960s,” he said. “There are all these date books and it’s mostly just studios — it’s never really even the artists,” he said. “It will say something like, ‘Columbia, 30 Street,’ which is where they recorded the Tony Bennett, Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis records. He didn’t even have the artist names next to the studios. Only Dion and the Belmonts are who we know who the dates are for, and that’s around 1958.”
Pizzarelli, the son, got his start when he was handed a tenor banjo at the age of 6. With two uncles who both played the instrument, lessons ensued at Victor’s House of Music in Paterson, New Jersey, where one of them worked. While tablature from the “Elton John Songbook” spurred Pizzarelli to switch from banjo to guitar, it would be other old-school instrumentalists like George Van Epps, Nat King Cole sideman Oscar Moore and George Barnes that inspired him to make his debut with 1983’s “I’m Hip (Please Don’t Tell My Father).” In subsequent years, Pizzarelli toured extensively and collaborated with myriad artists. But for him, the most intriguing times came when he performed live with Paul McCartney and Sinatra on separate occasions.
“I’d opened 18 concerts for (Frank Sinatra) in 1993. We did five or six in Germany and the rest in the United States. We played Atlanta, Saratoga, the Garden State Arts Center and Aurora, Illinois. Then we did a week in Atlantic City, where I did get to meet him,” Pizzarelli recalled. “Having also done a major gig with Paul McCartney, I say both of them had the best food, McCartney on the vegetarian side — you would totally be a vegetarian if you could always eat with Paul McCartney. With Sinatra, these are big productions. I don’t think we played for less than 8,000 people in all those concerts except for in Atlantic City. What was always going on was just stunning. From a production standpoint, (longtime Sinatra associate) Hank Cattaneo did such a great job. You never had to talk to a soundman to tell him how you wanted it done. Everything was perfect and wonderful.”
Variety is the spice of life for the Garden State native and so it goes with his touring life. This summer, it’s only logical that he’ll be performing a show with his trio based around the “For Centennial Reasons” album, which features Pizzarelli on guitar and vocals, Mike Karn on double bass and Konrad Paszkudzki on piano.
This is hardly Pizzarelli’s first occasion where he’s focused on the song catalog of Cole. The new release is his third album to have found the guitarist performing songs by Cole. It follows “P.S. Mr. Cole” in 1998 and 1994’s “Dear Mr. Cole.”
While the current tour features his own trio, Pizzarelli has frequently done shows where he has presented an all-Nat King Cole program with the Ramsey Lewis Trio.
“(The show with Lewis) a fun thing. Ramsey plays a bunch of great piano solos that are associated with Nat, and I sing all the Nat Cole things. We not only cover ‘Straighten Up and Fly Right’ and ‘Route 66,’ but there’s also ‘Unforgettable’ and some of the pop standards in there, too,” Pizzarelli explained. “So, it really is a fun evening and sort of unique to Ramsey’s style too, which is great. …We’ve done this all over and even played this show in Alaska.”
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The literary nonprofit Aspen Words is restarting its writers-in-residence program that had been on pause during the pandemic. Residents include “Call Me By Your Name” author André Aciman. Public events begin June 15.