John Pizzarelli does it his way
January 23, 2007
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN ” John Pizzarelli’s current album, released in July, is “Dear Mr. Sinatra,” a tribute to the singer who was born in 1915. Earlier this month in his hometown of New York City, the singer and guitarist Pizzarelli was part of a concert tribute to vocalist Rosemary Clooney (born 1928). Pizzarelli’s breakthrough album, and perhaps his finest, is 1995’s “Dear Mr. Cole,” a tribute to the jazzier side of Nat King Cole (born 1919), released when Pizzarelli was 35. He followed it with a second volume, 1999’s “P.S. Mr. Cole.”
In between such projects, Pizzarelli has made albums in collaboration with pianist George Shearing (born 1919), and with his own father, fellow guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli (born 1926).
When Pizzarelli states his case for being a more contemporary-minded artist than that discography indicates, he brings up the fact that he has also made a tribute album to the Beatles (formed 1960) and has covered a song by the Beach Boys (also formed 1960).
Still, Pizzarelli doesn’t find the music, or even his tastes, to be a throwback. “I don’t think of the style of music as old-fashioned,” he said by phone, from his home on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “The way we play it, it’s always fresh and fun. I find I have a lot of room in that style.”
Much of the reason the 46-year-old Pizzarelli can find the fresh side of songs ” indeed, a whole genre ” that predates him is that he still hasn’t gotten over the early inspiration that led him to this music. In his teens, the New Jersey-born Pizzarelli listened to mid-20th century, vocal-oriented jazz ” as well as James Taylor, Billy Joel and Jackson Brown. In January 1980, his girlfriend at the time turned him onto Mike Weber’s recording of Cole’s “Straighten Up and Fly Right.” Pizzarelli’s father figured he should go directly to the source.
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“My father said, if you like that, you should really listen to Nat King Cole’s version,” recalled Pizzarelli. As it happened, Capitol Records had just re-released parts one and two of “The Best of Nat King Cole Trio: The Vocal Classic, and the younger Pizzarelli devoured it all.
“That got me excited. It was jazz and pop, everything in one fell swoop,” he said. “I had heard nothing like that before. I heard Nat King Cole, and I was so happy to hear that music. I loved the sound, the whole idea. It had humor and swing. I thought, ‘I could have a group like that.'”
From 1980-’90, Pizzarelli worked consistently with his father, and the tie to that old-school swing was cemented. “A lot of why I do what I do is because of the things my dad turned me onto,” said Pizzarelli, who brings his quartet ” with his brother Martin on bass, drummer Tony Tedesco and pianist Larry Fuller ” to the Wheeler Opera House tonight. “On the road, he’d put on tapes, and I’d have him tell me stories about the musicians. He didn’t know he was being interviewed.”
Pizzarelli’s choice of instrument ” a 7-string guitar, with an extra low “A” string ” is a direct descendant from his father. Bucky Pizzarelli had tuned into the playing of George Van Epps, who invented the 7-string; when John picked up guitar, at age 6, it was the 7-string version that was available in the Pizzarelli household.
The choice of material is a strong link to bygone days. (Pizzarelli says he’d like to find new songs, but is challenged to find songs that suit his style. He has written some of his own material.) And while his brand of music is also a throwback, he is also careful to make it his own, to put a new stamp on the music of Sinatra, Cole and the like. On “Dear Mr. Sinatra,” Pizzarelli makes no effort at mimicry; instead he trusts his voice to give a lighter feel to songs like “Witchcraft” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”
“I’ve been very careful ” tried to be careful ” with song selections,” said Pizzarelli, who is backed by the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra on “Dear Mr. Sinatra.” “It was a better time to do it at 46 than 26, or even 36. The right band and the right way to do it presented itself. I didn’t want it to be like a karaoke record, with the Nelson Riddle arrangements. I wanted it to be its own animal.
“I did it my way,” he concluded with a laugh.
Pizzarelli has observed that playing the music that is closest to your heart, even if it happens to have been written 60 years ago, will connect you to an audience. To paraphrase one of the titles on “Dear Mr. Sinatra,” this music makes him feel so young.
“People can’t get enough of my dad playing ‘Honeysuckle Rose,'” he said. “That’s because he just has so much fun with it.”
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org