The Nonchalant Brilliance of John Pizzarelli, Jr.

by Will Layman

16 March 2010

cover art

John Pizzarelli, Jr.

Rockin' in Rhythm: A Tribute to Duke Ellington

US: 23 Feb 2010
UK: 22 Feb 2010

If you’re a jazz-obsessed Italian-American kid from the North Jersey suburbs raised on a steady diet of ‘70s rock and soul—who pursues music with a mixture of swing and goofy humor—well, you would be very much like me. If you’re a jazz-obsessed Italian-American kid from North Jersey raised on ‘70s rock ‘n’ soul and whose father is a legendary guitarist and who happens to also be a massively talented guitarist steeped in classic jazz who then pursues music with a mixture of swing and humor—well, that makes you John Pizzarelli, Jr.

Plus he sings—and he’s good-looking.

John Pizzarelli’s latest recording is Rockin’ in Rhythm, a collection of Duke Ellington tunes that brings his total discography well past three dozen—which includes long runs on major labels and, frankly, pretty good record sales… for jazz. Add to that: a 1997 appearance on Broadway in Dream, countless club dates around the world including notable appearances at New York’s Rainbow Room, playing as the opener for another Jersey musician named Sinatra, a syndicated radio show, Radio Deluxe hosted with his wife, vocalist Jessica Molasky, and numerous appearances on Letterman, Leno, and so on.

John and Me
Which is to say, John Pizzarelli, Jr. is a very accomplished jazz musician. It’s a tribute to what you can accomplish if you have much more musical talent—but otherwise the basic ingredients—of a knucklehead like me. I’ve met the guy, as you might imagine.  We were born within a few months of each other, in Paterson and Hackensack if you’re a New Jersey fan, and so my mom was thrilled to tell me about this young guy who had a song on the radio… about New Jersey.

The tune was “I Like Jersey Best”, a hilarious jump tune about the joys of The Garden State written by Joe Cosgriff.  My mom heard it played on New York’s legendary WOR radio. Next time I was home, she took me to a joint down the street from her condo called Nobody’s Inn where John was playing duets with his dad, Bucky Pizzarelli. I was a major jazz buff, so I knew that Bucky played a seven-string guitar and had held down the guitar chair in the Tonight Show band when the show was in New York.

They played stunning guitar duets, and then John sang a few. He was a lanky, biggish-haired kid in his early 20s (I was a short, balding kid in my early 20s), and his voice was reedy and pleasing, light and quick across a lyric. Of course, he sang “I Like Jersey Best”, and—no doubt about it—it was charming and swinging and genuinely funny. It was just the music I might have wished I could make, if only I could play like this guy, Pizzarelli.

What Pizzarelli could do would grow more impressive over time. He started recording fully adult albums in 1990 (My Blue Heaven on Chesky), a few years after another young guy starting selling the same kind of music. Harry Connick, Jr. was a young and handsome fella—a pianist rather than a guitarist—who was singing old standards with a sense of youthful verve and a hankering for Sinatra swagger.  (A few years later Diana Krall would follow-up in a female vein.)  Pizzarelli’s model was not Ol’ Blue Eyes but Nat Cole, and Pizzarelli’s style was appropriately chipper and hip.

Like Cole, Pizzarelli approaches jazz with a jivey humor but a respect for melody, a virtuoso’s musicianship but a direct sense of swing. Though his initial success was tied to this Young Fogey movement, Pizzarelli’s attachment to the old songs isn’t throwback posing. He grew up around this stuff and loves it the way kids love baseball and chocolate. 

From the beginning, Pizzarelli performances—typically with a drummer-less trio including his brother Martin on bass—were charming and hilarious, with John cracking jokes, doing impressions, and telling tales. As his repertoire grew to include an extensive array of standards, from ballads to jump blues to vocalese, Pizzarelli still performed “I Like Jersey Best”, but modifying it over the years to include verses mimicking The Beach Boys, Billie Holiday, Springsteen (natch) and Paul Simon.

Despite wearing increasingly snazzy suits and playing in fancier and fancier venues, Pizzarelli was always—on some level—just messin’ around. When he took the music seriously, it was also flawless.

Not Much of a Voice
After Pizzarelli made a few terrific discs, I bought my two favorites (Naturally and Dear Mr. Cole) as a gift for my mom’s husband, Harris. He loved old standards, including the singing of Fred Astaire, so John lightly swinging stuff seemed perfect.

Always a blunt guy, Harris told me, “Music’s okay. Not much of a voice, though.”

Which may be true enough. Pizzarelli’s transcendent talent is clearly his lickety-split technique and imagination on seven-string guitar. Fast, fleet, and daring as a player, Pizzarelli begins from the swing era grounding he learned from his dad but is more than capable of playing anything he chooses. As a singer, though, he’s limited.

I might have said to my step-dad, so what? Miles Davis could not necessarily play just anything on his trumpet, but his limitations became his strengths, as he worked brilliantly within his sweet spot. Billie Holiday did the same. John Lennon. Chaplin.

Pizzarelli has made the very most of his airy, puckish voice. He’s dead on recording a sly Dave Frishberg song; he’s likable and shining with a sped-up Gershwin track; he can be sinuous on a bossa nova; and he manages modern pop songs played with swing because he sings without the pretense or old-fashioned pomp that makes old music seem, well… old.

Take a really old tune like “After You’ve Gone”, which John has recorded up-tempo with his trio. The song is as old as the hills (1918!), but Pizzarelli spits it out with staccato pleasure, turning it into a playful act. He changes the line “You’ll miss the dearest pal you’ve ever had” to “You’ll miss the slickest partner you ever had”, and his voice adds just a little zipping sandpaper to it all so that it’s not a plea but a dare, and the music flat out pops.

In 1998, Pizzarelli recorded John Pizzarelli Meets The Beatles, on which he set the Lads’ modern pop classics to non-rock grooves with remarkable success. His “Here Comes the Sun”, for example, is given a jaunty bossa-nova groove, and his voice seems to me like one of the few that could manage this. By under-singing the whole thing he avoids sounding like a Sinatra-Wannabe belting out The Beatles as if they were Cole Porter, yet his delivery is syncopated and hip enough not to seem fake in an older style.

In short, John Pizzarelli is cool enough to be modern but hot enough to old. He knows what he’s doing with that voice, even if he’s no Sinatra.

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