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The Pizzarelli Boys

Sunday at Pete's

(Challenge; US: 13 Nov 2007; UK: Unavailable)

How many of today’s rising jazz stars went to the Berklee College of Music in Boston or, perhaps, the juggernaut North Texas or Indiana U music programs?  I can tell you this—you’re going to run out of fingers and toes counting.  This wasn’t always the case, of course.  Jazz used to be taught in bars and backrooms.  Or even in living rooms.  In New Jersey.


One such classroom was in the Clifton, N.J. house of guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli’s uncle, Pete Domenick.  There, Bucky took lessons on guitar and tenor banjo from Pete and his brother Bobby.  They taught the kid to play rhythm guitar in the style of Count Basie’s great Freddie Green, and eventually Bucky went on to play with Benny Goodman, The Three Sounds, the Tonight Show Orchestra, and just about every other jazz musician to pass through the New York area during the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s.  Naturally, Bucky’s living room became a classroom for his kids—guitarist John, Jr. heard Joe Pass play there, and bassist Martin heard Ray Brown and Slam Stewart while he was still in short pants.


The result, as jazz fans probably know, is a Jersey family to rival the Marsalis gang—embodied these days mainly in John Pizzarelli’s quartet.  While John is typically featured as a sly singer of hip standards, it’s his guitar playing that most regularly astonishes.  Accompanied by Martin and long-time family friend, drummer Tony Tedesco, the group is impeccable.


Sunday at Pete’s brings those boys together with father Bucky for an all-instrumental date dedicated to the family legacy of learning classic jazz and guitar in those Clifton and Paterson living rooms of the past.  The result is a feast for fans of classic jazz guitar—an old-time joy that transcends eras with its easy pleasure and with a wealth of fret board wizardry that you’d be hard-pressed to find on another 2007 jazz record.


The set-up is simple enough.  Martin Pizzarelli and Tony Tedesco swing (light and easy but tight as a skullcap), Bucky strums, and John blows.  Bucky plays an acoustic rhythm guitar, chording at every step, locking down the rhythm within an inch of its life.  John plays clean-toned electric, unfurling single-note melodies that run the gamut from simple to detailed to blues-drenched to bop-infused.  But, more than anything, the quartet operates as a single unit of swing.  They play, in fact, as if they’ve been dropping this kind of effortless joy for their whole lives together.  Which, in fact, they have.


The repertoire reflects the way the “boys” all learned to play the music.  These are early 20th century standards, not the classic jazz songs of Tin Pan Alley.  “Sweet Sue”, “In the Good Old Summer Time”, “Alabamy Bound”, “When You’re Smiling”—all songs that resonate today as being more than from another era, songs that your grandparents thought were oldies in their day.  The treatments, however, reflect the swing era aesthetic of grace and ease.  The group reharmonizes as necessary to make these simple melodies hip to improvise over, and more modern standards (“You’re My Girl”, an early Sinatra hit) and blues fit in just fine.


In some cases, the band plays the songs naively at the start.  On “Red Wing”, Bucky and John play one chorus as if they were sitting around a campfire, simple and strummy.  The second chorus is modulated up and swung with a tight brushes-on-snare groove that is hipper than a guy with a goatee.  “In the Good Old Summer Time” is about as old-fashioned as a piece of repertoire gets, but the Pizzarellis do not shy away from playing it relatively straight, with the somewhat corny melody seeming, soon enough, just fun.  But mainly dig the incredible, fully chorded solo by Bucky that makes you realize how tricky it must be to improvise using all six strings at once.


Perhaps the best thing on Sunday at Pete’s, however, is the most modern and loose of the tracks—a 12-minute spontaneous blues that closes things, “Night on Garrett Mountain”.  Martin and John start things in duet, with John playing the lovely bent-note line that sounds more down home than anything he has ever played on, say, a Sinatra-themed record.  When the rest of the band enters, the groove gets tighter.  And while Neither John nor his dad can be accused of avoiding the tricky chords, there is ample room here for John’s blues and rock impulses to seep into the swing—a full chorus of little more than a low note tremolo-ed for effect, for instance.  Bucky’s solo is not as elemental, but it’s close.  He strums for long stretches, then plays a single-note solo on the acoustic guitar that, frankly, you could drop in almost any Chicago blues club with ease.


Sunday at Pete’s is a guitarists’ jazz guitar album, certainly, but it is more than that.  It also makes a case for some older repertoire that jazz has largely left behind, connecting those songs to the blues and jazz playing conventions that are more commonly heard.  Pizzarelli and Sons make a case that real jazz—the music taught from uncle to nephew or father to son—arcs across time and stylistic boundary.  This unpretentious album is the path of such a rainbow.  May it keep shining and leaping for years to come.

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Will Layman is a writer, teacher and musician living in the Washington, DC area. He is a contributor to National Public Radio and frequently appears as a guest on WNYC's "Soundcheck" as a jazz critic. He plays both funk and jazz in the bars and clubs in and near the nation's capital. His fiction and humor appear in print and online.


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The John Pizzarelli Trio with brother Martin unleash some swing wizardry.
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