[31 July 2012]
John Pizzarelli is the most engaging of all jazz musicians, a charmer in concert, a warm host on a throwback radio show, and a singer who tosses off songs with a cool nonchalance that seems almost too easy. Graced with good looks and an attachment to fine suits and a swing-based rhythm feeling, Pizzarelli manages to be both youthfully funny and old-fashioned at once.
And so Double Exposure is arguably the ultimate John Pizzarelli collection. On the one hand, it cheekily uses as source material from the time of Pizzarelli’s own youth: tunes by Billy Joel, Neil Young, the Beatles, Elvis Costello, Joni Mitchell, The Allmann Brothers, even Seals and Crofts. On the other hand, Pizzarelli renders them either in tandem with cleverly-interlocking jazz tunes or in a style (swing, bossa nova, jump) that comes from his life playing jazz. “Double Exposure” suggests that Pizzarelli is presenting you in some cases with two songs fused into one—such as Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” and Tom Waits’ “Drunk on the Moon” in a single, fused performance. In other cases he simple repackages a newer song in an idiosyncratically older style, creating a similar effect.
This trick, when it deeply works, it is semi-miraculous. In a many cases, the fit is not perfect, but the songs are so strong that hearing them in a throwback style is charming. And in a few cases…the whole thing seems like an experiment gone wrong.
No doubt: opinions will vary widely on this disc, depending perhaps on each listener’s deference to or respect for the utter sanctity of the original recordings. But for me, this collection of potential mistakes is mostly wonderful. This is less because of the ingeniousness with which Pizzarelli has arranged these songs than because of the sheer charm with which he sells them. In short, Pizzarelli loves these songs and also deeply loves swing-style jazz—so usually he makes it all work together.
In a couple of cases, however, the pure idea of the combination is terrific. Maybe the best thing on Double Exposure is the recasting of Costello’s “Allison” as a swaying bossa nova, floating on a new set of chords and shot through with a poignant muted trumpet solo. The original song was heard by a million kids in the ‘70s and ‘80s as a straight love song when, in fact, it was a twisted tale of revenge. Here, Pizzarelli sings the lyrics clearly so you can’t miss them, yet they are rendered so gently that the irony is, if anything, greater than in the original. Brilliant.
Plenty of folks won’t tolerate any fiddling about with Beatles songs, so anointed are the originals, but Pizzarelli’s notion to marry Lee Morgan’s funky “The Sidewinder” with “I Feel Fine” is smile-worthy most certainly. The grooving backbeat hits of the jazz tune hop up the Beatles into hip toe-tapping and don’t seem forced at all. The tunes fit together so neatly that the band is able to splice elements of the instrumental tune into the midst of the Beatle lyrics. Tasty.
More organic still is the mash-up of “Lush Life” and “Drunk on the Moon”, which works both lyrically and melodically. Pizzarelli does much more than merely use the Strayhorn tune as a brief solo guitar introduction, lovely as that is. But when the Waits lyrics mentions a saxophone, sure enough Andy Fusco comes in playing the older song on tenor, referencing the great Coltrane version from his album with Johnny Hartman. Later the lyrics themselves are interpolated: “Hearts flutter and race / The moon’s on the wane / Tarts mutter their dream hopes / Romance is mush stifling those who strive / I’ll live a lush life in some small dive / I’ve hocked all my yesterdays / Don’t try and change my tune / I thought I heard a saxophone / I’m drunk on the moon / With those whose lives are lonely too.” It is seamless.
There are other performances here that work without seeming quite so clever. A string band arrangement of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” is lovely, particularly in the Aaron Weinstein fiddle solo. Billy Joel’s “Rosalinda’s Eyes” is given a Brazilian groove in a stripped-down arrangement for Pizzarelli’s guitar and voice only. “Free Man in Paris” is a dramatic reworking, but when the chorus gets grooved samba-style, it truly cooks, and the reharmonization is like a shimmering waterfall of hip.
A few tunes here seem fine but maybe obvious. Both “Ruby Baby” and “Walk Between the Raindrops” come via Donald Fagen’s wonderful Nightfly album (though “Ruby” is an old pop-rocker from an earlier era), and they get straight swing arrangement that are essentially where they started to begin with. “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” is reworked with a snappy string-swing feeling, with a cleverly written bass line for brother Martin Pizzarelli to fold into the whole thing.
What doesn’t work? Putting Miles Davis’s “So What” as the frame around Seals and Croft’s “Diamond Girl” seems forced, particularly because that kind of modal jazz is not really Pizzarelli’s thing to begin with. James Taylor’s “Traffic Jam” is remade as a Lambert, Hendricks & Ross vocalese feature along with the Joe Henderson tune, “The Kicker”. The singing and lyrics (with references to Samuel Beckett and Sartre among many other things) are terrific and feature Pizzarelli’s talented singing wife, Jessica Molasky, but all the jazz business wipes out the original tune utterly.
I’m mixed on the Pizzarelli original “Take a Lot of Pictures”, which is based on a famous line by Frank Sinatra and the introductory lick from Michael Franks’ hip double entendre tune, “Popsicle Toes”. Some odd combination. “I Can Let Go Now” is simply a brilliant song, but more interesting transformations of it have been done by Allison Krauss and by Luciana Souza. Pizzarelli’s version seems more like a pale version of the Michael McDonald original than like a smart alteration.
In the end, however, these misses are not the point. John Pizzarelli is showing folks how jazz, even in some of its older styles, shares a vocabulary with more modern popular music. And in his deft style, the two are, essentially, the same beast.
The good stuff, whenever it was first made, is just good. And there’s no reason not to have fun with it. John Pizzarelli is good at the fun stuff, again.