The Nonchalant Brilliance of John Pizzarelli, Jr.

John Pizzarelli, Jr.
Rockin' in Rhythm: A Tribute to Duke Ellington

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.

The Comedian, The Host

The Comedian, The Host

It doesn’t hurt that John Pizzarelli is likable and hilarious, on the bandstand and off. Truths which, again, I learned firsthand.

It turns out that my old pal Spike went to college back in Jersey with Pizzarelli, and they managed to play some Garden State golf together over the years. So when John was coming through the DC area in the mid-’90s for a show, we went to see him and then invited him to sit in with my student jazz ensemble the next afternoon.

In the club, John was loose as a goose and easygoing, sitting at our table after the music and tossing around stories about almost everything but jazz. We ran lines from our favorite episodes of The Honeymooners, and he regaled us with some stories of appearing Bob Costas’s very old super-late-night talk show Later. He was doing celebrity imitations, and we were all laughing. He was like every other funny Jersey guy you might have known in a bar or a basement, mugging for his friends and swiping at them with his wit.

The next day after classes, John pulled up to the school in a cab with his guitar case and a pair of sunglasses. He plugged into a crummy amp and worked on a version of “Route 66” with us. Our band had very little going on, but he helped the drummer to play a little lighter and gave the guitarist invaluable tips. He sang the tune with generosity and panache while the kids struggled just to nail a simple blues.

In recent shows, he’s still that way with the audience: funny and easy, not much more than a local kid with some jokes but also nothing less than a musician with a gift. He’s a professor of the musical tradition on the one hand and just a pop-culture fan who loves almost everything on the other. He’s the most nonchalant guy you’ve ever met, and he’s also a terrific, exacting artist.

This very range is on display for free too, on the radio. Pizzarelli and his wife, singer Jessica Molaskey, host a weekly two-hour radio show called “Radio Deluxe” on which they play a remarkable range of music that goes well beyond the usual standards. The last show of February 2010, for example, featured Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”, k.d. Lang doing “Hallelujah”, Warren Zevon singing about hockey, as well the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett and Mel Torme.

The heart of the show, however, is the easy banter between “Pizzarelli” and “Molaskey” (as they often and affectionately call each other)—tossing back and forth their love for certain songs and singers. Though the joke of the show is that they host it from their “deluxe living room high above Lexington Avenue”, the truth of it is that neither of them is really much of a throwback. They are completely up-to-date in their taste and references, but they just happen to know lots of musical history, too. If they’re also cool enough to know that Willie Nelson doing standards is hip while Rod Stewart doing them is not, well, that’s just intelligence at work.

Rockin’ in Rhythm

The nuts and bolts of Pizzarelli’s art, in the end, is not the banter or the fun, as enjoyable as that is. It’s the music… and the nonchalant brio of its execution. This is embodied in the dashing skill of the guitar playing, certainly, but Pizzarelli’s unassuming vocals are just as critical. The former is obviously exceedingly difficult but performed with such unbridled fun that you almost believe you could do it. And the latter is modest enough that really do want to jump in and give it a go.

You might say, “Hey, I could sing ‘Don’t Get Around Much Anymore’!”, but could you really nail the rhythm? Could you stay light and in tune over a flying band, all while putting a wink and a smile into your voice? That’s what Pizzarelli does.

The latest recording, Rockin’ in Rhythm: A Tribute to Duke Ellington is vintage Pizzarelli. The music is light and tight and the singing is natural but pointed. In many respects, this is the best thing the guitarist has done. Neither burdened by the expectations and schmaltz of strings or a big band nor limited by just his small band, Pizzarelli approaches a dozen Ellington songs with swinging clarity. Some tunes benefit from a snazzy seven-piece band (“C Jam Blues” or “In a Mellow Tone”), there is a breathtaking solo guitar version of “Just Squeeze Me”, and Pizzarelli even evokes Lambert, Hendricks and Ross (with the aid of Kurt Elling and wife Molaskey) on a vocalese version of “Perdido”.

A few of the arrangements are simply ingenious. For example, the notion of combining “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and “East St. Louis Toodle-oo” is as wonderful as it is improbable. Pizzarelli spreads out the melody and turns it minor, allowing the horns to play a Don Sebesky arrangement of “Toodle-oo” around the lyric. Pizzarelli grew up hearing the eerie Steely Dan version of “Toodle-oo”, and it is evoked here, even as the lyric and melody are “Get Around Much”. He works other clever mash-up, with “Jack the Bear” framing “Mellow Tone” and “Cottontail” sharing space with “Rockin’ in Rhythm”.

As has often been the case, Pizzarelli is photographed here wearing a tuxedo, and I suppose there must be a marketing strategy involving blue-haired ladies or some retro notion of “class”, but in fact, this is least “tuxedo-y” disc of Pizzarelli’s career. The arrangements are fleet and fiery rather than cocktail-y, and Pizzarelli has never seemed more liberated from swing era confines. The swift horn lines of the septet bop more than they croon, and most of the guitar solos have the effect of spinning out of orbit.

John frequently uses the trick of scatting along with his improvised guitar solos (a technique George Benson famously used on “This Masquerade”), and it is winning. On “Mellow Tone”, the technique launches Pizzarelli’s sense of melody into a joyous hyperdrive.

From that first solo, this record feels different than most other Pizzarelli recordings. Even though it is a “tribute” record, Rockin’ blows forward with freshness. Pizzarelli—as well as soloists like pianist Larry Fuller and saxophonist HarryAllen—plays like the whole history of jazz was at his fingertips. There is swing simplicity and bebop fire, but what’s best about this music is the way it feels cut free from style. The Sebesky arrangements grab a bit from Ellington (of course), some from Marty Paich, and plenty from Basie/Mingus/Giuffre/Blakey which is to say from everywhere — and the leader’s quartet arrangements have never seemed less limited to his Nat Cole roots.

This year presents Pizzarelli as either an inevitable jazz star—the son of Bucky born in Sinatra’s state with a genuine gift—or the music’s unlikely winner. The consummately fun and alive John Pizzarelli didn’t go to music school and he doesn’t weigh down his music with pretension. The cat just plays and sings and swings like a dream.