John Pizzarelli is the sneak attack version of the Young Fogey Movement in jazz singing.
Sure, he’s a relatively young, good-looking guy who sings almost exclusively pre-rock standards in a swing (pre-bebop) style. He’ll wear a tux at the drop of a hat, and his album covers feature him looking dashing, grinning sheepishly but stud-ishly, or in this case actually wearing a tux on the beach — barefoot — while laughing and carrying an umbrella (?!).
Despite the smooth marketing and easy-going grace of Pizzarelli’s music, he has always stood out from the Harry Connick, Jr. / Michael Buble / Jamie Cullum crowd. Pizzarelli distinguishes himself because he is the only one of this group who is deeply connected to the older tradition (his father, guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, raised him in the heart of New York’s jazz community) such that it is part of his thoroughly contemporary sensibility. In other words, John Pizzarelli — himself a world-class jazz guitarist — sings and plays contemporary swing music without an ounce of cynical marketing consideration. When Pizzarelli sings a tune associated with Nat Cole, say, it’s from so deep in his heart that he makes the old utterly new again.
In short, John Pizzarelli is not all that young (now 46) but really not a fogey at all. He’s just a genuine musician who loves this music.
And so, for his latest disc, Pizzarelli unselfconsciously puts a shiny fresh coat of paint on a series of songs written for or associated with the ultimate American Songbook titan — a fellow New Jersey-an and Italian-American, Mr. Sinatra.
If you dread this kind of thing — the tribute album where some young schmuck tries to get away with “Strangers in the Night” and “New York, New York” using his best Blue Eyes imitation — then I’m with you from the start. But Dear Mr. Sinatra is a whole different record, and a largely wonderful record too. Pizzarelli has been cutting records and touring (mostly with his nimble trio of only guitar, piano, and bass) for the better part of 16 years, and he knows exactly what he is supposed to sound like. Pizzarelli opened for Frank Sinatra on a tour at the very end of the legend’s career, and he knows that he’s no Sinatra. That is the key to this disc’s remarkable success.
Matched here with a quality contemporary big band in the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra, Pizzarelli remakes a dozen Sinatra tunes — a mixture of the ones you’d miss if they weren’t there (“Witchcraft”, “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning”) and some insider gems (“If I Had You”, “Last Dance”). The band arrangements are fantastic — mostly John Clayton but also by Don Sebesky and some of the original arrangers — in the way they soften this repertoire to suit Pizzarelli’s gentle, even whimsical and sometimes plaintive voice.
If you’ve seen Pizzarelli in concert, then you know that he is hilarious, closer to Seinfeld than to Sinatra. And so when “You Make Me Feel So Young” mainly features rhythm guitar and a very gentle horn counterpoint, it makes a line like “You and I are just like a couple of tots, / Runnin’ across a meadow, / Pickin’ up lots of forget-me-nots” feel light and playful — where Pizzarelli’s voice is best. “How About You” isn’t soft or gentle, but the toe-tappin’ arrangement zips along, allowing Pizzarelli to toss off the song’s great lyrics (“I like potato chips, moonlight and motor-trips — how about you?”) with the style of a comic actor.
“If I Had You” is the knockout. The John Clayton arrangement is a piece of delicate chamber jazz — with clarinets and low winds framing the first verse with gentle melancholy. The piano alone plays beneath the bridge, giving Pizzarelli a hint of stride to bolster his words, then the clarinets alternate with the piano solo on lush, almost strummed chords. The arrangement becomes more ornate on the out-chorus, with one clarinet climbing up into counterpoint with the melody before the whole band stops briefly to set up the ending. Exquisite.
“I’ve Got You Under My Skin” is similarly ingenious: much more impressionistic and modern than the Sinatra version. The harmonies are partly transformed, and the arrangement features flutes and rhythm guitar, with the horns becoming more and more active as the song’s climax approaches. However, the whole arrangement is a soft shoe routine rather than tap dancing, and so the “makes me STOP before I begin” part is more of wink than a shout. Again: superb.
On other tracks, Pizzarelli chooses to stay closer to tradition. “Witchcraft”, as served up by Don Sebesky, sounds like a Nelson Riddle special, but the band knows just when to dial the sass back to make way for the gentler vocal. “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby” is beaten out by the drums and lets the brass do some real shouting, but the holes in the arrangement allow Pizzarelli to emphasize the spoken ease of his voice in contrast to Sinatra’s big tone. That this tune features one of the guitarist’s classic scat-guitar-in-unison solos simply adds to its effectiveness. Pizzarelli knows enough to play to his strong suit on this arrangement, and he gets away with a big ending as a result.
The last track, however, is wisely a matter of Pizzarelli and the pianist, alone, making something quiet and melodic together. In the end, Pizzarelli is an intimate artist, a guy whose best work has always been with his trio and who — it turns out — can teach us how Sinatra’s songs were deeply intimate affairs even if the man himself was larger than life, the Chairman of the Board, Ol’ Blue Eyes. John Pizzarelli — a man with a more modest vocal instrument — has monster musicality nonetheless. That he can tackle this icon his own way and without linking the work to some crass marketing campaign says it all.
Dear Mr. Pizzarelli: well done. (You won’t be needing the umbrella.)