Guitarist and singer John Pizzarelli turned 61 recently, one year to the week after he lost both of his parents to COVID-19. Bucky Pizzarelli was a legendary guitarist himself, and John’s new solo guitar record—the first of his career—is both a reflection of his father and something wholly new, as it is a set of interpretations of the music of yet another guitar giant, Pat Metheny.
“I’ve always loved Metheny. Back when I was younger, I could play these tunes for my dad, and I knew he would like them. We were learning the tune together ‘Lone Jack’, and Bucky would say, oh, I like that melodic figure in there, let’s learn that.”
As Pizzarelli was learning each of the 13 Metheny tunes on Better Days Ahead, he says that he could hear the voice of his dad in his head, informing how to approach them. “I could hear my dad saying, ‘Slow down, there’s no rush. I could hear the advice—why are you rushing through that? You have a beautiful melody to play.'”
And the melodies—like the performances too—are, indeed, gorgeous. Pizzarelli recorded each track in the house where he has spent the pandemic, not touring or working other than playing a weekly solo show from the wicker couch in his country barn, streamed on social media each Thursday evening. These performances (dubbed “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere”) have turned into a wonderful hour of connection each week, with Pizzarelli collecting requests from hundreds of weekly fans from Pizzarelli’s old neighborhood in Northern New Jersey as well as Brazil, Europe, Asia, and beyond.
John appears alone for most of the show, but his wife and singer Jessica Molaskey provides conversation (and occasional harmony vocals) off-camera until she comes onto the couch for one lead vocal toward the end. The show is warm and funny, with John playing a repertoire of what seems like thousands of old classics. But it has also been haunted by a sense of melancholy—as people ask Pizzarelli to play songs to bridge the huge gap created by the pandemic and as they also reach out to the singer through the comments, telling them how much they miss his mom and dad. The connection and distance are both palpable.
With the phone not ringing for live gigs, Pizzarelli could spend whole days working out these Metheny tunes, a kind of grief therapy, channeling the memory of his dad, particularly. Then, he recorded each directly into his iPad on his seven-string classical guitar. From there, he collaborated with his friend, producer, and guitarist Rick Haydon to turn his tracks into a proper release. The result is true to both Metheny and Pizzarelli, which was not a simple trick. On the one hand, the ringing modern guitarism of Metheny is faithfully recreated—luminous harmonies, driving strumming, and particularly the thrilling interplay of melodies that criss-cross between Metheny and his longtime pianist Lyle Mays. Of course, Pizzarelli had to figure out how to do all of that on his own in single-take, non-overdubbed performances.
On the other hand, the pure pre-bop guitar sound of which Pizzarelli is the modern master is vital to Brighter Days Ahead. With his signature seven-string guitar, Pizzarelli handles melody, rhythm, and harmony all at once, simplifying the Metheny Group arrangements in some ways but also demonstrating how a guitar is a capable one-man orchestra, and not just another axe on which to play thrilling single-note lines. The result is a combination of the warm modern guitar vibe of Pat Metheny and the thrilling updating of swing guitar that is Pizzarelli’s core.
Metheny isn’t the only legendary guitarist Pizzarelli has engaged with in recent years. One night while he was eating dinner, he got a text from James Taylor, who wasted assistance in making an album of standards. Their collaboration earned Pizzarelli his first Grammy award this year as a co-producer on American Standard in the Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album category. And, of course, he worked similarly with Paul McCartney when he recorded a standards album, as well as Ricki Lee Jones before that.
Popmatters interviewed Pizzarelli about the new recording and his incredible, terrible year.
Congratulations on the Grammy. I know you are a big James Taylor fan and surely grew up listening to that white-covered Greatest Hits double LP. Tell us how you got the gig producing American Standard and what it was like being the guy who had to tell James Taylor about properly voicing his chords on Tin Pan Alley material.
That wasn’t so hard. The best part was that he had an idea that was great for the album. It was going to cover this era of tunes but still be and sound like a James Taylor record. He wanted it to be guitar-centric, and that’s why he called me back in 2017. He said, “I want to do a standards record and you da man.
Together, we put the execution together. It started as just me and him in his barn, alone together doing the tracks, putting the foundation down. We would go in his barn, and we’d start the day messing around with one tune in the kitchen. I’d be playing my seven-string classical, working out ideas with James Taylor. It was about a six-hour process for each tune, the morning in the kitchen, and then four hours in the studio. I would put rhythm guitar in after he recorded a part. He enjoyed what we had working together.
After that, James added bass [ed. Victor Krauss] and some other instruments down in Nashville. He brought in Steve Gadd to play drums. But he mostly avoided adding a piano, so the feeling of the sessions was really set up by our session in the barn.
For a guy who is not “famous” in the pop culture sense, you have now worked with Frank Sinatra, Paul McCartney, and James Taylor. I’m tempted to call you the Daniel Lanois of swing-style guitar. If anyone wants to get that sound, they know that you are the guy. You bring these collaborations an authenticity that — shockingly, if I can be frank — doesn’t have that “Rod Stewart Sings Jazz” cheesiness.
Yeah, I’ve been lucky to play with a lot of musicians I really admire. About two years ago, I played at the Carlyle in New York with Michael McDonald. These moments where I get to play with the very people I did my ear training with in college. Back then, I’d be listening to “Takin’ It to the Streets”, figuring out the chords and voicings. It has been pretty fun.
Especially with James. And here I am, talking about James Taylor like he’s my friend! These famous artists I have worked with were maybe different from Rod Stewart because they had a really good idea about how they wanted to approach standard material. They didn’t want to just do ‘boom-chick, boom-chick’ and sing an old song. These artists hired great musicians for the bands and were always deferring to that band, giving their collaborators input. And they chose good material.
A year on from losing your parents and going into lockdown, you have had this encounter with another popular American guitarist. I wonder if you could talk a bit about what your dad (and by extension you) and Pat Metheny have in common as guitarists.
The thing that I got from Bucky is a real love of great melodies. And Pat writes great tunes. I could play these tunes for my dad, and I knew he would like them. We played some of Pat’s tunes together. I remember Bucky and I learning “Lone Jack”, and he would say, ‘Oh, I like that melodic figure in there—let’s learn that.’