John Pizzarelli
Photo: Jessica Molaskey / Courtesy of Ghostlight Deluxe

Guitarist John Pizzarelli Goes Solo on the Music of Pat Metheny

John Pizzarelli’s pandemic record comes after helping James Taylor with a set of old standards but it’s a departure: solo guitar treatments of Pat Metheny.

Better Days Ahead
John Pizzarelli
Ghostlight Deluxe
16 April 2021

I just learned recently that my favorite Pat Metheny song, and one you recorded surely because of its great melody, “James”, was actually named for James Taylor. That’s one that he has played for 25 years, a regular part of his own “standard” repertoire.

James is one of Pat’s older songs and it’s always been a good song. He frequently opens with “Phase Dance”, another great tune that I learned and recorded.

Part of what I loved about his debut album Bright Sized Life was that it sounded like a jazz guitar record where the guitar was NOT just a stand-in for a saxophone or trumpet. It was a record that could only have been made on the guitar. What was it about your early encounters with Pat’s recordings that grabbed you?

The first record I had when I went to college—on cassette—was The Pat Metheny Group [ed. 1978] with “Phase Dance”. I loved the blowing, the way he played over the tunes. And, like everyone else, I loved the sound of his guitar—it was a truly new sound for the instrument. Every guitar player back then was getting a chorus box and delay pedal, trying to sound like Pat. And the tunes were great! I loved that record. The New Chautauqua was beautiful, there was 80/81 with Charlie Haden, Dewey Redman, Michael Brecker, and Jack DeJohnette, I missed “American Garage”, then Offramp. It was an incredible run of music.

How different was it interpreting this music compared to the music of earlier generations — whether the Beatles or Jobim or the classic songbook stuff? Did you feel, in a sense, more tied to voicings or chords or even the flow of performances? I mean, Pat’s music is so specific — but on the other hand, solo guitar must require reworking to match the arrangement of that whole band.

With the Beatles songs, I was reharmonizing and looking for new ways to play them in my own style. The Metheny music I wanted to record was all full band tunes as I heard them. In my imagination, I was rethinking them as solo guitar pieces. I was trying to take them back to square one to imagine how he might have presented them to his band originally.

I had friends who heard what I was doing and said, ‘Oh, put a string quartet on that one,’ but the original recorded versions already had all the extras. I was taking them back to jazz guitar. The challenge was to put them back on the guitar and translate them that way. And if I was going to blow on them, I couldn’t do a Joe pass thing—no single-note stuff, quick chord, hot lick, some more blowing—and Pat already played all the hot licks on these tunes you could imagine. So, for example, on “September Fifteenth”, I had to play Pat’s rhythmic guitar part and Lyle’s sustained melody, both. How do I stick in all these little parts? That was the challenge.

Photo: Jessica Molaskey / Courtesy of Ghostlight Deluxe

There are moments on the record where I hear you attacking certain melodies with this kind of Metheny “twang”—where you bend into a melody note in a way that John Pizzarelli normally doesn’t. Talk about these little stylistic things. And were you tempted at all you change your guitar/amp set up to be more, well, Metheny-ish?

I was trying to find the things that are important to the listener and be true to those Methey-isms. On “Better Days Ahead”, I had to square off the melody a bit, and there were times when I felt I had to do what he did.

I did have the opportunity to talk to him along the way. I met him at the Detroit Jazz Festival years ago, and we had been trying to get together but hadn’t managed it yet. After my parents passed, he wrote me a beautiful note, and we talked back and forth by email. I had been posting videos on Instagram of my arrangement of his tunes and, after we spoke, I sent him me playing “James”. He wrote back and said, I can’t believe you’re playing these tunes!” Then he sent me the lead sheets for the tunes, the ones he gives the folks in his band so they can learn them. I had all the proper chords and melodies—a treasure trove.

I didn’t mess with different guitars or amps in recording. I used the same guitar on all of these, my classical seven-string with a really good acoustic pick-up. I recorded it flat into my iPad through iRig and sent it to Rick Haydon in St Louis. We wanted it to be sort of like Pat’s solo guitar recordings and to sound as consistent as possible. 

Do you think a solo guitar album was lurking inside you all along, or was the isolation of the pandemic and the grief of losing your folks a kind of singular thing in motivating this recording?

I don’t think a solo guitar album would have happened, but for the pandemic. The phone was not going to ring. It was something to do each day, and it was therapy. If I did this at home in the city, I’d have to stop after an hour each morning to start my day. During the pandemic, I could conquer a tune and then record it. One at a time. After the record was over, I had to learn them again so I can play them all together, live!

I could have done standard songs for a solo record but felt: I’m not going to do them like George Van Epps or my dad or Joe Pass. But I could still apply their lessons. I could hear my dad saying, ‘Slow down; there’s no rush. I could hear his advice – why are you rushing through that? You have a beautiful melody. Play it.’

This recording comes out on Ghostlight Records, not Concord, not Telarc—and, of course, you’ve been on so-called “major” labels as well. Talk about the relationship of a jazz musician to a label these days. What do record sales even mean to you in 2021?

The Nat King Cole record was also on Ghostlight, so I have bounced around some. To me, the records are a calling card I can sell at my gigs. Clubs like the idea of “What’s new—whaddaya got?” That’s what a record means to a jazz artist. It’s not where you make that much money. The good news is, the majority of people who come to hear me want a hard copy and will buy one at the gig or afterward.

Let’s talk about It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere, your weekly Thursday evening streamed solo (mostly) performance. What does it mean to you — you have incredibly devoted fans there each week. And there is a sense of therapy in the performances.

The fans are getting more of me than before! I had to figure out how to make a living for the next year with the pandemic. When I started the streamed shows, I was picking a topic or theme each week. Then we took a week or two off and decided it worked best to find out what everyone really wants to hear. So we started taking requests during the week leading up to the show.

It’s really fun. This past week was the first when I did a number of Beatle songs in a row. But I try to work in maybe 70% new things each week. And there is usually a bossa nova section at the end of each show.

And your wife, the singer Jessica Molaskey, plays a role. For most of the show she chats with you from off-camera, and then she comes on to do a number.

The banter is as natural as what we do at the Carlyle when we play there. She asked if I wanted her to talk to me during the show. I was like, Yeah, you have to! And then the folks wait for her to come on camera and sing — it creates a nice little arc. The Brazilians tune in every week and write in the chat. And there are the local folks. It’s a really cool community. When the pandemic ends, we might continue this when we have a couple of weeks off between tours, going to Europe or whatever. It’s a great way to keep in touch.

Photo: Jessica Molaskey / Courtesy of Ghostlight Deluxe

You play “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” every week. It is on the James Taylor album too. Tell us what that means for you.

Around 2016, I starting playing that tune at the end of all my shows. Jessica said, “You gotta keep playing that tune. You don’t have to say anything about it.” Jessica says we’re going to keep playing this tune “until it no longer applies”. Unfortunately, every week something happens that shows that it still applies. I played it one week for Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for example. People thought we’d stop after someone else became president. But every week we play it.

I brought the song to James and said, ‘You gotta do this tune.’ I had created a mash-up version with “Teach You Children” around it. He loved the tune but didn’t want to do “Teach Your Children”. And James put it back into 3/4 where it belongs.

You’re 61. Maybe 15 years ago, I wrote a piece in which I mentioned you and a few other folks performing American Songbook material. I called the group “The Young Fogies”: this new generation reinvigorating the music from a pre-rock generation. But now you’re getting up there. What does the aging process mean for you?

We’re all getting older. I have played a specific set of standard tunes for 30 or 40 years, but now it’s interesting to learn what everyone wants to hear. For the streaming show, someone requested “The Rainbow Connection”, and people went crazy when I played it. I listen to the “70s on 7” channel in my car, and there’s no getting around the fact that people just really want to “Brandy” one more time. People will ask for a Steely Dan song or a Randy Newman song.

Just before things closed down, we were doing a show at Birdland called “The New Standard” — songs I listened to in the 1970s. We were playing “Don’t you Worry ‘Bout a Thing”, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”, “Honky Cat”. We were going to go in the studio to record these things. I keep trying to do that, to expand the repertoire.

Better Days Ahead is available through Ghostlight Deluxe.