PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
September 14, 2004

John Pizzarelli's Jazz Genes

by Jim Newsom

John Pizzarelli began learning the family business at an early age. His father Bucky was a well known guitarist on the New York jazz scene, a member of the NBC orchestra in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Young John got to meet and spend time with many of his dad’s musician friends.

“I had the opportunity to be around people who played the music that I was going to eventually play for a living,” he told me last week. “I was around people who played it at such a high level, it would be the equivalent of hanging around the Beatles. I was hanging around Zoot Sims and Clark Terry and Bucky and Tommy [Newsom] and all those guys. Whenever there was a band put together, it was the A list.

“I realized that they had so much fun together, and the only way you could get to hang out with the guys was to learn the tunes. It was just fun. It was a great group of guys and the music was terrific.”

Still, the 44-year old was drawn to the contemporary music of the time when he was growing up. It’s just that he had that jazz lineage deep in his genes.

“I always liked the singer-songwriters,” he said. “I liked James Taylor, Billy Joel and Jackson Browne, people like that. When I heard the Nat King Cole Trio, it had all the ingredients that I like about rock and roll, believe it or not. I could get a group together and play songs that I liked, and play solos on ‘em every night. It was like the Allman Brothers---you could play a different solo on ‘Avalon’ and still have the organization of the song. I just liked the excitement, and the songs were great.”

This Saturday night, John Pizzarelli brings his jazz trio to town to play some great songs with the Virginia Symphony Pops at Chrysler Hall in a program called Over the Rainbow - The Harold Arlen Centennial.

“Next year is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Harold Arlen,” he explained. “I met the family about two or three years ago out in Los Angeles, and they said it would be great if you’d do a show of Harold’s music. So Don Sebesky put together this book of about ten songs, it’s the second half of a program. And it just goes through the greatest hits of Harold Arlen. It’s some of the great standards of all time. There’s no misses, they’re all great songs.

“The show starts with a medley that the orchestra plays before I come out, and it’s ‘Stormy Weather,’ ‘Man That Got Away’ and ‘Bluesin’ in the Night.’ And we do ‘World on a String,’ ‘One For My Baby,’ ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,’ ‘Let’s Fall in Love.’ It’s a good set of music. We’ve played it a number of times and I’m amazed how people react to it.”

John Pizzarelli has been playing guitar since he was six, learning “a few things” from his dad and taking it from there. But it was the trio music of Nat King Cole that most inspired his career direction:

“I started when I was young and played in rock bands in high school, and just started learning tunes off of records. Michael Franks and Kenny Rankin were the guys who started to steer the ship into the jazz world. That really fit what I was doing. Then when I heard Nat King Cole and his trio, it’s what really solidified the material that I was going to use as the foundation for what I wanted to do.

“The first time was January of 1980. I remember like it was yesterday. I had learned ‘Straighten Up and Fly Right’ from a record by another artist. My father said, ‘You gotta get the Nat Cole trio stuff ‘cause it’s all like that. You’ll sing all of that stuff in a minute.’

“Capitol released The Best of the Nat Cole Trio, parts 1 and 2 at that time. I remember bringing the records home and went, Oh my God, you know---‘Frim Fram Sauce,’ ‘You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You,’ ‘Paper Moon’---I said this is for me. I was working with a singer at the time and he was singing ‘Night and Day’ and ‘Witchcraft’ and ‘I Get a Kick Out of You’ and I was accompanying him. I couldn’t sing any of those songs, but the Nat Cole material was just perfect.”

Pizzarelli spent his twenties, the decade of the 1980s, playing with his dad.

“Those ten years were really my apprenticeship. I worked with him anywhere and everywhere for ten years and I found myself in unbelievable settings. It was a learning process that really prepared me well for starting my own group when I was 31.”

Like his father, John Pizzarelli plays a 7-string guitar (with an extra low A-string), and he’s a gifted instrumentalist. But like his role model Nat Cole, he’s best known as a singer. Besides a 1994 tribute called Dear Mr. Cole and an album full of Beatles songs (John Pizzarelli Meets The Beatles), his discography primarily includes collections of standards, occasionally mixed with well crafted originals that fit in seamlessly. His most recent Telarc disc, Bossa Nova, may well be his best yet, the perfect setting for his understated vocal stylings and guitar work.

Saturday night, he’ll have his regular bandmates with him. Pianist Ray Kennedy has appeared on many of his recordings, and younger brother Martin Pizzarelli has been his bassist since they played together in those high school rock bands. (“We needed a bass player in our rock band. We forced him, ‘Take this and play it.’”) Drummer Tony Tedesco rounds out the rhythm section.

I asked him how difficult it is to integrate his jazz group with a symphony orchestra.

“We’ve figured it out,” he replied. “It took us about seven or eight years to try and craft the arrangements and say you’ve got to leave this space for us to do what we do, and then you’ve got to count four choruses before you come back in. It’s worked out pretty well.”

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