John Pizzarelli, with his quartet, may be one of the last great jazz-oriented lounge acts left on the American scene. At Cabaret Jazz on Friday, Pizzarelli showed he is a quadruple threat: virtuoso guitarist, stylish singer, amusing raconteur and subtle, quick-witted humorist.
His group is stellar: brilliant pianist Larry Fuller, tasteful drummer Tony Tedesco and solid bassist Martin Pizzarelli, John’s brother, have been together so long they think and react as one. While all are thorough artists, other than Pizzarelli it was Fuller who carried the lion’s share of the load.
They led off the 90-minute set with the Matt Dennis tune “Will You Still Be Mine?” with the group trading solo choruses. Pizzarelli did the vocal and enhanced his guitar solo spot playing parallel octaves, a technique developed by the late Wes Montgomery and considered to be more than a little difficult. Pizzarelli made it look and sound easy. The 1940s hit “Candy” was followed by a very up-tempo version of Gershwin’s “Lady Be Good.” Pizzarelli’s two choruses of scat singing were followed by drummer Tedesco trading four-bar solos with him.
Another tune from the ’40s, “We Three” (“My Echo, My Shadow and Me”) was by far the best ballad treatment of the evening. Pizzarelli took a sad but run-of-the-mill lyric and seemingly touched every heart in the audience. His treatment of the words was sensitive, even moving. He claims Frank Sinatra as one of his major influences, but even Ol’ Blue Eyes didn’t project this song with this much effect. Pizzarelli’s light and airy voice came closer to that of the great Mel Torme than at any other time in the evening.
Then came an example of Pizzarelli’s story-telling prowess. The subject was his father, jazz and studio guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, who has become a legend - especially among New York area musicians – and who is still performing at age 86, often dueting with son John. Bucky is a mentor and inspiration to John, and the reverence son holds for father is obvious. The story has Bucky claiming to be on a recording of “Ruby Baby” and John unable to find any recording credit for his dad. It turns out Bucky was referring to the tune’s original recording made years earlier. Belly laughs? No, just a gently humorous account of a typical exchange within the family.
Following Neil Young’s “Come a Little Bit Closer,” Pizzarelli turned to some cuts from his latest album “Double Exposure,” a compilation of tunes successfully juxtaposed though they bear no similarities. The first was “Sidewinder” combined with the Beatles’ “I Feel Fine,” then an obscure piece called “Drunk on the Moon” mixed in with the Billy Strayhorn classic, “Lush Life.” It’s unfortunate the former was given prominence while the great Strayhorn ballad seemed almost an afterthought. Too bad. Pizzarelli’s vocal ballad styling would have left the crowd breathless.
Duke Ellington’s “In a Mellow Tone” and “Don’t Get Around Much Any More” (which was combined with an eminently forgettable tune from the “Double Exposure” album) led into a piece only for voice and piano, Stephen Sondheim’s poignant “Where Are We to Go” from his show “Into the Woods.”
There were few empty seats in Cabaret Jazz, and those on hand seemed sorry to see the 90-minute set draw to a close. But the closer sent everyone home with broad smiles, “I like Jersey Best,” pays lighthearted homage to the home state of the Pizzarellis.REVIEW
Who: John Pizzarelli and his quartet
When: Friday and Saturday
Where: Cabaret Jazz at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts