Besides being a swinging guitarist and a cool but emotionally expressive vocalist, John Pizzarelli is also an amusing stand-up humorist who digs connecting with his audience.
Demonstrating his hip hybrid skills, the guitarist/crooner/entertainer leads his quartet in a Frank Sinatra centennial tribute concert on Friday, December 4, at 8:00 pm at the Stamford Center for the Arts Palace Theatre in Stamford.
Part of what makes the jazz/pop maestro's shows succeed so well is that he seasons his sophisticated musicianship with bright, funny patter and ad lib quips between songs. And he does it with such natural, unaffected comedic skill that he makes individual audience members feel as if they're old pals he's invited over for a breezy, classy jam session in the comfort of his living room.
As a son of jazz guitar legend Bucky Pizzarelli, John grew up in a home filled with live music and stacks of recordings, totally immersing himself in everything from Count Basie and Benny Goodman to Frank Sinatra and Wes Montgomery. Starting on guitar at age six, jazz for him was, is and always will be a loved and living legacy.
As for his knack for verbal wit, he was also nurtured on the rich tradition of the jazz musician's proverbial love for telling jokes and spinning anecdotes.
As a kid, he fell in love with comedy, much as he fell hopelessly in love with jazz.
“I was always fascinated by standup comedians, and one of the first comedy albums in our house was Why Is There Air?, a Bill Cosby record,” Pizzarelli said, explaining how he got hooked on verbal riffs and their power to entertain audiences.
“I didn't know who he was or what it was,” he recalled, “except that there was this guy talking on both sides of the record, charming a live audience. I forget how or why, but that led to me getting all the George Carlin albums. And I loved watching The Tonight Show and seeing Johnny Carson come out and do his monologue. I just had this thing about delivering a joke or telling a story with a punchline.”
“It's all about timing. Comedy is the same thing as jazz in that sense,” he said of the link between improvising a well-crafted jazz solo and riffing on witty patter in the moment.
Pizzarelli and his fine quartet are now on the road, presenting their Sinatra centennial tribute concert as well as performances devoted to his new, acclaimed album, Midnight McCartney (Concord Records), a burnished gem devoted to lesser known but no less beautiful songs by Paul McCartney.
Interestingly enough, the concept for Midnight McCartney came directly from none other than the knighted Beatle himself.
In 2014, McCartney asked Pizzarelli if he would be interested in devoting an entire album to his post-Beatle songs or lesser known material. McCartney and Pizzarelli first connected when the New Jersey-born guitarist played on Sir Paul's Grammy-winning 2012 album, Kisses on the Bottom.
Later, Pizzarelli backed the rock immortal at a handful of prestigious live performances, including the Grammy Awards.
Absolutely delighted by the idea of the project, Pizzarelli has created a richly varied, jazz-inflected, interpretive album that presents the superstar's songs with vibrant, multifaceted moods and grooves from bluesy to Brazilian.
With a little bit of help from his friends, including orchestrator Don Sebesky, keyboardist Larry Goldings and saxophonist Harry Allen, Pizzarelli brings great credit to both himself and McCartney's songs. At the heart of the musical finery is the Pizzarelli Quartet featuring John on guitar and vocals; his brother Martin Pizzarelli, bass; Konrad Paszkudzki, piano; and Kevin Kanner, drums. The same lineup performs at Stamford's Sinatra salute.
Pizzarelli, a musician of eclectic taste and expansive repertoire, grew up loving The Beatles. As a teenager, he covered their songs with his own rock bands. And as a rising star in 1996, he recorded one of his triumphant tribute albums, John Pizzarelli Meets The Beatles.
“Paul has a sense of history,” Pizzarelli said praising the great Brit's compositions, “and I think he likes the idea that he's a songwriter for all ages.”
“I think Paul loves the Tin Pan Alley songwriters. You can sense his passion for writing a really good song, one that eventually everybody is going to want to sing,” he said.
Switching back to his Sinatra show, Pizzarelli said his quartet will tap into songs from his widely acclaimed 2006 tribute album, Dear Mr. Sinatra, plus selections from Ol' Blue Eyes' collaborations with Count Basie as well as from the canonized Nelson Riddle recordings.
As a youngster, the now lifetime Sinatraphile listened to landmark Sinatra recordings that his dad, Bucky, appeared on as a sideman. Early in his own career in 1993, an ecstatic Pizzarelli opened 18 concerts for Sinatra on tour throughout the United States and overseas. A few years later, he performed at the Chairman of the Board's 80th birthday celebration at Carnegie Hall.
“I always liked the way Sinatra could interpret songs and project so many different attitudes. He could have the world on a string one moment, and then be the lonely guy drinking alone in the bar after hours because he had just lost his girl. Who would believe that Frank Sinatra, of all people, would ever lose the girl? Nonetheless, he could convince you that he was whoever he was singing about. It was just so amazing that he could do all these things, and take you to so many places,” he said.
Last year, Pizzarelli presented a Christmas show in Stamford. His Sinatra show will be no less festive, he promised.
“Stamford is always fun,” he said. Pausing a moment with exquisite timing, he added, with authentic ring-a-ding-ding verbal bravado:
“The Sinatra show in Stamford will be a gas!”
Tickets: $25.00 to $65.00. Information: palacestamford.org and (203) 325-4466. The Palace Theatre is at 61 Atlantic Street in Stamford.
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