“Frequently after shows a person will say they don't like jazz, but they like what we do.”
John Pizzarelli

An Interview with John Pizzarelli

By Mariah Fleming

John Pizzarelli: Music and Merriment at MIM on 8/7

John and Bucky Pizzarelli

If you think you don’t like jazz, chances are you haven’t yet stepped into the orbit of world renowned jazz guitarist and master crooner John PIzzarelli, who is appearing in two shows at the Musical Instrument Museum on Thursday, August 7th. Onstage Pizzarelli is known for his witty, upbeat stage presence and engaging storytelling. In his 2012 autobiography “World on a String” he says that at family gatherings he was the ‘standup comedian” doing bits from George Carlin and Bill Cosby. Undoubtedly, in addition to his wonderful music, his MIM show promises to leave the audience smiling.

Pizzarelli’s father is legendary jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, who played in the Tonight Show orchestra. As a kid, Pizzarelli’s world was filled with jazz. He grew up knowing jazz icons like Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney and Frank Sinatra. So what did he pick as his first instrument? Tenor banjo! And that was when he was six years old. Of course, tenor banjo led to the guitar. And at the tender age of six he began the process of learning to master it. Considering his body of work, that banjo choice seems like a harbinger of his lifelong artistic curiosity and versatility.

As a teenager, Pizzarelli began exploring jazz with his father, playing with many jazz giants including Les Paul, Clark Terry, Benny Goodman and Zoot Sims. In 1990 he went out on his own. He has recorded over twenty albums since his first release in 1990. His work draws from an intriguing variety of musical styles. On several releases he explores pop music, beginning with 1990’s “John Pizzarelli Meets the Beatles” (for which Paul McCartney gave him a “thumbs up”) to his most recent release, 2012’s “Double Exposure.”

On “Double Exposure” Pizzarelli reimagines songs from the soundtrack of the boomer generation, creating hybrid pop and jazz interpretations like no one’s done before. For example, he marries Lennon and McCartney’s “I Feel Fine,” with Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder” and the Allman Brothers “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” with some Wes Montgomery bebop. Then there’s my favorite, James Taylor’s “Traffic Jam,” a swinging, hypnotic homage to Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.

Pizzarelli is a musician extraordinaire, a raconteur, an author and host of a syndicated weekly radio show. His music catalogue covers jazz standards to Bossa Nova and everything in between. The Boston Globe hailed Pizzarelli for “reinvigorating the Great American Songbook and re-popularizing jazz.” Yes. And then some! You don’t want to miss this show. Tickets are available at MIM.org.


John Pizzarelli

Q.I last saw you when you performed at the Musical Instrument Museum in 2013 with your wife, singer/actress Jessica Molasky. It was a great show. Will you be performing with your quartet this time?
A.It's a brand new quartet this time. Kevin Kanner on drums, Konrad Paszkudzki on piano, my brother, Martin on bass and myself on guitar and vocals.

Q.What did you think of the MIM?
A.I thought the venue was terrific!

Q.In your upcoming concert, aside from music from your wonderful 2012 album "Double Exposure" what can we expect to hear?
A.Some songs associated with Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Richard Rodgers and others.

Q.You're a jazz guitarist, vocalist, songwriter, bandleader, radio host and author. You've recorded more than twenty albums, covering standards to Bossa Nova to pop music. You made your Broadway debut in 1997's "Dream." Has your creative goal always been to do the unexpected?
A.I think the goal has been to always be true to the style of music, jazz and to keep people aware of how vital an art form it is.

Q.You first started gigging with your father, the legendary Bucky Pizzarelli. What do you remember about your first gig with your dad?
A.How much fun it was for me and terrifying it was for him. He worked so hard to keep me from getting into musical trouble.

Q.It's unusual for jazz artists to talk between songs, but you talk, tell stories and create the feeling that you're performing in a friend's living room. Have you always been that comfortable with an audience or did you learn that from your father?
A.I was a fan of comedians as a child, from Johnny Carson to Bill Cosby and George Carlin and loved listening to their timing. I always felt it was unusual for jazz artists NOT to talk, so I just went ahead and let people know where they were at, at my show.

Q.Is there any one decision you made during your career that you believe was pivotal to your success?
A.Not becoming a stellar center fielder for the Red Sox.

Q.You explore the music of pop artists of the 60's, 70's and 80's in several albums like 1999's "John Pizzarelli Meets the Beatles" and 2012's "Double Exposure." In "Double Exposure" you take indelible songs from artists like James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Elvis Costello and create unique interpretations. Have you received feedback from any of the pop artists whose songs you've covered?
A.Yes. Paul McCartney told me the Beatles cd was "very good". Elvis Costello saw the lineup of songs along with his tune ALISON, and thought he was in very good company. The Jobim family loved my Bossa Nova cd.

Q.Your unique interpretations make jazz accessible to those who aren't familiar with it or who think they don't like it. Has that always been a goal?
A.Yes. Frequently after shows a person will say they don't like jazz, but they like what we do. I know we don't play jazz any differently or better than the next group, but it know we get through to the listener.

Q.As a songwriter and interpreter of others' songs, which process do you find more challenging, writing or interpreting?
A.Well, songwriting is hard because you are going up against Richard Rodgers, the Gershwins and the listeners of those songs. Interpreting is fun because you are starting with great material...you hope.

John Pizzarelli

Q.Is there a new album in the works?
A.Nothing to speak of yet, but some exciting things on the horizon.

Q.When you record an album do you record live in studio or do the other musicians send tracks to you?
A.We like to record live in the studio when we do record.

Q.Is there any particular studio location in which you prefer to work, and does the location affect the music?
A.I like writing on planes and at a little cabin I own an hour from NYC.

Q.Also, is there any particular place you prefer to write music?
A.I like recording wherever they'll have me, but the Jacob Burns media arts lab in Pleasantville, NY is a great place to record.

Q.What's the first instrument you picked up when you were a kid?
A.The tenor banjo was my first instrument when I was 6 1/2.

Q.Was there an "aha" moment for you that cinched music as being what you wanted to do?
A.The “aha” moment was when I struck out with the bases loaded as an early teen.

Q.Your 1994 albums "Dear Mr. Cole" and 1999's "PS Mr. Cole" are dedicated to Nat King Cole. You cite his music as the reason you do what you're doing. What was the first Nat King Cole song that really grabbed you and why?
A.I think the album, on vinyl, of the best of the Nat Cole Trio clinched it for me because of all the different musical elements that existed in that tiny perfect group. No drums! A sense of humor, swing and sentimentality. As a guitarist, you had to be able to play single notes jazz AND comp rhythm. Nat's singing was perfect for every style he tried, ballad, fast swing or rhythm song.

Q.You co-host with your wife Jessica the syndicated show "Radio Deluxe." You've interviewed people like Annie Ross, Liza Minnelli and Regis Philbin. Radio Deluxe features candid, thoughtful, entertaining fare. Why did you and Jessica decide to host a radio show and how do you have time to do it?
A.We do it from our living room, Very simply and send it out to our producer via the internet to edit it together. As for why we decided, even we don't know, but it's been very successful and can be heard on over 40 stations around the US and Canada and on thejonathanchannel.org

Q.You've worked with so many legendary artists over the years, is there anyone you haven't yet worked with you'd especially like to work with? Or anyone who’s gone now you would have liked to work with?
A.My real dreams have been fulfilled working with Paul McCartney, James Taylor, Rosie Clooney, Natalie Cole and my dad, but my other dream was that I would be watching the sound check of the Basie Band, say around 1965 and Freddie Green would spot me and ask if I would play rhythm in the band for a tune or two so he could hear how his guitar sounded in the house.

July 20, 2014

Contact the author of this article at Editor@MusicAndMoreAZ.com.