Review: The John Pizzarelli Quartet at MIM

By Kyle Harris

Phoenix and the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) warmly welcomed “Great American Songbook” practitioner John Pizzarelli and his quartet Thursday evening August 7th. The audience for the first show was well stratified with a mix of seasoned jazz lovers and a good representation of younger listeners as well. On this tour the quartet was comprised of John, his brother Martin Pizzarelli on bass, drummer Kevin Kanner and Konrad Paszkudzki on piano. Kevin and Konrad are new additions and both are younger players. Depending on your personal inclinations they might represent energy, fresh perspective, and “edge”, or might raise an eyebrow on committed traditional jazz aficionados who place a higher value on lengthy experience. For this show, the volume of enthusiasm expressed by the audience was solidly pro-youth.

John Pizzarelli

These four men in suits took the stage exuding confidence and set directly into Benny Carter’s “When Lights Are Low”, a mid-tempo standard that is an ideal introduction to this quartet. Soft and seductive, it is an excellent set opener. John Pizzarelli’s vocal style proves the old adage, “It ain’t what you got, but how you use it.” His voice is the natural companion to his guitar, as melodies are stated, massaged, improvised and then effortlessly returned, better for the experience, for the last verse.

John Pizzarelli is, of course, a consummate musician and performer with a deep understanding that every moment on stage is significant. He offers personal anecdotes, wit, humor, and jazz history between songs, winning and keeping the rapt attention of this audience. One theme of this performance can be summed up in two words: “Johnny Mercer”. Six of the thirteen songs in the 90 minute set featured lyrics by Mercer: “I Got Out of Bed on The Right Side”, “I Thought About You”, “I Remember You”, “I’m With You”, “Skylark”, “Jamboree Jones”, and “Accentuate the Positive”. The arrangements were tight and vibrant with every song given due respect yet always mindful of the fact that “The Great American Songbook” is about popular music in the pure sense of the meaning. This is entertainment, not musical pedantry.

Pizzarelli delivered all of the guitar mastery he is famous for: hyper-speed chording, scatting over fierce single note lines, and evocative chord variants perfectly placed. One of the show highlights was a solo guitar arrangement of Jerome Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight”. Pizzarelli took a few minutes to introduce and explain his seven string guitar which features an added low A string, giving the guitarist a deeper tonal color palette and also expanded chord inversion options which he then clearly displayed in his rendition of this classic song.

The audience was consistent in strong approval for every song performed, but perhaps a bit more enthusiastic for Pizzarelli’s very intriguing blending of jazz and pop songs. He spoke to growing up in a jazz-centric household in an era when pop music was offering more and more aural enticements to young musicians. Having absorbed many of that era’s best songwriting; Beatles, Neil Young, Tom Waits, and many others, he eventually experimented with blending jazz standards and pop songs. Lee Morgan’s “Sidewinder” and the Beatles’ “I Feel Fine” were spot on, as if they were meant to be. The Allman Brothers’ “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” and Wes Montgomery’s “4 on 6” proved that rock and jazz guitar styles can live in harmony. The “didn’t see that coming” moment, however, was Tom Waits’ ”Drunk on the Moon” mated to Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life”. Waits’ words, placed in a radical new vessel, demanded listening to the lyrics in a new context. In the parlance of jazz: “Cool”.

The band provided solid backing all evening. Martin Pizzarelli has 25 years of working with John and they move as a unit, inseparable in the groove. Kevin Kanner is a young drummer with real jazz chops and high energy. Konrad’s piano was appropriately supportive, which is exactly the right strategy coming into a band like this. One can reasonably expect that over time, these two players will find their optimal place in the quartet.

John Pizzarelli is a jazz musician who literally has done it all and now resides in an apartment on “Iconic Street”. In performance, he and this ensemble deliver a full measure of entertainment to the audience. These men love music, love performing, and understand what an audience needs and wants. For 90 minutes on a warm summer’s night in Phoenix, 300 people were “hip”.

August 18, 2014

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