Photo Credit: Daniel Borris
The feathery vocals of John Pizzarelli are a breath of fresh air in the Kennedy Center on this week's Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center. Pizzarelli has made a name for himself on guitar and vocals with his lively interpretations of jazz standards, and to start the evening off, he jumps into a quick and bouncy rendition of Benny Goodman's "Avalon."
Before he became a prominent jazz vocalist and guitarist, John flexed his musical muscle under his father-celebrated guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli. The elder Pizzarelli kept company with the likes of Benny Goodman, as well as legends Zoot Sims, Joe Venuti and Les Paul - "Three of the funniest guys in the business," notes Dr. Taylor. It's clear that he picked up more than jazz riffs from his father's friends as he recounts how his father taught him to play the guitar. "A mixture of ear training and fear...it's a course at Berkeley now."
John cracks up the crowd with tales of his solo roots as lead singer for his rock group, "Johnny Pick and His Scabs." Pizzarelli remembers playing paying gigs with his father and then rushing over to New York clubs to join his own band. His father claimed his son was "the only guy playing jazz to support his rock and roll habit." It was during these solo attempts that led Pizzarelli to discover new sounds and songs. This exploration led him eventually to the Nat King Cole Trio. "It wasn't 'Night and Day' for me," he quips, "it was 'Straighten up and Fly Right.'"
Next he and the Taylor Trio launch into a gossamer version of a tune he had once called "The Way You Wear Your Hat," better known as Gershwin's "They Can't Take That Away From Me." During this playful tune, Pizzarelli flaunts his vocal chops, and at times one can't be sure if the, he is accompanying the guitar or the other way around. Pizzarelli has carved his own sound from his father's legacy.
Being the son of Pizzarelli wasn't all pleasant chords. Dr. Taylor points out that the sons of famous musicians can have a hard time. Pizzarelli agrees candidly describing the times that he'd come out a concert thinking all had gone well only for a passerby to lament, "Miss your dad." John has learned to take the competition in stride.
Next he and Dr. Taylor discuss the merits of the drumless trio. Pizzarelli reveals that in early days, so-called cabaret laws barred drums from hotel stages. It was, "great jazz disguised as hotel music," says Pizzarelli. But that sound also drew him in. "The sound of the drumless trio was fun...you play little rhythm you play a little solo and you know you are off to the races, as my dad would say."
That love for the trio became a love for the music of Nat King Cole. Pizzarelli points to the jazz legend as "a springboard" for many of his musical ideas. But others spring from necessity; if he needs a ballad, a minor or a swing tune, Pizzarelli can always dig up the right song. This often leads him to more fun-loving solutions, such as novelty tunes like "Vera's," "I Wouldn't Trade You," and "I Like Jersey Best," tunes which he strums to the delight of the audience.
Among today's artists, Pizzarelli tells an audience member that he likes Pat Metheny He also mentions the new Steely Dan record but that's about as close as he gets to current. He admits, "I haven't listened to my Peter Frampton records in a while so maybe that's progress."