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Artist Profiles

Bucky Pizzarelli: Dean Of The Seven-String

By Published: August 2, 2008
When it comes to guitar/violin duos however, two come to mind as being in a class by themselves: Eddie Lang/Joe Venuti and Django Reinhardt/ Stéphane Grappelli. When Venuti and Grappelli were looking for a guitarist to take the place of their long-time partners it is no accident that they both sought out Pizzarelli. Remembering those days, "I always heard records by Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti and when Venuti came to New York I got a chance to play with him and I ended up making a record with him too—The Joe Venuti Blue Four, (Chiaroscuro, 1974). And then when Grappelli came to the States I was lucky enough to play with him at the Boston Pops and then he called me whenever he came to the United States. I toured a lot with Grappelli. I didn't have to play like Django, I just did my own thing."

Pizzarelli followed a schedule during the 1950s and 1960s that would amaze current musicians. His day was typically divided up among morning studio sessions for producers and arrangers like Enoch Light and Claus Ogerman, afternoon television work with the likes of the NBC Orchestra and evening/late night live gigs at the city's jazz venues. As such he appeared on numerous records in the easy listening genre that are coveted by collectors of lounge and exotica jazz. Most notable of these are his multiple releases for Command and Project 3 produced by Enoch Light where he and Tony Mottola were the house guitarists (1962's Romantic Guitar and 1966's Great Guitars: Guitar Underground), his work on organist Walter Wanderley's bossa/exotica classic Rainforest (Verve, 1966) and with lounge icons The Three Suns.

According to Pizzarelli, the Enoch Light recordings were inventive sessions and his Three Suns experience was an outgrowth of his television work. "Enoch used to make what they called cover records... I knew the guys (Three Suns) and it worked out that they were on the Kate Smith Show and their guitarist, Al Nevins, was ill so I filled in for him. I played rhythm guitar on a lot of their albums. Sid Ramin and Marty Gold were the arrangers. Good arrangements and good writing." Pizzarelli also teamed for years with guitarist George Barnes, another Suns alum, holding residence at the St. Regis Hotel. Both Barnes and Pizzarelli appear on the guitar masterpiece The Historic Town Hall Concert (Columbia, 1972) along with Charlie Byrd, Chuck Wayne, Joe Beck and Tiny Grimes.

For the past two decades, Pizzarelli has been the dean of the seven-string guitar and his work has inspired a new group of guitarists that include son John and Howard Alden. Pizzarelli credits guitarist George Van Eps with introducing him to the seven-string: "A great guitarist from Plainfield NJ, George Van Eps, he is the guy that developed it. We heard him play it in New York. He stayed for about a week at the Park Sheraton Hotel and between sessions we went over to hear him play and we were going crazy, this guy was outta sight. So we went down to Manny's Music store bought the store out. My seventh string is a low A that extends the range of my guitar." To experience Pizzarelli's seven-string playing in its purest form, his two solo releases, April Kisses (Arbors, 1999) and One Morning in May (Arbors, 2001), are highly recommended as are his duets: Moonglow, with young archtop guitarist Frank Vignola (Hyena, 2005), In A Mellow Tone (Concord, 2004) with Alden and Contrasts (Arbors, 1999) with son John.

Pizzarelli reflects on the changes he has seen in music education and offers some sage advice. "In the old days all these musicians that I knew, they never went to school for music. They learned from these 'professors' and there were a lot of good ones in Paterson. For those who were involved it was a blessing and if you missed it you missed something big. Now they go to school and that's it and they learn a lot of runs. And if they didn't study correctly, they don't know any songs and that's no good. You got to work on that. That is the main thing I would tell a guitarist. Even if you don't read music or nothing. You got to go look at the chords and find songs that you like and then play them and then all of a sudden you find the melody and then you got things going."

Still an incredibly active international musician, Pizzarelli doesn't like to look back, but on his forthcoming release from Arbors entitled So Hard To Forget he does just that. "It has violins on it. Aaron Weinstein, a very good jazz player from Berklee, Sara Caswell and Jesse Levy on cello. It is all stuff that I was inspired by when I was a kid. The arranger was Dick Lieb, a fantastic arranger. I connect everything that I am doing with all the great people, events and situations I have been in. We used to listen to Frank Sinatra records with a string quartet and a guitar and bass and we would wear out the record just listening to the little things that are behind the great people."

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