Lyrics and Lyricists: "Pentimento"
Directed by John Pizzarelli
92nd St. Y
January 12, 2004
To many, jazz, in its fleeting phase as the pop music of the 1920s and 30s, is just the goofy, corn-filled soundtrack to old cartoons. Songs like 'I'm Just Wild About Harry' are something once rebellious baby boomers hammed up to make fun of their elders. But as singer-guitarist John Pizzarelli, artistic director of this installment of the 92nd St. Y's Lyrics and Lyricists series, observes, there can be many layers to the seemingly benign.
Like the Broadway productions and MGM film musicals that premiered the music of Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, and George and Ira Gershwin and others, the songs themselves offered much-needed distraction to forlorn casualties of the Great Depression. On one level, indeed, the bubblegum hits of the day. But beneath the peppy veneer, between the syrupy lines of these sunshine gumdrop confections, lies deep, poetic turmoil, the stuff of bittersweet, heartbreaking tragedy. Masked sentiments as full of pathos and loss as anything the tortured Brian Wilson would pen for Pet Sounds, some 35 years later. 'Pentimento,' a title referring to the underlying image in a painting, was adapted from John's wife Jessica Molaskey's acclaimed CD of the same name. It was also a chance to taste these songs again, from a perhaps unfamiliar perspectiveand to savor the rich drama waiting to be found just below the icing.
If any living author can weave moving prose from horrific tragedy, it's Frank McCourt. The Depression wasn't confined to the U.S.; Ireland was hit just as hard, perhaps more so for a nation almost uniformly poor. And McCourt, the greatest memoirist of our time, vividly recounts his brutal 1930s Irish childhood in 1999's Pulitzer Prize-winning 'Angela's Ashes.' He reflects on the Bing Crosby and Billie Holiday tunes he heard on a neighbor's radio, on how these enticing lights gave fleeting glimpses of a better life in America. How they drove him to work, scrape, and even steal to pay his way across. As the program's speaker, McCourt would read from his own works, as well as that of F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, and William Saroyan.
Jobs were, of course, scarce all around in the 20s and 30s. But musicians managed to do fairly well, playing all the dance hall gigs they could handle and picking up studio work on the side, often under assumed names to avoid contractual hassles. Thus, many of the era?s pop records feature outstanding performances by moonlighting jazz players, wonderfully blurring the line between the cutting edge and the commercial. Appropriately,'Pentimento's' revue boasted an extraordinary band: augmenting John Pizzarelli were his well-known dad, guitarist Bucky; brother Martin on bass; violinist Johnny Frigo; pianist Ray Kennedy; percussionist Tony Tedesco; and clarinet god Ken Peplowski. Molaskey, was joined on vocals by Broadway legend Christine Ebersole.
It was clear from the clever stage design the show would be something special. Inspired by the living room jam sessions of the Pizzarelli household and populated by antique furniture, the set looked like the parlor scene of some junk store-found, sepia-toned photograph. Innovative lighting gave the illusion of afternoon sunlight seeping through drawn blinds. John?s regular drummer Tony Tedesco made ingenious use of the props, playing a 'kit' of padded stools and end tables.
Ensconced in a comfortable-looking chair and reading from a dusty old tome (where were his robe and pipe?), McCourt recounted the blessed birth of jazz, 'America's classical music.' Of how this renegade art form fanned the flames of the Jazz Age, a time of blunt-edged Prohibition, wild parties and dancing, and the 'loose morals' of newly assertive young women known as flappers. Taking her cue and gunning for the feel of red-hot mamas like Helen Kane and Ruth Etting, Molaskey was first at the mic, chirping out a coy 'Oh, You Beautiful Doll.' Cute, but right away it was clear that Frigo would steal the day. The modern Stuff Smith, this former Jimmy Dorsey and Chico Marx (!) sideman is an overlooked genius. His fluid flights and lilting trills are not to be missed.
Nearly on par with Frigo was the amazing Ken Peplowski. For most of the gig, this star of the Y's 'Licorice Schticks' event last July kept his fire well in check. Deferring to the other soloists and singers with some fine comping, he also played the moody foil to McCourt's narrative. But our man couldn't be contained for long, and his bubbly champagne solo on 'Toot, Toot, Tootsie' delightfully tickled the nose. Christine Ebersole is certainly a drawing card on the Great White Way. But the showtune voice of this ex-'Saturday Night Live' diva is more suited to torchy cabaret. Hot gems like 'I Can?t Give You Anything But Love, Baby' fare better when delivered with an edge that is apparently beneath her finishing school technique.
The 1929 stock market crash put an end to the roaring parties. Lyrical matter turned to tales of flight, as hobos hopped the rails in search of work. McCourt's delivery of passages from The Grapes of Wrath slipped into a John Pizzarelli / Peplowski duet of 'Brother, Can You Spare a Dime.' A somber arrangement of 'Lullaby of Broadway,' ironically tailored to Ebersole's style, marked the approaching intermission.
With or without money, there's always love. Sometimes the only way to realize this is to lose everything else. To take comfort in what's really important and look to the sunny days ahead. Classics like 'I'm Always Chasing Rainbows' and 'When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob Bob Bobbin' Along' are mood-mending testaments to such optimism. So is the eternally catchy 'Three Little Words,' with a Ray Kennedy solo that tinkled like icicles. Like his playing, Kennedy's credentials are impeccable: fruitful employment with Nat Adderly, James Moody, Sonny Stitt. And, like his obvious heroes George Shearing and Oscar Peterson, Kennedy's touch is rooted in the stride that informs this music and drenched in deft, crystalline texture.
Although his Rat Pack demeanor suggests a few too many Atlantic City gigs, John Pizzarelli is a superb guitarist in the mold of both his father and Les Paul. He's a confident entertainer with a smooth, easy voice. And his runaway romp through 'I Got Rhythm,' with its breakneck vocalese/guitar solonot to mention his banjo playingwas incredible. But John's overdone, feel-good persona is tough to take. After all, the show was promoted as being about the magic power the songs themselves have to make us feel good. Why try so hard? Best let the music do the talking. Then again, the octogenarian audience totally loved it. As the room sang and clapped along, one could feel icy ages melting away, smiles gleaming. Witnessing this phenomenon would've given even the hardest-case non-believer hope for humanity.
That the Pizzarellis are musicians at all is something we owe to Bucky's Uncle Pete, who taught him guitar in the family's Paterson, New Jersey, home in the 1930s. Mastering 'Honeysuckle Rose' was a rite of passage among the clan's players, an entitlement to stay up late and jam with the grownups. Bucky and John's duet on the Razaf-Waller evergreen was the show's standout moment; a timeless snapshot of the eternal appeal of a great song and the joy that comes from playing it, of immeasurable gratitude from the artists to the tradition they have dedicated their lives to, and of bittersweet reflection as the graying elder passes the torch. But more than anything it was a depiction of the sure, unspoken love between a gracious son and the proud father who gave him life on Earth. Divine moments like this are all too rare. We feel touched and privileged to be present when they occur.
The Tin Pan Alley jazz of the pre-war era is fun music. It's about having a good time and enjoying life, and as 'Pentimento' successfully illustrated, it helped get a lot of folks through some very tough times. (Not that many of the Leona Helmsleys in attendance could have been touched by the Depression; this was the Upper East Side, after all.) But if this music is to transcend its unjust ghetto of nostalgic hokum, it needs to be presented to a much younger audiencesans schtick. With the focus on the brilliant melodies, the inventive wordplay. And, in the case of the talent gathered here, the amazing virtuosity and dazzling innovation of its practitioners.
The Lyrics and Lyricists Series at the 92nd. St. Y continues with...
- Harry Warren - February 14-16
- ?Yip? Harburg - March 20-22
- Cole Porter - May 8-10
- Ira Gershwin - June 12-14
Visit John Pizzarelli on the web at www.johnpizzarelli.com .
? Kit Kittle. All rights reserved.