John Pizzarelli: A Tribute to Duke Ellington

Matthew Warnock BY

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John Pizzarelli is a man of many talents. Singer, guitarist, bandleader and arranger, depending on the circumstances Pizzarelli can step into any or all of these roles and perform at the highest level. Coming from one of the most successful families in jazz, his brother [Martin Pizzarelli] being an accomplished bassist and father the legendary seven-string guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, the New York-based guitarist has built a devoted fan base, inside and outside of the jazz world, that has made him one of the genres most recognized faces and voices. A fan—and strong proponent—of the great American songbook, Pizzarelli's Rockin' in Rhythm (Telarc, 2010) showcases the singer/guitarist's love for the music of legendary writer, pianist and bandleader Duke Ellington.

The 12 tunes chosen for the record represent the diverse nature of Duke's work as a composer. There are well-known favorites such as "In a Mellow Tone" and "Satin Doll," as well as some lesser played gems like "All Too Soon" and "Love Scene." Besides the variety of compositional material on the album, one of its greatest attributes is the different textures and timbres that Pizzarelli and company explore on the record. Whether it's the skillfully crafted horn arrangements by legendary arranger Don Sebesky, or the three voice rendition of "Perdido," where Pizzarelli is joined by Kurt Elling and Jessica Molaskey, each song is given a fresh look without straying too far from the composer's original intent.

While Pizzarelli's name may be on the cover of the album, the guitarist and vocalist has surrounded himself with a cast of world class musicians on Rockin' in Rhythm. Joining him is his current -working quartet—bassist Martin Pizzarelli, drummer Tony Tedesco and pianist Larry Fuller—at the top of its game throughout the album, along with memorable guest spots by saxophonist Harry Allen, violinist Aaron Weinstein and the ever-impressive Bucky Pizzarelli, on guitar. With such a strong musical ensemble accompanying him, it's no wonder that Pizzarelli sounds as relaxed and in the moment as he does singing or playing through these jazz classics.

All About Jazz: Duke Ellington means many different things to many different jazz musicians. Some people love him for the hard swingers, others for the moody ballads, and everything in between. What is it about Duke's music that speaks to you and inspired you to record solely his compositions for your album Rockin' in Rhythm?

John Pizzarelli: I think a Duke Ellington record, for me, is something that's always been in the pipeline. I always have two or three ideas for what's going to be on the next record, and a few years back we almost did a big band record of Duke's material, but it ended up being the Frank Sinatra record [Dear Mr. Sinatra (Telarc, 2006)] I did with John Clayton. This just happened to be the right time and everything fell into place perfectly. Luckily for me, the way everything falls into place, it feels like it's meant to be a certain way. I'm glad that the Sinatra record ended up being the Clayton-Hamilton [Jazz Orchestra] record, and I'm glad that this record ended up to be something that follows up the Rogers record [With a Song in My Heart (Telarc, 2008)] really well.

I think coming off the Rogers record, doing some tracks with horns and knowing what that sound was going to be, it really set things up nicely to have this album be recorded in a similar manner to the Rogers record. We also knew that with Duke's music we could have more leeway jazz-wise, in a sense. We could look at instrumentals; I could do a guitar solo; it's just a whole other landscape than all of the other records I've done.

AAJ: Because Duke has such a vast catalogue of material, were there tough decisions that had to be made when it came time to narrow down the album to just twelve tunes from the many decades of Duke's output?

JP: I think that's the case with any record. It's always a problem to find a good combination of well-known songs and more unusual tunes. I think we had a nice mix here with songs like "Love Scene" and then "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo" inside "Don't Get Around Much Anymore."

The other thing that's good about this record is that we didn't always have to look for a good lyric when picking these songs because we could rely on the strength of his melodies as well. So I could play "Just Squeeze Me" as a guitar solo and not have to worry about finding lyrics for all of the tracks. Because Duke was such a strong instrumental writer we were able to do more instrumentals than we've done in the past, and that was fun for all of us to do.

AAJ: You included three medleys on the album and I'm wondering if it was tempting to do more, largely due to the depth of the material that you could have chosen to represent Duke on the album. How did you pick these particular medleys and was it tough not to add a couple more to the album?

JP: The medleys were definitely used as vehicle's for particular things. The "Cottontail-Rockin' in Rhythm" medley, for example, came about because I had heard Larry Fuller do a stride piano version of "Rockin' in Rhythm" in rehearsals. So I said to Don Sebesky, "What's the best way to use "Cottontail" to lead into "Rockin' in Rhythm?" I'm not sure who actually came up with the final idea of how to bring those two songs together, but I think the arrangement really came out well with Larry doing a great job on the stride intro to the second half of the medley.

With "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," I liked the idea of the minor key for the song and it was another way of preventing the album from being just one song after one song. Medley's provide another layer of variety, just like the different arrangements for each tune do.

AAJ: You mentioned Don Sebesky, who worked as the arranger for the album. You've worked with Don for a number of years now, what's it like working with Don behind the scenes when you bring him on board for a project like Rockin' in Rhythm?

JP: I've worked with Don now since '93 and we did our first record together in '96. The last two projects in particular were tremendously rewarding. He's a remarkably musical arranger and he's very creative. These are things that you of course want in an arranger, but he's also such a good friend of mine that we almost talk ahead of each other. We work so fast, it's hilarious.

It's so much fun working with a guy like Don, who knows our band as well as he does. I trust him so much, we think a lot a like and we just have a lot of fun working together. I wish the records would take longer to make. We get these projects done in a matter days, maybe a few weeks, and I wish they lasted six months we have so much fun together.

AAJ: You mentioned earlier your solo version of "Just Squeeze Me," which has a very improvised feel to it. Did you just sit down in the studio and run the tape or did you prepare parts, or all, of the arrangement beforehand?

JP: I knew I wanted one extra tune on the record and so I decided to do a guitar solo. I had recorded that tune before on a record with Ray Brown called Some of My Best Friends are ... Guitarists (Telarc, 2002). I played it in my apartment a couple of times and I got a rough idea of what I wanted to do with it. Then we ended up doing maybe two or three takes and that was it.

There was one edit on the track at the very end where I go [sings ending riff to tune] ... I played it so cleanly on the first take that I decided to edit it into the final take and use it there. I'm giving away my secrets, but everybody does this stuff so there's no real secret [laughs].

That's a complete take on the record, minus the ending. Sometimes that's a bit of a fault of mine, that I like the way songs sound when I just sit down and play them all the way through. There's something that gets captured in those moments that I love to have on my records.

AAJ: It seems that solo jazz guitar playing seems to be sort of a lost art these days. In the past players like Lenny Breau, Ted Greene, Joe Pass, and of course your father, all released full-length albums of solo guitar. Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems like solo guitar isn't being passed down to the next generation of players in the same way that it has been in the past.

JP: I do think that there's an emphasis on single-note playing these days, where the harmonic approach to the guitar sort of gets lost. I also think that the industry is such that you don't really get that opportunity anymore. My father has released several wonderful solo records, and of course like you mentioned, guys like Joe Pass and George Van Eps did the same thing.

I think it's hard to put together a whole record of solo guitar. Back when these guys were recording an album was 40 minutes long, which is hard enough to fill with solid, solo-guitar playing. Nowadays, labels want 60, or even 80, minutes of music, which is almost twice as much as before. Forty minutes could be doable, but 60 or 80 minutes of making music by yourself is not an easy thing to do.

On that note, I've heard Russell Malone play solo and he's just a magnificent solo guitarist, as well as Howard Alden and other guys in that vein. So there are guys doing the solo guitar thing, but it tends to be more of a featured tune or two, rather than a full album like the older players did.

AAJ: There seems to be a weird thing that happens in the jazz world when someone like you reaches the level of success that you've achieved. There's often a bit of a backlash from certain sections of the jazz community to artists like yourself, Diana Krall and Norah Jones just to name a few, that have achieved commercial success playing jazz. Have you ever experienced that pushback from the jazz community, from people who might think that your music isn't "jazz" because it's not cutting edge, or experimental enough for their tastes?

JP: Well I've never been cutting-edge jazz anyway, but I do think that I've been really surprised and pleased with the support I've gotten from the jazz community. It's been quite nice. The guys that are out there working, who we run into in airports, we all know how hard we're all working and we're supportive of each other.

My thing is to play standards and to come up with new and different arrangements of those great tunes. I'm lucky that I've been successful at it, and I think that the jazz community is a lot tighter than people may think it is, and they like to see success. To see Diana Krall or Harry Connick, Jr. sell millions of records, that's a great thing for jazz. It shows that there's a larger community of listeners out there who dig our music. I think that's great.

AAJ: Jumping back to your playing, one of the things that makes your performances fun to watch, and listen to on record, is when you scat along to your guitar solos. How did you develop that technique and what made you decide to feature it as part of your live performances?

From left: Bucky, John and Martin Pizzarelli

JP: Like any other good 16-year old would do, I tried to copy George Benson's record Masquerade [on Breezin' (Warner Brothers, 1976)]. I tried it on stage after a while and after my dad saw me do it he would always say, "Do that singing and playing thing again." So, it doesn't come from any major school of thought, it was just my dad telling me to do that singing and playing thing. I wish there was a better, more interesting answer. I think I might overdo it sometimes, but I enjoy doing it, especially on the up tempo tunes.

AAJ: Besides telling you to "Do that singing and playing thing," your father also got you into playing the seven-string guitar, for which he's famous for using. Do you always use the seven string when you perform or do you switch back and forth, especially when you're in a larger group setting?

JP: The seven string is my main instrument and it really comes out when I'm playing the intro to a tune like "Solitude." Over time I've learned when to use the low end and when to, as my brother Martin says, lay off my notes [laughs].

AAJ: Since you pretty much always play with a bassist do you have to watch how low you go on that seventh string to avoid getting things muddied up with the bassist?

JP: Yeah, I really have to watch that. When I did that record with Ray Brown, we were doing a tune and he turns to me and says, "You gotta give me some room—leave some notes for me [laughs]." I get so used to playing down there in that low register that I really have to watch.

Other times, like with one bassist I used to play with that lived up in the high register, kind of like Eddie Gomez, I would use the low end and play chords down there like a pianist would. Even with a pianist, I can ask them to use only the right hand when they're comping and then I can sneak in below them and add to the texture. Really knowing when and how to use those bass notes is important when playing the seven-string.

AAJ: Your brother, Martin, your father, Bucky, and wife, Jessica Molaskey, are all professional musicians. When you all get together for the holidays do you like to sing and play together, like many non-musical families do, or is that the time when you put the instruments down and just watch the football game?

JP: I don't think that we played that much this Thanksgiving, but over Christmas we have a sing-a-long that we've been doing it forever. We always like to finish up our family gatherings with music. We just play the fun songs and it's always been fun for us. When we want to do it we do it, when we don't we don't. It's usually a spontaneous thing.

Right before Christmas this year we had friends over and we started singing and before we realized it a neighbor came by and reminded us how late it was and it was probably time to stop [laughs].

AAJ: Your records tend to have a specific theme to them. Whether it's Duke Ellington, The Beatles or a genre like bossa nova, there's usually a thread that binds all of the tracks together. Is this something that you see yourself doing more of in the future?

JP: Yeah, for me I like to pick one idea and go with it. I've made records that are collections of different songs from different composers but even then I like to try and tie them together somehow. The last five records have all had some sort of specific person or songwriter involved, so that's where I've been headed lately.

It's fun to think that if I want to go in this direction there are so many great writers and directions to choose from. It's almost a never ending source of inspiration and of course, great music.

Selected discography

John Pizzarell, Rockin' in Rhythm (Telarc, 2010)

Pizzarelli Family, PIZZArelli party (Arbors Records, 2009)

Jessica Molasky, A Kiss To Build A Dream On (Arbors Records, 2008)

Bucky and John Pizzarelli, Generations (Arbors Records, 2007)

John Pizzarelli, Dear Mr. Sinatra (Telarc, 2006)

John Pizzarelli, Bossa Nova (Telarc, 2004)

Ray Brown Trio, Some of My Best Friends are ... Guitarists (Telarc, 2002)

John Pizzarelli, Let There Be Love (Telarc, 2000)

John Pizzarelli, After Hours (RCA, 1996)

Stephane Grappelli, Live at the Blue Note (Telarc, 1995)

John Pizzarelli, Dear Mr. Cole (Novus, 1994)

Harry Allen, Are You Having Any Fun?: A Celebration Of Sammy Fain (Audiophile, 1994)

Rosemary Clooney, Do You Miss New York? (Concord, 1993)

John Pizzarelli, My Blue Heaven (Chesky, 1990 ) Photo credits

Page 1, 3: Courtesy of John Pizzarelli

Page 2: Jens Palm, courtesy of John Pizzarelli

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