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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.

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