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.

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