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John Pizzarelli Lights Up Birdland

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John Pizzarelli
Birdland
New York City, New York
November 17, 2007

On this final night of his most recent stand at New York's Birdland, guitarist/vocalist and bandleader John Pizzarelli raised the stakes, bringing an extra level of excitement to his performance and to the packed audience's delight. The week began with a "launch" party for Pizzarelli's wife, Jessica Molaskey, on the occasion of her new album Sitting in Limbo (P.S. Classics, 2007). The couple, moreover, had been cited by the press, including the 2007 Nightlife Award, as the Best Duo in the New York Metropolitan Area, so small wonder Molaskey is a frequent participant in Pizzarelli's engagements. But there was no mistaking the leading attraction on this particular night.

Even as a solo act, Pizzarelli maintains a high public profile via his recordings, club appearances and the public's perception of him as a "contemporary jazz hipster"—at least compared to someone like Wynton Marsalis with his more erudite and professorial public persona. Supporting this perception is Pizzarelli's talent and versatility as a true entertainer: a communicative singer, an excellent raconteur and, not incidentally, a skilled jazz musician.

With his trio of pianist Larry Fuller, bassist Martin Pizzarelli, and drummer Tony Tedesco, the guitarist opened with a bright version of the Dorothy Fields/Jerome Kern standard "Pick Yourself Up" (including a brief verse), followed by a shuffle-tempo take on the Johnny Green/Gus Kahn chestnut "Little Coquette." Gershwin's "Lady Be Good" was called next, and after the melody statement Fuller took a fleet-fingered and lengthy solo, showing his ease of navigating at these fast tempos. After the hand-off to the guitarist, Pizzarelli provided one of his specialties, a guitar solo with each note matched in unison by his scat singing. This is a unique talent that I've seen only from pianist Dena DeRose and guitarist George Benson. Ringside customers, especially, had to be enthralled by his mercurial fingering in perfect synch with his vocal techniques. Though I've seen him do the same from a distance away, to be able to watch the magic up- close was a highlight of the evening.

Most of the vocals included the original verses—and for a good reason. I don't believe that Pizzarelli incorporates them for reasons of honoring some long-gone generation of Great American Songbook enthusiasts but rather because the brief verse is integral with the individual song and, moreover, is so often ignored by singers nowadays.

As an example of his skill as a consummate entertainer, Pizzarelli chose a pair of Arthur Schwartz songs, beginning with the exquisite ballad "Then I'll be Tired of You" (co-written with Yip Harburg). The verse begins as "...You look at me and wonder, You look at me and doubt; Darling, your eyes are asking -will the flame burn out? - Well, no one is sure of sunshine, no one is sure of dawn, But I am sure my love will live on and on..." Pizzarelli then eased into the melody, "I'll be tired of you, when stars are tired of gleaming; When I am tired of dreaming, then I'll be tired of you." If someone is even no better than an "effective" vocalist, being handed a song like this is a golden moment for communicating with the audience.

Such musical taste in programming is another forté of Pizzarelli, whether the tune be a love song or swinger, and in this paired medley, the guitarist segued into the Schwartz and Dietz clever yet touching gem, "Rhode Island Is Famous For You." Midway through the song, he asked the audience to join in. Finding that the crowd was familiar with the complex lyrics brought a whoop of delight from Pizzarelli, especially the stanza, "...Pencils come from Pennsylvania, Vests from Vest Virginia, Tents from Tentessee, They know mink where they grow mink in Wyomink, A camp chair in New Hampchair- that's for me..." How can it get any better than this? Singer and audience communing together in homage to the consummately witty lyrics from one of the lesser-known jewels of the Great American Songbook.

For a change of pace, Pizzarelli introduced a James Tayor song, "A Mean Old Man," from Taylor's October Road album, which the guitarist had participated on. As a holiday incentive, Pizzarelli next called for a medley which began with Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride," the guitarist again romping during his solo with his idiosyncratic and infectious scatting/playing. The second part of the medley was the Frank Loesser ballad, "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?," which was rendered as an emotional love song. From there, Pizzarelli gave a languorous reading of "Manhattan," the New York crowd relishing the Rodgers & Hart classic, which was the brilliant songwriting team's first hit. When he got to the stanza that began with "...We'll go to Greenwich, where modern men itch,to be free...," there was an audible gasp of delight from an otherwise song-savvy audience that might not have been familiar with the rarely-performed lyric.

With some audience interaction and requests being called out, Pizzarelli used the opportunity to talk about and sing his successful commercials for Foxwoods Casino ("The Wonder of It All"), Kohl's Department Stores and Chock Full Of Nuts Coffee. As expected, a series of very funny anecdotes accompanied the medley—most amusingly the one about a discussion of the New Jersey Visitors Motto ( "New Jersey and You"), followed by an announcement of the set's finale—to no one's surprise, Harry Cosgrove's "I Like Jersey Best," which over the years has become Pizzarelli's signature song. The lead-up to the actual performance, however, was a ten-minute disquisition on the song's history, which had the responsive audience howling its appreciation.

In order to maintain this level of consumer approval, Pizzarelli is not content to deliver the time-tested humorous tune as is: as a bonus he's worked up vocal impressions of legendary "jazz" singers known to all (e.g. The Beach Boys, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, and several others). Each time I see this act, he seems to add more of these distinguished "guest" vocalists. And each time the audience is in stitches, all but begging for another number. Pizzarelli obliged, coming back with the swinging "If You're Going to Vera's" for a finishing touch to a great set.

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