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John Pizzarelli: The Metheny Project

R.J. DeLuke By

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I'm not gonna' match what Pat did, single-note wise. I try to find my voice inside of those things.
—John Pizzarelli
Guitarist/singer John Pizzarelli has been a road warrior in a long career spanning some five decades. He's known for following in the footsteps of his father, the great jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, as a champion of the Great American Songbook working with classic jazz musicians and singers. He eventually became one of those singers that keeps classic works alive: a crooner, at times, who can also play music from well beyond the swing era.

He cuts it as a top-level guitarist, something that gets overlooked when he's singing a Beatles song or leading an orchestra at Radio City Music Hall in the "Sinatra: His Voice, His World, His Way" program years ago. He's also graced the albums of pop musicians like Rickie Lee Jones and Natalie Cole. Pizzarelli earned his first Grammy in 2021 as a co-producer on James Taylor's album American Standard, which won the Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album category and featured the pop icon wading in the waters of the aforementioned Great American Songbook where Pizzarelli is so at home.

But during the pandemic, Pizzarelli found himself literally at home with no one to sing to or to hear the crisp swinging guitar style that stems from idols including his father, George Van Eps, Oscar Moore and George Barnes. He started practicing more, pouring over his seven-string guitar because he had more time on his hands. He soon chose the material of Pat Metheny to explore. Metheny's style does not call to mind the straight-ahead swing that characterizes much of Pizzarelli's playing—though both have a mutual admiration for one another. As Pizzarelli got more involved, it became an official project.

The result is Pizzarelli's first solo guitar recording in his more than five decades in the business. Better Days Ahead was released in April 2021 and consists of 13 Metheny compositions.

The title befits people's thoughts about getting through the pandemic. But for Pizzarelli, there were heavier, more emotionally taxing moments. He canceled all of his gigs for the year on April 1, 2020. Two weeks later, his father died of COVID-19. A week later, his mother, Ruth, also succumbed to the illness. They had been married for 66 years.

"My mother wasn't gonna' let him go for long," Pizzarelli says in a light-hearted manner. The passing of a year's time allows that manner. "She gave him eight days and then said, 'Here I come...' It's still tough, but the only way I can reconcile is that's the way it was gonna' be. Both of them were in such bad shape in the last couple of months. The good news was they didn't have to suffer anymore. That was the only positive out of it."

Pizzarelli had seen his father practice classical music in the morning before going to gigs later in the day or evening. The elder Pizzarelli would play on a classical guitar and taught himself classical style. He even fixed his fingernails to be able to play it and had Segovia pieces on his music stand.

John was playing standards in his early pandemic sessions and then gravitated to Metheny's music, which he began working on through his own morning sessions alone with his guitar. "I always picked up the guitar in the morning. I get up early, between 7 and 8. I play the guitar for an hour or two. When I'm [in New York City], I'll play for a little bit...But then usually at 10 o'clock, you've got to start moving. You got to go somewhere. You're going to go out and get something to eat. You're going to get on the subway, go downtown, and all that. Here, I was playing and I was totally—the phone's not ringing. I'm not going anywhere. I was spending four to five hours playing the guitar in the morning.

After his parents died, "I wasn't sleeping well and I would get up in the morning and start really exploring all these Metheny tunes. When my father was sick, I would go to play at his bedside and we talked about stuff. I was playing tunes, his arrangements." Pizzarelli, an outgoing, affable guy who is quick with a joke added, "Nothing will make a guy sicker than a bad guitarist playing his arrangements for him, you know?"

As he continued longer playing sessions at home, he wanted to do more investigating on the instrument. "A challenge that's not 'Tangerine' or 'Swinging on a Star,' for lack of a better two tunes to pick. And I played 'James' [by Metheny]. I hadn't really completed getting 'James' under my hands. When I did, I started finding other tunes. In the process, Pat had written some condolence notes [regarding John's parents] to me on email. I started talking to him about his tunes, and then he sent me lead sheets of the tunes that I was looking for. So it became a process of sitting down with this literature and going, 'How can I make this into something that's me?' It was unique to me, to be learning the songs and putting them in that language. So it was really fun. I just had a freedom that I hadn't had in the past."

Metheny "liked what I was doing with the tunes and stuff too. So we really had a great back and forth about it. His support meant a lot. It really was something."

Metheny acknowledges John's mastery of classic jazz forms and Bucky's great ability and career. "To say it was flattering to have John address these tunes, knowing all the great music he has been around his whole life, is an understatement. It is an incredible honor for me."

John says that "I've been a fan of [Metheny] since I was 16. My dad and I went to see him in 1988. We went to see him at the Beacon Theater. I knew [Dad] would like him. A lot of these songs come out of that time. I had played 'James' with my group in little bars in New Jersey. I had played 'It's Just Talk,' and I think we even played 'Last Train Home' with those groups. But now I was really trying to find something. Not just going, 'Oh, that'll work.' Now I was going, 'What are the real chords? What are the chords I'm missing?' There were always one or two chords where I went, 'Oh, that's the real voicing of that one.' I really was trying to take care of what I had in front of me...You learn them first on the page. Then you've got to re-learn it without the music in front of you, then record it. Then, once I had recorded the whole thing, I have to go back and learn certain songs again so I can play them live. It's a long process. It's really crazy but fulfilling because it was like nothing I've ever done before."

"It was fun to go, well, I can't play 'Phase Dance' in the original key. I want to find a key that I can play it and it will work. Having a seventh string, I could try and recreate certain things. It was fun through the whole process. That I was able to have the time to do it was both the positive and the negative. I was so happy to say, 'Well, I got six hours today. I don't have anything else to do.' I really got into the process of it, decoding what was going on inside of those things. The hard part was, you know, certain songs like 'September Fifteenth.' There's a part where [pianist] Lyle Mays plays sustained melody notes—all those long things. How can I find a way to get that inside of that? Certain Lyle Mays things were the hard ones to translate. That was the key to some of the things too. I can't sustain those things on the guitar like they do there, but I could find a way to do it. That's what some of the challenges were...I was really pleased that it came out as well as it did."

The cover of the album is a painting of Pizzarelli wearing a COVID-19 mask. It was done by his wife, the singer, actress, artist and sometimes musical collaborator Jessica Molaskey.

"She's been painting a lot. She was starting to do a series. She did one of our daughters with a mask on. Then she said, 'Put this mask on' and took a picture of me with it and started to paint it. And I said, 'Well that's the cover.' It was a double meaning because I had the mask but I also didn't sing on the record. So I thought that was sort of an inside joke. I had the mask on and wasn't gonna' be singing."

Thinking about his famous father, he says "I know he would really have enjoyed this. If I went over to the house and actually played a few of these things for him, he'd have flipped because they were right up his alley: beautifully and melodically great chords, rhythmic things going on, it has all the ingredients of Aaron Copland or whomever. The music is so down Bucky's alley, and I couldn't help but think he would have loved hearing this. The best part is he would have been like, 'How'd you do that?' It really would have been fun."

The project was not only important in the wake of his parents' death but also in coping with the frustration that goes along with being cooped up because of the pandemic.

"Everybody's going, 'Isn't this nuts?' I can't believe we've survived as long as we have for the year!' But I was so happy to have this crazy music, to go find these things. It really saved my life," he says. "The whole project: recording it on my iPad in my daughter's bedroom, sending it out to my friend [guitarist] Rick Haydon in Illinois—who I've known forever—him saying, 'This is good, but you may want to think about this other section,' having a project throughout all this craziness where the only thing you could think about was washing your hands every 10 minutes. It was a lifesaver."

In studying Metheny's music, Pizzarelli never lost sight of the influences of his father and other classic jazz guitarists that influenced him: Van Eps, Moore and Barnes.

"George Barnes had been a great electric player out of Chicago, a single-note player supreme. Oscar Moore played with Nat King Cole. He could do everything. He played great electric rhythm inside of that group. George Van Eps was such great solo guitarist, the inventor of the seven-string guitar, and the way my father presented all of those guys to me over the years, getting to meet Les Paul and Tal Farlow, and now getting to know Pat a little bit. He's just on another level with the composition, with the way his group played, and the way he's transformed his solo guitar playing. It's fascinating."

"Basically, trying to take the ingredients of what Van Eps would do to a song was my idea for this record. Because Van Eps would play one chorus of 'They Can't Take That Away From Me' or what he played on 'I Remember April' and 'Have You Met Miss Jones' on Mellow Guitar (1957, Euphoria!)," says Pizzarelli.

"When I was talking to Rick Haydon about how we're gonna' go about this, he was like, 'You're not gonna' play any single-note solos on this. Because you're not gonna' do anything better than what Pat does on the songs.' So I said, 'Well, I was thinking more of Van Eps' kind of approach.' He said, 'That's what you've got to do.' I'm not gonna' match what Pat did, single-note wise. I try to find my voice inside of those things. That's what was really fun about it, going, 'I think I got that.' I made a little something out of the back half of 'Antonia' and the back half of 'September Fifteenth.' Finding a little chord thing on 'Spring Ain't Here' and things. Those were the challenges. You can learn a tune, and then what are you going to do? So that was fun."

As the pandemic appears to be easing up, musicians are looking ahead to getting back to normalcy. For most, that means the road.

Pizzarelli says he was in the midst of a tour surrounding his album For Centennial Reasons: 100 Year Salute to Nat King Cole (Ghostlight, 2019) when venues were shut down. He will probably continue that tour but might alter the show to play a few solo Metheny tunes from the new album. Scheduling solo concerts for Better Days Ahead is also possible.

Pizzarelli has also been doing some online teaching, and he hosts a weekly show on Facebook called "Five O'Clock Somewhere" each Thursday at 6 p.m. EST on John Pizzarelli Official.

"A year ago, we were just going, 'What are we gonna' do? We've got to figure something out.' So the Thursday concerts have been great. There have been a couple of little online things and maybe more to come. So, with the lessons and the concerts, at least we've been able to stay here and not sweat. Also, I've become a pretty good cook. I always liked cooking, but that's definitely gotten better in the year...It's been crazy. But in a way, it's been enjoyable too. I haven't had to get on any planes or go anywhere. My wife and I say it's the most time we've spent together in 25 years."

He has other groups he wants to play with again, including encounters with old mates Jimmy Greene, Isaiah J. Thompson, Mike Karn and Andy Watson as well as a group with four horns called the Swing Seven. "I'd love to get that back up. The idea of doing anything for the people, with any group of guys, would be exciting at this point."

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