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Radio Deluxe Live: The Pizzarellis Go to Tanglewood

R.J. DeLuke By

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Radio Deluxe with John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey
Tanglewood Jazz Festival
Lenox, Massachusetts
September 5, 2009

Jazz programming on national radio stations—the stuff you still get in your car or in your home for free, not satellite radio—is a rarity. That's an unfortunate thing, because lack of exposure to the music is one of the main obstacles to growing the audience.

But there are some gems out there, where people can tune in on radio and hear good music. One of those shows, which appears to be gaining ground since its inception in 1992, is Radio Deluxe, a show that noted jazz guitarist and singer John Pizzarelli and his wife Jessica Molaskey host each week. It's a weekly show the couple has been doing since 2005, usually taped in their apartment "high atop Lexington Avenue" on Manhattan's east side. Except that they recently moved to the west side. Except, again, that on Sept. 5, the couple brought their show to the annual Tanglewood Jazz Festival in Lenox, Mass., and taped it before a large audience.

The Tanglewood Jazz Festival is not a stranger to radio show tapings. NPR's Peabody award-winning "Piano Jazz," hosted by Marian McPartland, had been part of the festival in recent years. But McPartland, 90, is not up to traveling much these days. Festival organizers decided to keep with the theme of having a radio show done live at Tanglewood.

It proved to be a great choice.

The basic format of the show is that Pizzarelli, well known in the jazz world, and Molaskey, who's had a good career in Broadway musicals, while also performing at times in club settings and with her husband, play some great music, mostly jazz, but also hosting classic singers and occasionally venturing into good stuff from the pop world. There is additionally banter between them that wanders anywhere, impromptu. Stuff about music, musicians, concerts. About family and friends. There are scheduled guests who can select music and comment on it. Or, as Kenny Rankin did a few years back, they can just show up with guitar in hand and sing selections off the top of their heads. The hosts can also do live music as the spirit moves them. Other guests have included Curtis Stigers, Bebe Neuwirth, Charles Osgood and Liza Minnelli. On this day it was vocalist Kurt Elling.

Sound elementary? It isn't. The Pizzarellis are extremely entertaining. Always amusing and clever, they are a compelling listen. It's like you're in their living room, chuckling at the chitchat and enjoying the tunes.

At Tanglewood, there were four living room easy chairs set up on stage to help evoke the mood. But they were really props. What brought the relaxed, convivial mood to the full house of Ozawa Hall and the hundreds of people sprawled out, picnicking on the Tanglewood lawn were the hosts; their talent and their gracious demeanor.

And they brought a band with them, a group of seasoned players who swing like mad, and most of whom play with Pizzarelli on a regular basis: Larry Fuller on piano, Tony Tedesco on drums, Harry Allen on tenor sax and Aaron Weinstein on violin. Oh, and there was Bucky Pizzarelli, John's father and a first-rate jazz guitarist for decades, and Martin Pizzarelli on bass, John's brother. Also on stage was John's 11-year-old daughter, Madeline, who also got involved in the banter at times, other times reading from a book as if she were home alone. (In the audience was Bucky's wife of some 54 years, Ruth, and Martin and John's sister Mary.)

Pizzarelli told the audience that what was about to transpire was really a concert in the guise of a radio show. But that wasn't really what happened. It was more like the quip he made a bit later: "This is like Sundays at the Pizzarellis, but without the eggplant."

Pizzarelli is a funny, affable host, bright and quick-witted, with a comedian's precise timing. Truth be told, he's more entertaining than almost any television talk-show host that you'll find on the air these days. His wife is a clever, lively partner and foil. The joking was often hilarious and, combined with outstanding music, added up to a wonderful afternoon.

The group opened with a swing number on which Pizzarelli scatted in unison with his intricate guitar lines. Allen employed his big a tone with an old-style feel reminiscent of Coleman Hawkins and that lineage, though not as deep a tone. Weinstein had a vibrant tone and plenty of chops, Stephane Grappelli-like. Bucky's brief solo consisted of strumming rhythm chords like Freddie Green.

Some of the music came from the new CD PIZZArelli Party (Arbors Records, 2009).

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