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).

John and Jessica sang a duet that started with her using her rich voice and good sense of swing on "I Want to be Happy." After an intricate guitar solo, the pair swapped vocal lines, with John singing lines from "Sometimes I'm Happy." An entertaining arrangement. Molaskey's "Wrap Your troubles in Dreams (Dream Your Troubles Away)" showed nice phrasing and exhibited her ability to hold notes without wavering off key (something others in the business today can't do). "Joe and Zoot!," a tribute to fiddler Venuti and tenor saxophonist Sims, respectively, was nicely done with Allen and Weinstein sweetly providing the necessary sax and violin flavoring. The band plays that swing style with precision and emotion. "You Be The Judge," a tribute to bassist Milt "The Judge" Hinton, was a feature for Martin Pizzarelli, who played a hip, melodic solo with a good swinging feel.

The younger Pizzarelli sang "Under a Blanket of Blue," a venerable ballad utilizing his relaxed, welcoming way with such songs, with Allen's robust tenor dancing around the lyrics, then making a nice solo statement.

After a sweet father/son guitar duet, in which Bucky showed a great touch on his single-note melodic improvisation, John marveled at his dad's life, in that he "grew up in front of a radio" listening to the greats of early jazz, then ended up playing with them and befriending them. John also openly marveled at his father's musicianship and how, growing up, there were many of the jazz greats visiting his home, like Les Paul and Benny Goodman, who apparently napped at the Pizzarelli home before gigs on occasion.

Papa Pizzarelli, son John said, was "playing one of his first gigs without his gall bladder," adding that while his father was 83, "his knees are five years old." Dad took all the barbs well, laughing heartily.

John also told of a trip with his daughter in August to the home of the Boston Red Sox (favorite baseball team of the Pizzarelli clan), Fenway Park, where where he was asked to sing the national anthem. He was accompanied on the trip by his daughter, who marveled at seeing some of her favorite players, as well as walking past Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees, "a very large man!"

Bucky, it turns out, also played at Fenway Park, in 1947 and 1948, as a member of the Vaughan Monroe orchestra that performed on the field while players were taking batting practice. "Balls were flying over us," said Bucky. The games were against the former Philadelphia Athletics, he noted. "[Hall of Fame manager] Connie Mack was there."

(One more baseball note: Pizzarelli did his imitation of Karnac the Magnificent, a mystic character that Johnny Carson comically brought to life on his long-running Tonight Show. "Karnack" divined the answer to the concealed question: "Catch-22." Then carefully unveiled the question: "What the New York Mets outfield does if you hit them 100 fly balls.")

In the guest spot, Elling sat in the "living room," showing an easy manner and good humor that melded well with that of the hosts. Elling, for years part of the Chicago jazz scene, now lives on Manhattan's west side not far from the Pizzarellis.

He rose for Van Heusen's "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" and did it as only he can. First with just John's guitar, he was in a mesmerizing mood in his lush, muscular tone. He elongated notes in, over and around the melody. Bending them. Telling the story in a way that's both intimate and brash (maybe Sinatra's the only other who can do that). It was a knockout.

Unfortunately, he had time for only one other number—a jam on "Lady Be Good," with both Pizzarelli and Elling scatting throughout at a brisk pace, backed superbly by the band. They traded fours, then eights. They scatted in unison, tossing out contrapuntal lines. It worked well between these splendid musicians.

The show closed with John and Jessica singing "Tea for Two" with the band, a slow version that was hip, charming, and in synch. Just as they are in life. Here's hoping the show has a long life and that John and Jessica can go 50-plus years like Bucky and Ruth.

Visit Public Radio's Radio Deluxe on the web.

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