If you travel to Sin City and visit the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino at the appointed time, you'll find legendary duo Penn & Teller entertaining a packed house in their namesake theater with their signature blend of magic and humor. But if you get there forty-five minutes early, you get so much more with the addition of the show before the show. That's when Penn & Teller's musical directorpianist Mike Joneslets his Dave McKenna
-style chops off the leash on a set of standards. As he swings like mad, seemingly conjuring what sounds like three hands' worth of sounds, a tall and unassuming bassist stands a short distance away, ably working the songs with him. That man, believe it or not, is Penn Jillette.
How these two came to be friends and musical mates is a story of fortune and misfortune, apprenticeship and desire, and risk birthing rewards. And most importantly, to note a jazz parallel, it's a tale of growth through improvisation. Jillette, a longtime electric bassist, yearned to improve on that instrument's unwieldy acoustic progenitor. Jones, having been lured to Las Vegas near the start of the new millennium with the promise of a lucrative gig that wasn't to be, found himself playing less than thrilling dinner music at the Eiffel Tower Restaurant. Hearing about this piano wonder from a friend, Jillette went down to hear Jones and was suitably impressed. They struck up a conversation that night, they developed a friendship over the six months that followed, and Jillette hatched a plan that would ultimately bring his musical desires to fruition, put Jones on a stage more deserving of his skills, and literally jazz up the Penn & Teller show.
To any rational mind, Jillette's scheme may have registered as ridiculous: The idea of a neophyte brushing up on bass and decoding jazz by working with a virtuoso in front of a sizable audience every night certainly sounds a bit far-fetched. Jillette was basically seeking out a jazz mentorship path to learning, enhancing it with steroids, throwing it on a speedway, and inviting people to watch. Crazy? More than a little. Smart? Absolutely. Sixteen years and hundreds (if not thousands) of shows later, Jillette's skills with the bass have greatly appreciated, these two are still at it night after night, and Jones continues to bring an extra layer of entertainment to the main event. If you make it to the Rio and get to the theater when the doors open, as this writer did during Thanksgiving weekend of 2017, you can bear witness to the beautiful Jones-Jillette partnership in action. But if a trip to the desert isn't in your cards, this album is the next best thing. It brings the show before the show straight to you.
For this date, Jones and Jillette culled ten songs from a working repertoire about ten times that size. All of the music, save for the pianist's "Box Viewing Blues," is stock-in-trade jazz repertoire. But there's a certain panache in these presentations, due in no small part to smart arranging (predetermined or off the cuff), fast finger work, and filigree. Whether cheerily strolling down "Broadway," bouncing through "Corcovado," presenting a peppy "But Not For Me," or swaying on "Manha De Carnaval," this duo keeps things upbeat. Jones gives these well-known numbers some juice with his masterful piano work and Jillette bolsters the music with his spongy solidity. If you're looking for Christian McBride
-level chops, Ray Brown
pockets, or never-miss intonation in Jillette, you won't find them. But he's no slouch. Jillette holds his own and perfectly cements these songs from the lower-end, leaving Jones to dazzle up above.
Besides serving as the fruit of a stranger-than-fiction yarn, a document of a beautiful friendship, evidence of Jones' strength, and proof that Jillette has evolved into a jam session-ready jazzhead, The Show Before The Show
is a reminder that jazz is to be enjoyed. It's clear as day that these two are having a good time, and that enthusiasm carries over to the audience, or in the case of this album, the listener's side of the speakers. This is the magic that ushers in the magic on a nightly basis.