Not Enough Instrument

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The New York Sun

Guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, whose 80th birthday is being celebrated tonight as part of the JVC Jazz Festival, has had an unusual career trajectory for a top-rank jazz soloist.

Mr. Pizzarelli took his first significant step up the professional ladder at age 17, joining the big band led by singer Vaughan Monroe. After several years of touring with various swing outfits, he graduated into the well paying ranks of studio musicians, playing on the pop records and TV soundtracks of the 1950s and ’60s. At the height of the studio era, Mr. Pizzarelli was required to do little more than show up on time and sight-read any piece of music that was put in front of him: He was simply a dependable professional.

Throughout these years, Mr. Pizzarelli’s goal wasn’t to create art but to provide for his family – which, given the careers of his two sons, John and Martin, and his daughter-in-law, Jessica Molaskey, has since mushroomed into a musical dynasty. But in the 1970s and ’80s, as the studio era died down and his kids grew up, Mr. Pizzarelli worked more and more in front of live audiences. He gradually established himself as one of the finest jazz guitar soloists around. As he enters his ninth decade, Mr. Pizzarelli seems like the grand old man of jazz guitar, although his jocular disposition, dexterity, and energy have shamed players half his age.


Mr. Pizzarelli almost always makes an appearance at the Kaye Playhouse at this time of year, that being the JVC venue for traditional jazz and swing. He is also frequently found at swing and Dixieland concerts around the city and the nation. He is generally grouped with other guitarists (many of whom are also Italian-Americans), and with other players of his approximate age and style. He is dynamite even when he’s just playing straight rhythm guitar, and he is a terror in a two-guitar duet with a young challenger such as Frank Vignola, Russell Malone, or his son, John. Tonight’s concert will certainly include some duets with the younger Pizzarelli, as well as multi-guitar encounters with Gene Bertoncini and Howard Alden.

Mr. Pizzarelli himself likes to stress how the guitar’s role in swing-era rhythm sections was to supply the after-beat, that extra cachinka that made the bands’ dances more danceable. But Mr. Pizzarelli playing a great song solo is something else entirely, born of both jazz and the classics.

Mr. Pizzarelli’s artistry transcends his genre and his generation; if there is any other player he reminds me of, it’s the 81-year-old pianist Barbara Carroll, who is generally classified as a bebopper. Like Ms. Carroll, Mr. Pizzarelli has a limitless capacity for pure melody. His specialty is carefully articulating a tune so that you can hear every syllable of the lyrics with the same kind of precision that’s found in the singing of Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. He will give you the tune so you can revel in it and rhapsodize over it, but he will supplement it with stunning, substitute chords.


Yet he never overwhelms you with chord changes for their own sake. His playing is direct and simple. In a 2002 radio interview with pianist Dr. Billy Taylor, Mr. Pizzarelli gave the example of a six-note B-flat-7 chord and said, “You’ve got three B flats in there. See, that’s no good. You have to cut it down to maybe a few notes. Actually, I only play one or two notes.”

Mr. Pizzarelli consolidated his position as a first-rank solo artist with the release of three CDs recorded for Arbors Jazz Records between 1999 and 2004. On “April Kisses,” “One Morning in May,” and “Flashes,” Mr. Pizzarelli wielded his customary seven string guitar on the Great American Songbook. Like Keith Jarrett, Wynton Marsalis, and Brad Mehldau, in their albums of American popular standards, Mr. Pizzarelli treats the canon of the Great American Songbook with the same respect that classical soloists treat the concertos of Bach and Mozart.

The albums’ titles say a lot about his influences. “Flashes” is one of the handful of original compositions by Bix Beiderbecke. “One Morning in May” is a beautiful, obscure ballad by Hoagy Carmichael that the composer himself once named as an all-time favorite. “April Kisses” is a lovely waltz that was one of the only solo recordings by the original jazz guitar pioneer, Eddie Lang.


Yet these three performer-composers are only the start of a trail that winds its way through much of American music and jazz. Beiderbecke’s writing was influenced by the earlier American composer Eastwood Lane, and Lane’s “Land of the Loon” appears here. Beiderbecke was also deeply connected to the Americana style of the bucolic songwriter Willard Robison, represented here by four songs: “Guess I’ll Go Back Home (This Summer),” “A Cottage for Sale,” “Old Folks,” and the little-known “Mockingbird.” The “lite music” composer Leroy Anderson’s chamber-like “Serenata” turns up here too, while Mr. Pizzarelli uses the music of Billy Strayhorn (“A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing,” “Blood Count”) to illustrate another link between jazz and the “art” song, in the Franz Schubert sense. Indeed, Mr. Pizzarelli is forever celebrating the work of songwriters who draw links between pop and jazz, and between American and European traditions.

Mr. Pizzarelli also frequently pays homage to the jazz guitarists of the pre-Charlie Christian era, performing works by Carl Kress, George Barnes, and Dick McDonough. A highlight of “April Kisses” is his rendition of Django Reinhardt’s haunting minor “Tears,” which hardly any other musician knows, let alone plays. And he samples the outer edge of the formal concert repertoire, explaining that it was Benny Goodman who encouraged him to play the “Fandanguillo” by Joaquim Turina and a movement from the Guitar Concerto in D by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco.

Mr. Pizzarelli doesn’t miss a trick: He not only plays “Autumn Nocturne,” by film composer Josef Myrow, but reminds us that the song was associated with the bandleader and pianist Claude Thornhill – still another maverick who merged Americana and Europiana – by introducing it with the counter-melody to Thornhill’s radio theme song, “Snowfall.”

One of his more striking ideas is combining Jerome Kern’s “Yesterdays” with Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday,” a juxtaposition that would provoke a strong reaction among fans of both songwriters. This could be called a “parallel” medley (in the sense of a parallel minor) – combining two songs with similar titles – rather than a “relative” medley, in which songs are brought together by internal content. Yet Mr. Pizzarelli makes the melodies sound like they were born to be together.

“Flashes” includes some spoken comments by Mr. Pizzarelli that amount to flashes of autobiography. He recounts, for instance, that he was inspired to do Cole Porter’s “Why Shouldn’t I” after hearing Frank Sinatra’s classic recording from 1945. He tells us about how Richard Rodgers used to come by and hear the Pizzarelli Trio at the Hotel Pierre and give him the thumbs-up, which leads into a stunningly tender reading of “This Nearly Was Mine.”

I have never ever heard anyone play this love song the way that Mr. Pizzarelli does. Using the extra string on his acoustic arch-top plectrum guitar, Mr. Pizzarelli often sounds like he’s playing both acoustic bass and guitar at the same time, anticipating the seven-string effect utilized by the contemporary guitarist Charlie Hunter. Like Mr. Hunter, Mr. Pizzarelli is a virtuoso who plays his instrument so overwhelmingly well that he needs more instrument to play.

* * *

One first suspects that the title of Jessica Molaskey’s show “After Midnight,” which opened last week at the Oak Room, refers to Nat King Cole’s most famous jazz album, but instead she sings the famous Patsy Cline hit of a similar name. The show is largely driven by an idea she expressed Thursday night as “not exactly torch songs, but songs about the delay between what’s perceived and what’s real.” Throughout, the 14 selections are an example of how smart a program can be when the intelligence and depth of a first rate cabaret-musical theater singer is combined with the musical know-how of a great jazz group, which, in this case refers to the backing from her husband, the guitarist-vocalist John Pizzarelli. Ms. Molaskey is not remotely a jazz singer, as Mr. Pizzarelli is, but she knows well how to blend in with the accompanying Trio and not get in the way. The highlight on both a musical and comedy level is a montage of two Vincent Youmans-Irving Caesar songs concerning the state of happiness, “I Want To Be Happy” and “Sometimes I’m Happy” (which is, in fact, on the Cole album “After Midnight”). She starts with a brief, fast chorus, and next allows bassist Martin Pizzarelli (a relative) and guitarist Larry Fuller, the chance to solo. But then she and her old man do the two songs together, trading lyric lines back and forth in perfect timing, like an Abbott and Costello routine set to a King Cole Trio variation of “I Got Rhythm.”

Bucky Pizzarelli, tonight at 8 p.m., Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College (E. 68th Street, between Park & Lexington Avenues, 212-772-4448)

Jessica Molaskey, through July 1, the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel (59 W. 44th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, 212-840-6800)

The New York Sun

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