Review: John Pizzarelli dazzles with varied jazz-rock repertoire at MCG

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"I held off the hockey season just long enough for us to play," singer-guitarist John Pizzarelli said, joking about the recently ended NHL lockout early into his sold-out Friday Manchester Craftsmen's Guild concert.

Mr. Pizzarelli and his quartet -- younger brother Martin Pizzarelli on bass, pianist Larry Fuller and drummer Tony Tedesco -- performed 13 tunes. Most were from his Frank Sinatra and Duke Ellington tribute albums and from "Double Exposure," his recent album of rock tunes either mashed up with jazz standards or given classic jazz arrangements.

After opening with a vigorous "How About You" followed by "You Make Me Feel So Young," he shifted into a blistering "Just You, Just Me."

A master raconteur, he joked about recording with "a member of Wings," relating his role as rhythm guitarist on "Kisses On the Bottom," Paul McCartney's recent album of vintage pop standards. He followed by reprising a tune from the album: the 1940 Ink Spots ballad "We Three (My Echo, My Shadow and Me)," its sublime arrangement literally time-traveling to the '40s.

Kicking off the "Double Exposure" segment with a rocking "Ruby Baby," Mr. Pizzarelli told colorful tales of his dad, still-active 87-year-old jazz icon Bucky Pizzarelli, who'd played on Dion's 1963 hit version of "Ruby" as a Manhattan studio guitarist.

He continued the "Exposure" combinations with a stately, plaintive rendering of Neil Young's "Harvest Moon," seasoned with bits of "Shine On Harvest Moon."

All Mr. Pizzarelli's guitar solos were sharp and concise, but he caught fire on the Allman Brothers' "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed," arranged to honor guitarist Wes Montgomery's "Four On Six." At one point he and Mr. Fuller played harmony lines echoing the famous Duane Allman-Dicky Betts twin lead guitars.

An elegant mash-up of Tom Waits' "Drunk On the Moon" and Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life," led into the Beatles' "I Feel Fine," fused with trumpeter Lee Morgan's "Sidewinder."

Granted, Mr. Pizzarelli is the star. Mr. Fuller, however, generates his own incandescence with riveting solos that summarize the history of jazz piano, from Count Basie and Fats Waller to George Shearing, Erroll Garner, Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson. Mr. Tedesco and Martin Pizzarelli constitute a solid, intuitive rhythm section capable of subtlety, drive and anything else required.

They briefly left the stage as Mr. Pizzarelli explained his and his dad's instrument of choice: the seven-string guitar (a guitar with an added low A string) before playing an old-school solo on Mr. Ellington's "Just Squeeze Me." The musicians returned for an Ellingtonian mash-up, playing "East St. Louis Toodle-oo" as Mr. Pizzarelli sang "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" and closed with another Ellington standard: "In A Mellow Tone." The encore: a Nat "King" Cole-inspired "It's Only A Paper Moon."

Mr. Pizzarelli is both jazz virtuoso and a skilled interpreter of the Great American Songbook. What sets him apart are his skills as an entertainer and a firm belief the Songbook is an ever-evolving work in progress. In demonstrating all those assets -- and more -- he and his associates left the MCG audience more than satisfied.

musicreviews

Rich Kienzle is a music historian who writes the Get Rhythm blog at post-gazette.com.


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