Preview: Guitarist loves to blend jazz with pop, rock
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For John Pizzarelli, 2012 was a memorable year.
In May, Telarc Records released "Double Exposure," his 24th solo album. "World on a String," his autobiography, was published by Wiley in October, and he played a prominent supporting role on Paul McCartney's widely acclaimed pop standards album, "Kisses on the Bottom."
Along with his usual touring schedule, Mr. Pizzarelli and his wife, singer-actress Jessica Molaskey, continue to host "Radio Deluxe," their nationally syndicated weekly music program heard locally on WJAS-AM (1320) 5-7 p.m. Saturdays.
The 52-year-old jazz vocalist and seven-string guitar virtuoso, known worldwide for his energetic, swinging interpretations of jazz, pop and rock standards, brings his quartet to the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild on Friday. It's Mr. Pizzarelli's first local appearance since his three-day MCG engagement in May 2009. He calls it "a great place to play," adding, "they do such a great job. ... It's good to be getting back."
While 52 may seem young for an autobiography, Mr. Pizzarelli, assisted by longtime friend Joseph Cosgriff, had little trouble coming up with 266 pages of memories. The Paterson, N.J., native and son of jazz guitar master Bucky Pizzarelli (still active at age 87) offers affectionate anecdotes about musician-Uncles Pete and Bobby Domenick, brothers who taught both Pizzarellis the rudiments of tenor banjo and guitar.
After recounting his dad's early career, he offers zesty stories about growing up in Saddle River, N.J., with his parents, brother and two sisters, simultaneously absorbing the Beatles and other rock heroes as well as jazz. Many of Bucky Pizzarelli's friends -- Zoot Sims, Slam Stewart, Les Paul, Joe Pass and Benny Goodman, among them -- were jazz icons who visited to jam and enjoy wife Ruth's memorable Italian cooking.
John Pizzarelli initially balanced low-pay rock jobs in Jersey and more lucrative jazz gigs with his dad before his solo jazz career blossomed. He met Ms. Molaskey when they performed in the 1997 Broadway musical "Dream," honoring singer-lyricist Johnny Mercer. Entire chapters cover his friendship with Rosemary Clooney, a 1993 tour with Frank Sinatra, the sessions with Mr. McCartney and earlier work with James Taylor.
"The McCartney thing is what I talk about to [guitar] students. I say, you're gonna be on a session someday where somebody's gonna say, 'play an intro.' In this case it was Paul McCartney; in James Taylor's case [he] was saying, 'play this verse with me.' " Working with Mr. McCartney, a lifelong hero, he reflects, was surprisingly easy. "I was never playing outside of my comfort zone. I was doing what I do for a living. That wasn't me playing rock 'n' roll. I was called to be a rhythm guitar player."
Among the few bittersweet memories: his 1998 RCA album, "John Pizzarelli Sings the Beatles," which mashed up Fab Four tunes with classic jazz and big band arrangements. RCA executives so disliked the idea that they disowned the album after releasing it.
After seven albums for his current label, Telarc, Mr. Pizzarelli revived the mash-up concept for "Double Exposure," drawing on personal rock and pop favorites. He merged the Beatles' "I Feel Fine" with trumpeter Lee Morgan's hard-bop anthem "Sidewinder" and fused Tom Waits' "Drunk on the Moon" and Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life." "Diamond Girl," the '70s Seals and Crofts hit, received an arrangement recalling Miles Davis' "So What."
Reaction, he adds, has been largely enthusiastic. "I think the most positive was 'Sidewinder' and 'I Feel Fine.' 'Drunk on the Moon' and 'Lush Life,' people really like. The love-hate track is 'Diamond Girl.' The idea worked, I think, pretty well. We had about a year to put it together and really get it right, and I think that paid off for us, too."
Onstage, Mr. Pizzarelli mixes music with wry, self-deprecating humor, often scat-singing with his guitar solos, a trick he proudly admits picking up from Pittsburgher George Benson. The quartet, he quips, includes "all the usual suspects." Younger brother Martin Pizzarelli plays bass alongside drummer Tony Tedesco and pianist Larry Fuller, who formerly worked with the late bassist Ray Brown, another Pittsburgh jazz luminary.
He holds the city in high esteem. "The radio show's on there, so that's fun. And we always get to see listeners. A lot of great music people came from there. The venue is unique. Pittsburgh's a great town, a good National League city, so that's fun, too."
A passionate baseball fan, Mr. Pizzarelli recalls a party at Manhattan's Nola recording studio a couple of years ago where he met former Pirates shortstop Dick Groat, now the color commentator for University of Pittsburgh Panthers basketball alongside fellow jazz fan Bill Hillgrove. "Dick kept sayin' ... 'That Beatle record is the greatest record!' " Mr. Pizzarelli introduced him to several musicians who played on the album. "They kept asking him about sports, and he kept wantin' to talk about music."
Audiences, he says, can expect to hear several songs from "Double Exposure." "Depending on where we're at, we end up doing about four to six," he says. As for the next album, he admits, "I have no idea. The best thing is, go on the road, and the more I sit on planes with nothing to do, the more I'll start to think about it. It's a process that's gotta start beginning soon."
First Published January 16, 2013 12:00 am