John Pizzarelli: Guitarist to headline Hulaville Festiville
Before jazz guitarist/vocalist John Pizzarelli was invited to play on Paul McCartney’s latest album, “Kisses on the Bottom,” he encountered the legendary Beatle at a New York City hotel.
“I was waiting in the lobby of the Carlyle to go on and he walked in with his girlfriend Nancy,” Pizzarelli recalls. “I was holding my guitar and he said, ‘What have you got for me?’
“So I started to play (the Beatles’ song “Money”) ‘The best things in life are free.’ And he finished the line, ‘and you can give them to the birds and bees.’ We laughed and chatted and as he left he said, ‘You have to go do a show and I have to go to bed,’ and he went back into the elevator, looked at me and sang, ‘You can give them to the birds and bees.’ ”
Acclaimed for his tribute albums to legendary artists such as Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra, in the mid-1990s this virtuoso guitarist released a recording of jazz interpretations of Beatles’ songs. When he began working with McCartney on the “Kisses” standards’ album, he was surprised to discover that his covers had been appreciated by their composer.
“At the session, he said, ‘You made a Beatles’ CD, it’s very good.’ “
On his latest album, “Double Exposure,” Pizzarelli uniquely fuses a number of jazz and pop tunes, opening with a swing-style version of the Beatles’ “I Feel Fine,” mixed with jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan’s composition, “Sidewinder.”
Other tracks include the Allman Brothers’ “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” spiced with some Wes Montgomery, a vocalese version of James Taylor’s “Traffic Jam” fused with Joe Henderson’s “The Kicker,” and Seals and Crofts’ classic “Diamond Girl’ brilliantly mashed with Miles Davis’ “So What.”
“Pizzarelli does it with such taste, each piece brings eager anticipation for the next,” praised the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
“What’s charming about this album, beyond the sheer quality of the songs and the arrangements, is Pizzarelli’s obvious and genuine love for this really broad gamut of material, and his insight into the varied qualities that make them all great songs,” lauded an All Music review.
So what inspired him to mix the genres?
“The record collections in my house growing up,” he reports. My sister’s collection and my father’s – the pop artists of the day and the jazz artists. I didn’t want to just cover these songs, but rather find a way to present them that was unusual and interesting.”
It was a process of trial and error, he says, to try and figure out what pop song would blend best with a jazz composition.
“We had the chance to road test the idea at Birdland in New York, and it gave us a better idea of what was good and bad,” he explains.
Was there anywhere he wondered, can I really do this?
“I think the Miles and Seals and Crofts is the craziest one,” he notes. “But the riff is right inside ‘Diamond Girl’ and was a natural with ‘So What.’ “
Only a skilled artist with an extraordinary grasp of music could realize such an innovative project.
“We’ve been doing this sort of thing for a while with my wife, Jessica Molaskey, on her albums and we did one on the Ellington CD,” he explains. “And that’s where it clicked for me to match the jazz with the pop songs.”
The one original song on the album, “Take a Lot of Pictures,” composed by the guitarist and his wife, was inspired by a Frank Sinatra expression.
“When he thought he was going to get stuck somewhere he would say to a friend, ‘It looks like rain,’ which meant, let’s go. Also, when he had to take pictures and got tired of it, he’d say, ‘Take a lot of pictures,’ meaning because I’m never coming back.”
Born in 1960, Pizzarelli grew up listening to artists like James Taylor, Neil Young, and Donald Fagan (all covered on “Double Exposure”), along with the jazz of his famous guitarist father, Bucky Pizzarelli.
Before switching to guitar, as a young child he started off playing tenor banjo.
“My father’s uncles were my early teachers on that instrument,” he recalls. “They were quite good.”
After playing in pickup groups and garage bands through high school, he began exploring jazz with his father, and was able to perform with a number of great jazz musicians who would be a major influence on his work, including Benny Goodman, Les Paul, Zoot Sims, and Clark Terry.
“I got to play all styles of music since I was a teenager,” he reports. “I liked the Allman Brothers, Little Feat, Jackson Browne, Billy Joel, the Eagles, the Beatles, James Taylor. But it was the music of the Nat Cole Trio the excited me the most, and got me to where I am today. New York has terrific musicians and I was fortunate enough to grow up around them and learn from them in my 20s.”
Releasing his first album in 1990, Pizzarelli toured extensively, playing clubs and concert halls, opening for such greats as Dave Brubeck, Ramsey Lewis and Rosemary Clooney. In 1993, he was honored to open for Frank Sinatra’s international tour, and then joined in the celebration for his 80th birthday at Carnegie Hall, bringing down the house singing “I Don’t Know Why I Love You Like I Do,” with his father accompanying him.
Touring with Sinatra in Germany, in Hamburg he performed before 20,000 people. While back in America, he spent a week opening shows at The Sands in Atlantic City.
“It was thrilling,” he recalls. “The concert halls were filled with such anticipation for him. There’s nothing quite like it.”
Performing with his brother, Martin Pizzarelli, on bass, Larry Fuller on piano and Roy McCurdy on drums, Pizzarelli continues to tour throughout the United States, Europe, South America and Japan, performing classic pop, jazz and swing.
And when artists like James Taylor or Rickie Lee Jones record a standard, he’s the guitarist they call.
“I guess they can’t find my father’s number,” he concludes, laughing.
* John Pizzarelli and his quartet headline the Hulaville Festiville at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Castle Theater at 7:30 p.m. Friday. Hot Club of Hulaville will open. Tickets are $35, $45 and $55 (plus applicable fees), available at the box office, by calling 242-7469 or online at www.mauiarts.org.
Performing a unique blend of 1930s-style jazz, swing, and gypsy music with a Hawaiian flavor, Hot Club of Hulaville won the 2011 jazz Na Hoku Hanohano Award. Based on Oahu, the group normally includes Duane Padilla on violin, guitarists Sonny Silva and Emmet Mahoney, and vocalist Ginai. For their return to Maui, they will expand to an 11-member ensemble.
“We’re usually a quartet with a singer,” explains group leader Sonny Silva. “But this time the Hulaville band will be really large.”
With two female lead singers, Ginai and Willow Chang, the group will also include guest vocalist/dancer Jonathan Sypert.
“He’s an amazing, charismatic song and dance man,” notes Silva. “He’s a channel between Gene Kelly and Michael Jackson. He’ll do a ‘Minnie the Moocher’ Cab Calloway thing.”
Also on board, guitarist Jeff Linsky, who was hailed by The Los Angeles Times as, “Simply the finest fingerstyle guitarist you will ever see or hear”; steel guitarist Greg Sardinha; Pierre Grill on accordion and piano; and bassist David Chiorini.
For the finale of their set, Silva promises, “Something really special. We’re inviting the public to bring their guitars, violins and clarinets and join us on stage playing the tune ‘Minor Swing’ by Django Reinhardt. It will be a huge jam. We want the concertgoers to become concert performers.”
The band has posted the music to “Minor Swing” on their Facebook page.
“It’s the gypsy jazz anthem,” he adds. “It’s the one everyone plays.”
September on Maui means it’s time once again to pay homage to hard rock gods Led Zeppelin with Zeptember IV, set for at Mulligans on the Blue from 6 to 10 p.m. on Saturday.
This typically jam-packed homage to the British rockers will feature more than 40 Maui musicians rocking out on classics like “Ramble On, “Going to California” and “Stairway.”
Directed by bassist Shawn Michael, musicians participating include Mark Johnstone from the Mick Fleetwood Blues Band, Island Rumours singer Gretchen Rhodes, guitarists Nils Rosenblad, Halemanu Villiarimo, Chad Kaya and Byron Townsend, drummers Josh Greenbaum, James Bowersox and Clive Tucker, KAOI DJ Jack Gist on harmonica, Murray Thorne, Pete Sebastian, vocalist Deborah Vial and guitarist Caron Barrett of The Deborah Vial Band, and Greg diPiazza and Alana Cini on digeridoo.
* Doors open at 5 p.m.; show begins around 6 p.m. It’s a 21-and-older show. Advance tickets are $25, or $30 at the door. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to Malama Maui Nui. Tickets are available at Mulligans on the Blue in Wailea, 808 Deli and Scuba Shack Maui in Kihei, Requests Music in Wailuku, Maui Coffee Roasters in Kahului, Alice in Hulaland in Paia, Maui Kombucha in Haiku and Fleetwood’s on Front St. in Lahaina. Tickets are also available online at www.zeptembermaui.com.