John Pizzarelli a throwback to the days when jazz still was considered popular entertainment might sound like a veiled compliment, but it's not.
For one thing, it takes a great deal of skill to not only play the guitar as well as he does, but also to sing, tell funny stories, and keep a crowd's attention over the course of a 75-minute set. Pizzarelli did all these during the second set on Thursday, October 23 at Jazz at the Bistro, and he did them very well.
For another thing, while not every musician has Pizzarelli's affability, gift for gab, and comic timing, many certainly could benefit from a similar ability to put together a well-constructed, well-paced show.
Drawing on mostly familiar numbers associated with "The Great American Songbook" and/or Duke Ellington, Pizzarelli deftly mixed guitar licks and laugh lines with effective assistance from a trio including his brother Martin on bass and two new band members, pianist Konrad Paszkudzki and drummer Kevin Kanner. Both of the newcomers fit in well, and Paszkudzki, who's from Australia, in particular seems like a real find, soloing frequently with an appealing combination of melodic economy and supple technique.
Highlights of the set included "I Like To Recognize The Tune," a Rodgers and Hart song with a lyric that could double as Pizzarelli's musical manifesto; "We'll Take Manhattan"; and a speedy version of "Johnny One Note" in which this particular John played a great many notes, speedily and accurately.
Ellingtonia was well represented by Pizzarelli's version of "Just Squeeze Me," which was preceded by a story about learning it from the late, great bassist Ray Brown, as well as "Satin Doll," "In A Mellowtone" and a bit of "C Jam Blues."
In between, Pizzarelli interspersed various bits of business about the history of the songs, along with occasionally self-deprecating stories about how he came to learn or record them. He let his drummer deliver the one truly musty joke (about the difference between Russian opera and Italian opera) but, like any veteran comic performer, had a few "ad libs" tucked into his pocket waiting to be deployed, including eying a stage-side patron's dinner and noting that "pizza is right there in my name!"
Although most of the interpretations were straightforward and swinging, Pizzarelli did change things up considerably with what he called his "James Taylorization" of "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught," a song from South Pacific recast as a folk-rock ballad. Given the recent events in Ferguson, the song's message about how racism is imparted rather than inherent could have come across as heavy-handed, but this low-key treatment delivered the meaning in a surprisingly powerful way.
Not every gimmick worked, though. Pizzarelli's pairing of the lyrics from "Don't Get Around Much Any More" with the music of "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo" did demonstrate his point about the former being a song with depressing lyrics that's usually sung in a sprightly manner, but the payoff seemed more conceptual than musical.
The set's penultimate number involved a long story detailing the background of "I Like Jersey Best," a tune written by an old bandmate to promote the state of New Jersey that was recorded by the group, including Pizzarelli, very early in his career.
While the story had some laughs along the way, it mostly served to set up a rendition of the song in a series of styles recalling various rock and pop stars, ranging from Paul Simon to Bob Dylan to the Beach Boys to Amy Winehouse. Most of these musical caricatures were broad and fairly obvious, but they got laughs. More important, none overstayed their welcome, turning what would be, at best, a rather slight piece of material into a memorable part of the show.
If you're old enough to remember when jazz enthusiast Johnny Carson ruled the late-night talk show scene, it's not hard to imagine a time-traveling Pizzarelli doing that number on The Tonight Show and then sitting down on the couch to banter with Johnny like Buddy Rich or Mel Torme used to do.
Unfortunately, even with 300 channels, contemporary television doesn't seem to be able to sustain a program format in which Pizzarelli and other similarly inclined musicians and singers might flourish, but if he ever were to realize his wish to host a TV variety show, I'd tune in.