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Jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli innovates within a framework


Singer and guitarist John Pizzarelli learned to play at the knee of his famous jazz musician father, Bucky Pizzarelli. But as a teen growing up in the 1970s, John was far more interested in Peter Frampton and the rock band Cream than in Django Reinhardt and the Hot Club of Paris. John had a real talent for jazz guitar, however, and he joined his dad in playing club dates around the New York/New Jersey area. Pizzarelli recalls his father saying that he “was the only guy playing jazz to support his rock and roll habit. All the guys had it the other way around.”

As a teen, Pizzarelli heard the music of Nat King Cole. The piano, bass, and guitar trio seemed to be the perfect vehicle for John’s music. He learned to play rhythm guitar, not exactly a trendy style in the 1980s, and explored the wonderful music of Cole Porter, Sammy Cahn and Jimmy van Heusen. Pizzarelli learned how to craft his live performances and CDs like a practiced showman. He opens with an audience-grabbing tune and at the end, he hits them with flag waver. (A flag waver is a type of tune that gets the audience to stand up and wave a flag.)

“I call it a boom-chick song. We usually end our set with that kind of song. ‘I Got Rhythm’ is a flag waver,” Pizzarelli explains.

The guitarist has become famous for performing the music of the Beatles, Richard Rogers, and Frank Sinatra, but some jazz critics complain that too many jazz artists rely on the songbooks of old, that they don’t create new and innovative music. Pizzarelli disagrees. He says the classic popular music and jazz of the 40s and 50s is loved for a reason – it’s great stuff. And he does write original music in that style.

“I think we’re innovative within the framework, the framework being the American popular song or the sound of a swing jazz trio,” he says. “We’ve decided to work within that framework. If you’re thinking of innovation as going outside the chord structure, that’s only one way of looking at innovation.”

Pizzarelli explains how he came to compose this original tune “First Hint of Autumn”: “I was playing a Pat Metheney piece September 15, the day Bill Evans died. There was a little chord section. I liked that second chord. It was a study on that chord. That’s how I ended up writing it. I’ll play songs that I like. I liked how that chord shifted. How can I put that into a composition of my own?”

Early in his career, Pizzarelli opened for Frank Sinatra. Then a few years back he conducted a tribute to Old Blue Eyes. Dear Mr. Sinatra became one of his most popular CDs. That’s because he didn’t just belt out the tunes like Old Blue eyes, instead he “hired a band as opposed to an arranger and a hired band. I loved the Clayton Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. I didn’t want to make a record referring to Nelson Riddle. I wanted to use his songs with my vocals.”

This Jazz Perspective is sponsored in part by the Tanglewood Jazz Festival where John Pizzarelli appears September 5, and by the Detroit Jazz Festival where he performs September 7th. Hear more Jazz Perspectives here at www.jazzcorner.com/innerviews.