There are few performers today who can come close to matching the on-stage charisma of vocalist/guitarist John Pizzarelli. He has been a familiar figure for New Jersey Jazz Society members since his teenage years when he performed with his father, the late Bucky Pizzarelli, most memorably at the NJJS Jazz Picnic weekends held at Waterloo Village. Over the years, John has evolved as a popular performer in his own right, but he continued to have occasional professional reunions with Bucky.
On May 5, at the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown, NJ, the son paid tribute to his father with a well-conceived and sensationally executed concert that found Pizzarelli and his trio — pianist Isaiah J. Thompson and bassist Mike Karn – joining forces with a big band chock full of first-call New York City musicians (See May 2023 Jersey Jazz cover story) .
Pizzarelli comes from a musical family. In addition to his father, his uncles Pete and Bobby Dominick were noted banjo players and teachers of many banjo and guitar players, including John. John’s brother Martin is a jazz bassist, and his sister Mary once recorded a duo guitar album with her father.
The first half of the concert concentrated on songs with family connections. He opened with one of the first tunes that he played with his father, Harry Ruby’s “Three Little Words,” and followed it with his mother’s favorite song, Harry Warren’s “The More I See You.” Other selections included a guitar/piano duo on “Bobby’s Tune,” a song composed by his Uncle Bobby, “If You’re Headed Out to Vera’s, Make Sure She Cooks for You,” a song inspired by John’s Aunt Vera who was a terrific cook, co-written by John and Grover Kemble, and “Slow Street”, a Bucky Pizzarelli original.
A surprise addition to the program was John’s daughter, Madeline, who joined him for a pair of guitar duos on “It’s Been a Long, Long Time” and Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose,” the latter of which was Bucky’s signature number. The set concluded with the song most associated with John, “I Like Jersey Best.”
During the program, John mentioned several New Jersey people who were important to the Pizzarelli family, including Grover Kemble, a frequent collaborator with John early in his career, Ed Laub, a student of Bucky who partnered with and personally supported Bucky during his last years, and the recently deceased Don Sebesky, a long-time resident of Mendham who wrote many arrangements for John.
The second set opened with “Witchcraft,” arranged by Sebesky for Pizzarelli’s Sinatra tribute album. John followed with a long and humorous exposition of his early duo work with his father at the Café Pierre. It was a prime example of Pizzarelli’s superbly engaging patter.
Pizzarelli then addressed “Test Flight,” an original composition of his, inspired by guitar legend Charlie Christian. Following a sensational take on “How High the Moon,” a tune long associated with a family friend, guitarist Les Paul, he turned his attention to another original by Bucky, “Straight Horn.”
Bucky sat in the guitar chair for most of Benny Goodman’s gigs during the later Goodman years and it was a natural finale to have a Goodman Medley of “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” “Memories of You,” and “Sing, Sing, Sing” swung out wonderfully by the fantastic big band. The audience rose almost as one in appreciation for what they had heard. They were rewarded with a brief instrumental encore.
This was a concert that was only missing Bucky’s smiling presence, but his spirit infused the entire evening. John’s ongoing affection and admiration for his father underscored the concert. He is a beneficiary of the musical genius that Bucky passed along to his son and has created a career of his own that continues to delight audiences. On this occasion, he displayed the variety of talents that he possesses, hip vocalizing, impressive guitar dexterity, witty raconteur, and creator of fine original songs. This was not only a celebration of the life and music of Bucky Pizzarelli, but also a tribute to the engaging and entertaining performance personality John Pizzarelli. John and Bucky are among the most outstanding musicians to come from New Jersey, and it was fitting that this concert took place in one of the premier New Jersey performance venues in front of an audience of appreciative Jerseyites!-JOE LANG
Members of the Band: Saxophones, Chris Byars/Dan Block/Awan Rashad/Mark Lopeman/Kenny Berger; trombones, John Mosca/Mark Patterson/Jason Jackson/Douglas Purviance; trumpets, Tony Kadleck/Bud Burridge/James Zollar/Mark McGowan;piano Isaiah J. Thompson; bass Mike Karn; drummer, Andy Watson
PHOTO BY KATHARINE BOYLE