Fewer artists are as busy as guitarist/vocalist John Pizzarelli. Besides his constant touring to support his latest release (With A Song In My Heart), he still has time to do his radio program with his wife Jessica Molasky and moonlight on a series of straightahead swing sessions with likeminded artists like Buddy DeFranco, Aaron Weinstein and father Bucky Pizzarelli. Taking a few weeks off between responsibilities in his summer home, John talks about the chance to get rejuvenated and restored after such a hectic schedule.
“I finally get a chance to watch the sun come up and go down, and just really think about everything that’s going on,” he exudes. “It’s tremendous to sit and think about all that I’ve done the past year. It’s very rare to get to or three weeks to yourself, to enjoy my two kids, and see how a day progresses. It’s great to be able to re-inspire yourself.”
It has already been quite an inspiring year. After last years big band “Sinatra” recording, Pizzarelli got back in touch with his first love of jamming out standards by cutting a few discs on Arbors records that swing with a reckless ferver. John explains the impetus to his sideline project. “Arbors used to have a jazz party in Clearwater. For one of the sets, we had my trio with Ray Kennedy, and we played a set with Buddy, and Butch Miles on drums. The guys said, “Hey, we should record this,” and the next thing you know we were making a record. When we have a desire to make a record (producer) Mat Damber is really great about saying, “Let’s make that record.” Same thing with Aaron. I had met Aaron Weinstein -he actually sent me his demo, and my wife heard it. She said, “You should listen to this, and so I heard it, and said, I’d love to make a record with him.” They are fun records, and we get to put these guys on the map. With Bucky, it’s good to have the records of my dad and me playing together. My kids get to say someday, “Hey, that’s my dad and grandfather making music together. I make records with my dad for Arbors, so we can do the thing that we do. It’s the label that’s most interested in recording my dad and me. It works out very well. It’s the same thing with (my wife) Jessica too; we made a record with (violinist)Aaron Weinstein, my dad and I, Jessica, and my brother. It will be out the same time as the Rogers record”
His new release on Telarc (With A Song In My Heart) continues his experimentation with various genres and styles. Last years “Sinatra” was such a hit that instead of a tribute to a singer, he decided instead on a songwriter, namely Richard Rogers, who teamed up with Larry Hart or Oscar Hammerstein for some of the most memorable songs of the 20th century. It could be easy to slide into the easy choices of material for this record, but Pizzarelli went the extra mile to uncover some of the more obscure material. He explains, “Well, I figured that if you’re going to make a record of Richard Rogers, you don’t want to pick a lot of the same old thing. There are certain Rogers tunes that came to me the usual way. Two of them through the Chet Baker record, “With A Song In My Heart” and “She Was Too Good To Me” were two songs that Don Sebesky did with Chet Baker. I chose those first, and especially when I had Don work on the record with me, I said, “Let’s do those two things.” And he was excited about doing those songs again. As for “With A Song In My Heart,” I was a trumpet player in high school, and the chorus that Chet played on it, we harmonized his solo with our four horn section, and it came out really nice. “I Like To Recognize The Tune” was a favorite of a friend of mine in New York, Jonathon Schwartz. I used to go hear his show and he would always sing that song. There’s also a Mel Torme record that has it. My wife told me to look at “Carefully Taught.” There are a couple interesting choices. It was nice to pick things that all weren’t “Mountain Greenery”. It was fun to do, especially the things with Don, because we did six sides with four horns. I wanted less rhythm guitar and piano, and more horns, in a Marty Paich kind of style. We had a lot of fun putting that together, getting a sound . and coming up with a way to present all of those tunes. He did a great job on it. I think of all of the sound of “Lulu’s Back In Town” and the Broadway record “Sings Schubert Alley”. Those are the ones that I think have the great sound between the vocalist and the way that Mel works against the horn section. He’s really part of the band.”
Pizzarelli wanted the sound and feel of the disc to harken back to the classic light and crisp snap of the old records that Torme did for the Bethlehem label back in the mid 50s, which still sound fresh as a daisy. Once again, he used long time associate Don Sebesky, who is best know for creating the famous arrangements on all of the classic CTI albums in the 70s. John states “He did a lot of things for Maynard Ferguson when he first started writing. He was even in the band. Over the years he’s done a lot of string things too, but his horn writing is sensational. He’s done a lot of my big band things… He did “Witchcraft” on my Sinatra record. He is a fierce horn writer. On my trip to the West Coast, we’re doing a benefit with the San Diego Symphony, and he’ll have written most of the charts for that. A lot of bands have played his “Take The A Train” arrangement, which came from the Maynard band.”
The actual selection of the material was a real education of the music business for Pizzarelli, as he recalls, “The Rogers and Hart foundation sent me all of the songs. I got all of their music, so I had all of the things (they wrote). The record has only three Hammerstein and eight by Larry Hart. The interesting thing is that once you start looking at all of the songs, for me, anyway, you start to see the formulas of the shows. When you see the songs all lined up, you can see how someone would say, “you should do this one, or that one. Well, that one seems to be the eleven o’clock number for the show.” Everyone has its formula. You can see where the big ballad is, or the maybe the “patter” number, or something else. The more I’d look at them, I’d think, “well, if I do this one, it’s similar to the other one that I already did.” It’s very interesting how they’d line up the songs, and you can see how they’d put together a show.”
It’s one thing to approach a tune by casually listening to it, or by seeing it in a movie or at a show. Pizzarelli has had the rare opportunity to see the inner workings of how a song is created, and also how the genius of composing by these masters changed over their careers. “The Hammerstein things are amazing, a completely different animal of writing. His writing evolved over the years, so it was interesting to find some Oscar Hammerstein to do. The ballads are just wonderful, especially the ones with Larry Hart.
For me, there were a lot of role specific things that Oscar Hammerstein wrote. So, when I picked “I Have Dreamed”, “Carefully Taught” and “Happy Talk”…you realize that you could do two or three records, and each one could be unique. The Hart ones are easy, I think they lay better for jazz, so I was glad to pick some different ones like “With A Song In My Heart’, “She Was Too Good To Me”, as well as the Hammerstein “Happy Talk” and “I Have Dreamed.” It was a good combination.”
John and his wife, along with his regular band, will be featuring material from the new disc when they appear in LA towards the end of the month. “We start the beginning of the tour the day after the record comes out. She makes her appearance at Catalina’s, then we do two month’s at the Carlyle (In NYC), so our out of town tryout is in LA,” he jokes.
As to his approach to these formidable compositions, John recalls that he was taught these tunes in the best tradition possible, by his dad.” Richard Rogers used to come to hear my dad at the Pierre Hotel in New York. My dad speaks about it on one of his Arbors Records. Rogers would come in and listen to him play. He really liked to hear his music the way that he wrote it, so it was a challenge to play his tunes for him, because he was very strict about they way it all laid. Dad said that he always gave him thumbs up, so that’s a good sign.” That’s a good enough endorsement for anyone!