NEW YORK: The First Family Of Jazz - by J. Blake

Posted on 6/30/2009 by J. Blake

It was December 1997, I was in college and I was desperately trying to figure out what I was going to get my Father for the holidays. If I recall correctly he seemed to be on a big jazz-kick at the time and of course, like many Italian families, mine consisted of a long line of Sinatra fanatics. So I completely lucked out when one night, while I was watching Late Night with Conan O’Brien (not to be mistaken with the new Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien) the musical guest was a young singer/guitarist that completely rocked (for lack of a better term) a version of the Vincent Rose, Al Jolson & BG DeSylva composition, Avalon (made famous by the Nat ‘King’ Cole Trio). The artist’s name was John Pizzarelli and he was promoting a CD titled OUR LOVE IS HERE TO STAY.

The following morning I went out and bought it for my Father. I gave it to him for Christmas and in a slightly ironic turn of events, I was the only one that listened to it during that entire visit and I happen to do so several times (a ritual that continued with Pizzarelli CDs for the next 5 or 6 Christmases*). The minute I got back to school I went out and bought myself a copy of OUR LOVE IS HERE TO STAY, along with an album titled DEAR MR. COLE (a Pizzarelli tribute to the Cole Trio, featuring bassist Christian McBride) and a couple of CDs that John recorded with his legendary Father, guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli.

I played them for my suite-mate (Chris) and we both instantly fell in love with the music of the Pizzarellis. One day Chris came running into my room exclaiming that both Bucky and John were going to be performing at our college theater! After months of eagerly waiting, we of course went to the show and it sealed the deal. We were both completely and officially hooked. After John and his trio performed an entire set, Chris and I looked at each other and said “this is the greatest guitarist we’ve ever seen!” Then for the second set John and Bucky came out and played guitar duets and we had to instantly retract our previous statement, because Bucky easily seized the title right out from under his son. It was definitely the best live show I had seen up to that point and even though I was only the ripe young age of 19, I had already seen Clapton, Buddy Guy, Bo Diddley, Ray Charles and B.B. King (among others). The musicianship of John, Bucky, Martin (John’s younger brother and bassist) and Ray Kennedy (John’s then pianist) was astounding and John’s charm and humor really made it an amazing “performance”, not just a concert.

After that, he was officially one of my favorite musicians and member of a very select group that I called my “guitar-heroes”. For the next few years I followed his career, buying his CDs and trying to turn other people I knew into fans, but for some reason I didn’t see him again live until 2002. My best friend (Dion) and I saw him at a jazz festival in Connecticut that summer. It was an outdoor event and in a complete stroke of luck we somehow ended up getting to the show over 2 hours early; enabling us to watch the rehearsal/sound check. John was playing with a local big band that night and they were going over the set list. It was fascinating to watch the process and then amazing to see how that set list came alive during the actual show, especially with Bucky added into the mix. That day, during the hour or so between the rehearsal and the actual show, I got to meet John briefly and actually hangout a bit with his brother/bassist, Martin. Little did I know then, that arriving so outrageously early to that show would lead to a professional and personal friendship with the Pizzarellis that has now lasted 7 years.

During those 7 years I have seen John and Martin perform more times then I can count and they are consistently amazing. This past week their shows at New York’s legendary jazz club, Birdland, were no exception. For 5 nights (2 sets a night) they wowed New York’s jazz-going public with an event they called The Pizza Party, named for Arbors Records’ recent CD release titled PIZZArelli PARTY. Like so many things involving John and Martin, both the shows and CD were a family affair. The John Pizzarelli Quartet (featuring Martin on bass, pianist Larry Fuller and drummer Tony Tedesco) were joined by Bucky on guitar (but for only the first 2 nights), Pizzarelli regular Harry Allen on tenor saxophone, newcomer Aaron Weinstein on violin and Rebecca Kilgore and Jessica Molaskey on vocals (Jessica also happens to be John’s lovely wife and Radio Deluxe co-host, as well as a Broadway veteran).

The live sets were made up of mostly material from the CD, which is a laid back collection of classic jazz standards, jazz rarities, smooth/walkin’ blues instrumentals and clever Pizzarelli penned homages. As all great live performances do, the Birdland shows added a new energy to the material; the Gershwin classic Lady Be Good swung even harder live than the recording and with the Pizzarelli original Strollin’ Over to Nola (Gonna Play Some Blues), John’s playing took on a much more classic “blues” feel. Other highlights, for both the CD and shows, include John’s original instrumentals Joe and Zoot (a tribute to Joe Venuti and Zoot Sims) and You Be the Judge (a tribute to bassist Milt Hinton), as well as the very rare and all but forgotten Gershwin, Harburg and Arlen composition, I Knew Him When; in which Kilgore and Molaskey's vocals provided a poignancy to both the live performances and CD with their beautiful vocal duet.

You may have missed the PIZZArelli PARTY live, but I strongly recommend that you try to catch any or all of these performers when they’re playing (or singing) in a city near you and of course the CD is now available for purchase. So as John would say “I urge you all to buy in bulk.”

*as a little may have taken a few years, but I’m happy to say that the minute I dragged my Father to a live Pizzarelli show….he too became a fan.

Keep Swingin',
J. Blake

Check out some NYC Blues with J. Blake & The Earthquake at: or as well as on Facebook.

***live photographs supplied by flickr4jazz


PIZZArelli Party (Arbors Records)

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