Last year, John Pizzarelli and his trio celebrated their 10th anniversary with a double-CD, Live At Birdland.
Ten years is certainly an achievement in the music industry, but John and his brother, Martin, who plays bass in his trio, have good bloodlines. Their father, Bucky, is a legend who, as a soloist and an accompanist, spent more than 50 years helping the guitar become our favorite instrument.
Naturally, John’s interest in guitar and music came through his father.
“We always had equipment laying around the house,” he said. “A Fender Jazzmaster here, a D’Angelico there. Plus, there were amps, like an old Ampeg Jet. I’d set ’em up and just pound away on them, trying to play with records.”
As you’d expect from a guy Frank Sinatra once called his favorite guitarist, lots of interesting musical folks could pop up at the Pizzarelli house.
“Oh yeah! There’d be Slam Stewart in one corner, George Barnes in another,” John noted. “Les Paul is a good friend of dad’s, so we’d see him. Then, when I was about 15, he brought Joe Pass over to the house. That was the first time I heard anyone play guitar like that, and it was like, ‘Whoa! Wait a second…”
John’s musical learning started with a couple of short lessons from Bucky. But, he says, dad would mostly point him to records by folks like George Barnes, and Django.
“I thought, ‘Cool, I’ll learn these, then I can hang out with dad more.'”
At the same time, John and a buddy started a band because, “We had all this equipment laying around.” He did all the stuff you’d expect; tunes by the Eagles, Peter Frampton, and James Taylor dominated the list. And John was singing by then. After his dad saw him play, he got him The Best of the Nat King Cole Trio, and told John to listen to him. It was a good move.
“As soon as I heard it, I thought, ‘That’s for me. The jazz sensibilities, the sense of humor… that’s ground zero for me.'”
He also started doing a coffeehouse gig to work on his chops. He’d do songs by the likes of Kenny Rankin and Michael Franks, and James Taylor to help him learn to sing.
In the 1980s, John was given the chance to do gigs with Bucky, “…after I learned enough songs.” He sang and played guitar.
“It was great. I was given years to work under the radar with dad. I got some notice, but not enough to have members of the press kill me. I consider it seven years of apprentice work.”
He did his first solo work for the Chesky label in 1990, and has recorded for several since, including his current label, Telarc.
For a guy some consider a singer, Pizzarelli has amazing chops. Drop the needle (well… laser) pretty much anywhere on the Live disc, and you just might walk away stunned by the playing. His mastery of single lines and chordal work is second to none. He credits some of that to his upbringing.
“It was an invaluable experience to be playing with all the jazz guys while I was in my 20s. It was pretty much a sink-or-swim situation. It helped me learn very quickly. And dad forced me to have big ears. He’d play me something – just pound out the melody – and I had to learn it.”
And he never considered himself just a singer, nor just a guitarist.
And because Bucky was Sinatra’s favorite guitarist, it’s not surprising that the younger Pizzarelli got to open some shows for the Chairman of the Board in the early ’90s. That, he says, was like school.
“I got to hear that band every night,” he said, calling the atmosphere “electric” when Sinatra performed, saying only the Beatles compared, in terms of creating that feeling. As for what he heard from Sinatra, it was usually fun stuff. Pizzarelli ran into him backstage once, and the only words out of Sinatra’s mouth were, “Eat somethin’. You look bad,” followed by a hearty laugh.
John’s favorite guitars are made by Bill Moll in Springfield, Missouri. He has been using them for five years. He takes two Moll signature models on the road with him, and uses Ultra Sound amps because they sound natural and are are very portable.
“I like the fact you can turn it up, and the guitar still sounds like a guitar,” he said.
A recent piece of equipment that’s getting a lot of use is an Apple iPod. He says that for a long time he hadn’t listened to music because he just didn’t have time. But he loaded a few hundred songs from his high school days – stuff like Little Feat, Peter Frampton, Allman Brothers, Zoot Sims, and Tal Farlow.
“I love Dickey Betts’ playing,” he said. “The Allmans were very much like a great jazz band, with chorus after chorus of amazing soloing.”
Pizzarelli also has a special place in his heart for Frampton’s playing. “It sounds crazy, but listen to him. He played around the changes, just like a jazz guy would.”
As for jazz players, Pizzarelli says there are so many great ones, including young guys like Frank Vignola, Russell Malone, and Howard Alden, but he points to dad as his favorite.
“He really is the full package,” he said of his father. “He covers the instrument in every respect.”
For a musician who could be called brilliant, Pizzarelli remains humble and enthusiastic about the business.
“I’ve been able to open for Sinatra, and meet Natalie Cole, which was such an honor. I got to do a couple of shows as a guitarist in James Taylor’s band. It was great. I actually had a guitar tech!”
He also says recordings with the likes of Taylor and Rosemary Clooney have been highlights of his career. This year, a bossa nova record is in the offing, and from there, who knows? But rest assured, whatever he does, it’ll include brilliant guitar playing and lots of fine singing.
John Pizzarelli with his signature Moll guitar. Photo courtesy Telarc.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s July ’04 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.