One of jazz’s best attributes is its co-existence of styles. No matter what style of music a musician wants to play, he’s likely to find others with similar musical interests with which he can collaborate. Thus, classic swing, which thrived from the mid-1930s through the mid-1940s is still performed and recorded in 2010 by young musicians who learned the style through vintage recordings.
The Pizzarelli family has made something of a cottage trade out of this phenomenon. John Pizzarelli, who, like his father Bucky, is a guitarist, has the highest profile because he also sings, and because his good looks are matched with a rakish singing personality. John’s wife is the Broadway star Jessica Molasky, and his brother Martin is the rock-steady bassist in his trio. Along with the young violinist Aaron Weinstein, all of the above players form a core group and all of them tend to appear on each other’s albums. Nothing wrong with that, of course; after all, they work very well as a team. In fact, their only true fault is that the resulting music, while well-played, is smooth rather than edgy.
John’s latest CD, “Rockin’ In Rhythm” (Telarc 31921) is a tribute to Duke Ellington. Here, the core group outlined above is augmented by an instrumental group arranged and conducted by Don Sebesky. Sebesky’s work elevates this album above the usual Ducal songfests, as he spices his arrangements with quotes from classic Ellington compositions like “Jack The Bear”, “Just Squeeze Me” and “Love You Madly”. Sebesky also gets a dark, Ellington sound from the four horns on “Solitude” and “I Got It Bad”.
John is in excellent form both on vocals and guitar. Nearly all of his solos are simultaneously scatted and plucked (single-string), and while the technique comes from George Benson, Pizzarelli’s lines are more complex and flashy than Benson’s normal fare. “Perdido” is a special treat with Molasky and Kurt Elling joining Pizzarelli as a pseudo-Lambert, Hendricks & Ross performing Molasky’s original vocalese lyrics to the Clark Terry and Jimmy Hamilton-penned bop ensemble choruses from Ellington’s “Piano In The Background” LP. John may be at his best as a ballad singer. He tends to drop the rakish character, and sings the songs simply and with little ornamentation. His readings of “All Too Soon” and “I Got It Bad” are models of understatement. And to show his continuing commitment to instrumental swing, there are two fine instrumental tracks, both of which swing mightily.
Pizzarelli and his trio will appear this Saturday night at the Soiled Dove on the old Lowry campus. It should be a swingin’ night.