The John Pizzarelli Trio

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The John Pizzarelli Trio

The Venetian Room, San Francisco, CA, January 26, 2020
Reviewed by Steve Murray

John Pizzarelli
Photo: David Andrako

John Pizzarelli is much more than a virtuoso jazz guitarist, which alone would be a career-making achievement. He’s a great arranger, vocalist, storyteller, musicologist, and one helluva funny guy. Making his annual visit to Bay Area Cabaret, John brought a crackerjack trio to dazzle the audience with a mixture of songs made famous by Nat King Cole and the lyrics of songwriter Johnny Mercer. Pizzarelli doesn’t just rubber-stamp his material, rather he challenges the ear with fresh arrangements that may take a few bars to determine which classic he’s interpreting.

His first two numbers fly out of the starting gate like a prize thoroughbred and sound a lot like a great old-time radio broadcast. “I Would Do Anything for You” (Alexander Hill/Claude Hopkins/Bob Williams) and “Sweet Lorraine” with music by Cliff Burwell and lyrics by Mitchell Parish swing hard with Pizzarelli’s fingers flying over the frets. A dazzling rendition of “Honeysuckle Rose” had him trading delicate runs with young piano wunderkind Tadataka Unno. Bassist Mike Karn lays down the hard-swinging backbeat.

Cole and Mercer were giants of the 20th century, supplying the Great American Songbook with universally recognized music and lyrics that helped define the era. Performed on jazz guitar adds a dynamic energy to the swing numbers, and a sensitive light touch to the ballads. The Cole hits just kept coming: 1946’s “Could Ja,” Eden Ahbez’s “Nature Boy,” and a lovely cover of “When I Fall in Love.” Pizzarelli adds delicious backstories of song creations as well as his wicked trademark sense of humor.

Mercer is represented by “Bob White,” “Skylark” (with Hoagy Carmichael), and “I Thought About You” (with Jimmy Van Heusen). “Too Marvelous for Words” (written with Richard Whiting) and the collegiate “Jamboree Jones” show off Pizzarelli’s tenor vocals. The trio laid into Cole’s “Straighten Up and Fly Right” (written with Irving Mills), the Nat King Cole Trio’s most successful single. Unno and Pizzarelli edged each other on to the delight of the sold-out crowd.

Bay Area Cabaret is wise to include jazz artists of Pizzarelli’s stature, further broadening the appeal of this significant concert series. By the time the trio encored with the instrumental “Nat King Cool,” based on the chords from “Sweet Georgia Brown,” you got the full sense of how much respect Pizzarelli has for Nat’s music. He said “Nat King Cole is the reason why I do what I do,” and it shows in this well-crafted and well-performed tribute.

Steve Murray

Always interested in the arts, Steve was encouraged to begin producing and, in 1998, staged four, one-man vehicles starring San Francisco's most gifted performers. In 1999, he began the Viva Variety series, a live stage show with a threefold mission to highlight, support, and encourage gay and gay-friendly art in all the performance forms, to entertain and document the shows, and to contribute to the community by donating proceeds to local non-profits. The shows utilized the old variety show style popularized by his childhood idol Ed Sullivan. He’s produced over 150 successful shows, including parodies of Bette Davis’s gothic melodramedy Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte and Joan Crawford’s very awful Trog. He joined Cabaret Scenes 2007 and enjoys the writing and relationships he’s built with very talented performers.