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A Jazz Singer With a Heart of Rock

John Pizzarelli Wanted to Be Billy Joel; Now He's Happy Following Nat King Cole

September 20, 2000|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When guitarist-vocalist John Pizzarelli was just starting out and making appearances with his jazz-guitarist father, Bucky Pizzarelli, he secretly wanted to be Billy Joel.

"My father used to say that I was the only guy out there playing jazz to support his rock habit," the younger Pizzarelli said. "Usually it's the other way around; guys play rock to support their interest in jazz."

Beginning around 1980, the aspiring guitarist would join his father and other musicians, including saxophonist Zoot Sims, for father-son jams and swing-jazz appearances.

"I loved playing with my dad," Pizzarelli said from his New York City home between concert tours. "I just didn't know I would make a living at it. I never thought it could work."

But it has. Now 40, the younger Pizzarelli, his Billy Joel wannabe days behind him, instead devotes himself to the music of the American Songbook. He still likes rock. Witness his 1999 release and last recording for RCA, "Meets the Beatles," which features his trio (including brother and bassist Martin Pizzarelli) joined by an orchestra playing Don Sebesky's jazz arrangements of Lennon-McCartney tunes.

Beatles aside, the dapper singer-guitarist has made a successful career following in the footsteps of the great jazz singers, especially Nat King Cole.

Pizzarelli, whose trio appears Friday and Saturday at the Orange County Performing Art Center's Jazz Club in Founders Hall, explains how he went from aspiring rock 'n' roller to swing-style crooner.

"I was into James Taylor, Jackson Browne, the Eagles, Steely Dan, [Doobie Brothers keyboardist] Michael McDonald, all the usual stuff," he said of his formative years in New Jersey. "I was playing in a band called Johnny Picks and His Scabs. Scabs because we would play Sunday nights when the other bands refused. If the club had a beach night, we suddenly became Johnny Ride and the Waves. I was Johnny."

He was 20 when his father gave him a collection of the Nat King Cole Trio's recordings. The trio "was a revelation, something I could build a foundation on in the jazz style. It changed my whole perspective."

Beginning in 1983, his weekly participation on the WNEW-AM radio program "New York Tonight," earned through his performance of the recording of a friend's song "I Like New Jersey Best," also contributed to his knowledge of the music that now directs his life.

WNEW "was the big-band station that started way back in the '20s. I was on with Jonathan Schwartz, whose father [Arthur Schwartz, with Howard Dietz] wrote 'Dancing in the Dark,' and Tony Monte, who'd worked with [singer] Johnny Hartman. I did impersonations of Bob Dylan and helicopter reporters and other stuff like that. There were all these high jinks going on, but I also got to hear all this great music: Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett. And amid all that, I was listening to Linda Ronstadt's Nelson Riddle albums. And at the end of the '80s came Harry Connick Jr. and Natalie Cole. My path was set."

Pizzarelli's first recordings for the Chesky label in 1990--notably "My Blue Heaven" with his father, trumpeter Clark Terry, pianist Dave McKenna, bassist Milt Hinton and Modern Jazz Quartet drummer Connie Kay--established him as a suave vocalist with an ability to accompany himself on guitar. Beginning in 1991, he started a long association with RCA Victor and its Novus label, making good on his Nat Cole connection with the 1994 recording "Dear Mr. Cole," which included pianist Benny Green and bassist Christian McBride, and the 1999 follow-up release (recorded in '96) "P.S. Mr. Cole."

After the Beatles project, the singer moved over to the TelArc label and recorded "Kisses in the Rain," the title tune co-written by himself and his wife, Broadway actress Jessica Molaskey. A new album, "Let There Be Love," is scheduled for release in November.

"When we're putting an album together," he said, "I listen to a lot of music in different styles and then try to fit the songs into a framework: Here we need a rhythm tune, a flag-waver, here we need a Les Paul-Mary Ford type of song, here we need a ballad or a blues song. I look for tunes in the style that Nat Cole did, that tell a story and have a punch line that's maybe bittersweet like 'The Best Man' or 'You're Looking at Me.' "

Pizzarelli's good looks and charm, like Harry Connick Jr. before him, have earned him something of a sex-symbol status, a notion that embarrasses him only a little.

"It's nice, I guess, and it's certainly part of what this kind of music is all about. It's just the style to wear good suits and ties and look really good. Look at Tony Bennett, he looks great. Diana Krall looks great. Sinatra always looked great. But looking great isn't enough. The music has to be great too."

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