Pizzarelli Parlor: John Pizzarelli Brings the Family to the Mahaiwe
By Robert Burke Warren
Singer, guitarist, and showman extraordinaire John Pizzarelli plans to say good-bye to 2013 with even more class than usual. The Grammy nominee, who plays close to 150 dates a year, routinely leaves audiences smoldering with his quartet, drawing on a wide array of everything from Duke Ellington, to the American Songbook, to jazzed-up renditions of pop tunes. But for his engagement at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center on Saturday, December 28th, at 8 PM, he’s shooting higher, and calling in the big guns. Appearing alongside him will be legendary jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, i.e. his dad, and actress-chanteuse Jessica Molaskey, i.e. his wife and co-host of Pizzarelli’s acclaimed syndicated broadcast Radio Deluxe. Molaskey, an artistic force in her own right, is fresh from the cast of Carrie Underwood’s live network presentation of The Sound of Music, and, like all members of this dazzlingly musical family, she’s eager to see the year out in style.
RI caught up with Pizzarelli as he was heading up a mountain, en route to Knoxville, Tennessee, for a gig. He’s looking forward to performing with his father and spouse (and brother, Martin Pizzarelli, on double bass) as well as a new drummer and keyboardist. (Longtime pianist Ray Kennedy, a leading light of jazz, has contracted MS and could use your help HERE.) Regarding Molaskey, he confirms that their delightful, dulcet-toned rapport is as natural as it sounds on Radio Deluxe. Married for 15 years (they recently renewed their vows) they bring a sweet-to-piquant George n’ Gracie or Bogie & Bacall to the airwaves and the stage, offering one another affection, appreciation, exasperation, and gentle ribbing in equal doses. In the live shows, their dynamic intensifies as they walk the improv tightrope, engaging audiences with their couple-speak, until they bring the house down with stunning chops, reminding everyone how unusual they are after all.
“There’s so much going on in what I do with Jessica,” Pizzarelli says, laughing. “Little moments happen. She’s really looking forward to this show.”
Pizzarelli’s eager, too, and not just because he’ll be in his home-away-from-home, i.e. the spotlight; on the contrary, appearing with Molaskey and Bucky allows Pizzarelli to slide into sideman mode, as he’s done with James Taylor, Paul McCartney, Frank Sinatra, and Rosemary Clooney, among others. As a noted front man, he may appear to easily assume leadership, but Pizzarelli admits: “It’s fun to do different things on these family gigs. I get to play a little rhythm guitar, play more solos, sit back a little and let them be the focus.”
And when 87-year-old jazz guitar legend Bucky Pizzarelli is the focus, all is well in the world. A former sideman with Benny Goodman, Les Paul, and Stephane Grappelli, and a one-time member of The Tonight Show band, Bucky Pizzarelli is the real deal, and sharp as a tack. “He’s the oldest guy on the bandstand,” John Pizzarelli says, “but when he plays, he’s the youngest guy in the room.” As paterfamilias of the Pizzarellis, Bucky got the whole ball rolling when he invited his young son, John, who’d been rockin’ a six string since age six, to join him onstage in 1980. In the decades since, John Pizzarelli has never stopped touring, recording, and slyly introducing pop fans to jazz and jazz fans to pop, a la his idol, Nat “King” Cole. (Many consider Pizzarelli’s 1994 Cole tribute, Dear Mr. Cole, to be the best of his many albums.)
Pizzarelli has been active throughout the recent cultural sea change that includes MP3’s, YouTube, and smartphones, all of which impact performers of any vintage or genre. How has the digital age affected him? “The only thing that’s changed is people want to take pictures all the time,” he says, with a rare hint of annoyance. “The live performance aspect has changed. Like [Pizzarelli’s good friend] Pat Metheny used to love to sit in with bands and play off the cuff. But people always want to video everything, so he doesn’t anymore.” And when Pizzarelli and Molaskey recently performed their annual stint at the tony Café Carlyle in Manhattan, a patron ignored a “no photos” request and held up his iPhone with the light on during the performance. “He still thought it was OK,” Pizzarelli says.
But it was a very good 2013, despite the clueless smartphone addicts. After memorable gigs in Napa Valley, L.A., and Europe (where his teenage daughter, Madeline, got to meet The Who) Pizzarelli is excited to return to the Mahaiwe, which, at 108 years in operation, is one of the oldest surviving theaters in the country. “It’s a throwback,” he says enthusiastically. “Such a sweet little theater, a great team. Lots of folks will be up for the holidays. We’re all really looking forward to it.”
Come join the coolest family in town. Fancy attire encouraged. Smartphones, not so much.
John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey with Special Guest Bucky Pizzarelli
Saturday, December 28th at 8 p.m.
Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center
14 Castle St.
Great Barrington, MA