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While assembling this year's lineup for the 40th anniversary season of Arts NC State a poll was taken to determine which artists who had previously played should be asked back for this celebratory year. At the top of the musical list was singer/guitarist John Pizzarelli who had performed on this series in 2006 and 2009. It was a special treat tonight as he was joined by Broadway actress and singer Jessica Molaskey, who is also Mrs. Pizzarelli.
If you were asked to order up a musician and performer who has serious jazz guitar chops that takes a back seat to no one, a warm and endearing vocal style, and a charming but not cloying stage presence who puts on a show that delights anyone regardless of their familiarity with the songs, then the result would be John Pizzarelli. Raised among the musical comrades of his guitarist father Bucky, who is still actively performing at the age of 86, John has deservedly risen to the top of the ranks of a breed of performers which has continued the rich tradition of The Great American Songbook.
Pizzarelli is no preachy, retro dinosaur with an "old songs are the best" ethic, as the three opening songs of his set illustrate. The evening began with him and Molaskey combining for a hip, cool-as-the-other-side-of-the pillow rendition of Donald Fagen's "Walk Between Raindrops" from his classic first post Steely Dan album, The Nightfly. Next, John and his trio took on The Beatles' "Can't Buy Me Love." Maybe it's just my baby boomer ethic, but I always cringe at covers of Beatles' songs, and despite the undeniably excellent performance, my reaction was pretty much the same. Rounding out the first set was a somewhat incongruous but very effective pairing of Neil Young's "Harvest Moon" and the classic "Shine on Harvest Moon." His pairing of seemingly disparate songs several times during the concert was a wonderfully creative technique. How about Billy Joel meets Stephen Sondheim in an "eyes" medley as Joel's "Rosalinda's Eyes" sung by John was somehow hooked into Jessica crooning Sondheim's "In Buddy's Eyes" from Follies?
John and Jessica were backed up by fleet-fingered pianist Larry Fuller, a quietly supportive Tony Tedesco on drums and bassist and brother Martin Pizzarelli. While this was an excellent trio and they are all superb musicians, this was definitely John's show with help from Jessica. Molaskey is a Broadway style singer who for the most part sang with very little movement except for occasional arm motions, and sat very still on a stool while her husband had his solos. John had a slew of smokin' solos during several of the songs, but it was his unaccompanied and unsung rendition of Duke Ellington's "Just Squeeze Me" that had this wannabe Jazz guitarist simply stunned. This was an exquisitely harmonized arrangement that sounded all the more full played on his seven-string guitar (additional "A" string below the low "E").
One of the highlights, vocally speaking, was Pizzarelli's amazing use of concurrent and unison scatting and soloing on his guitar. Scatting is the vocal technique where just using syllables like "doo-be-doo" the singer sings like an instrumental soloist improvising. Either one by itself is quite a feat, but when done at the same time at blistering speeds it becomes a "you've gotta be there to believe it" experience. Using that type of singing, John and Jessica also gave several beautiful examples of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross type vocalese.
A mini-set of some of the more famous songs by Duke Ellington had another remarkable who-would-have-thought-it pairing of "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" with the instrumental "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo." More of these twosomes continued with what was probably the most bizarre, yet deliciously consonant coupling: Joni Mitchell's "The Circle Game" and Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Waters of March."
Pizzarelli's ability to find the best in songs from all time periods and genres, extract what makes it memorable, and also make it personal rather than a benign cover, is what endears him to several generations of fans. His facile stage presence and charming persona belies his consummate and original guitar playing and his superb arrangements. The highlight in this regard was the stunning vocal solo by Molaskey while John played a stunning accompaniment to Paul Simon's "Hearts and Bones." As if to punctuate the unexpected selection of material, John and Jessica were coaxed back on stage for a Christmas in March encore: Irving Berlin's "Count Your Blessings" from White Christmas.