If your father made a living backing up some of the greatest singers and musicians during the golden age of jazz, and if you lived and breathed the great American popular songs, it is no surprise that some of this would rub off on you. John Pizzarelli was the beneficiary of this fertile musical upbringing, and he has become an important link to our musical heritage – and one helluva guitarist. He’s the son of the well-known jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, and I have a feeling that the elder Pizzarelli would not be offended or object to the notion that his son has surpassed his old man in terms of his guitar playing. The John Pizzarelli Quartet made their first appearance in this area at Stewart Theatre on the NC State campus on February 24. It was an evening that showcased the tremendous talent of this artist and also reinforced the idea that great songs are forever.

There are many examples of great jazz/popular pianists who are also excellent singers, but this is much less so for guitarists, and in itself this is a unique aspect of Pizzarelli’s talents. He started out at the age of 16 emulating the sound, delivery, and repertoire of the Nat King Cole Trio, a drumless group that was wildly popular even before Cole himself achieved widespread personal renown. While Pizzarelli’s guitar chops were never in doubt, it took years for his vocal abilities to mature and strengthen, and for him to gain confidence to expose his emotions via the phrasing and lyrics. From the recordings that I had heard, I was not all that keen on hearing the singing part of his act — never have I been so turned around by a performance.

I have always enjoyed the ambience and sound of Stewart Theatre — its nightclub feel and fine sight lines provide a great oasis in the midst of a rather dismal, institutional building. It is a perfect venue for an evening of jazz. Brother Martin Pizzarelli on bass, Larry Goldings on piano, and Tony Tedesco on drums joined John as a perfectly balanced and tasteful quartet. Unlike many contemporary jazz vocalists, Pizzarelli makes it a central point of his performance to acknowledge and put front and center the composers of the songs that he performs. He also does not live only in the past — he performs songs by James Taylor as well as contemporary Broadway tunes and classics from Brazil.

As an added bonus to his musical prowess, he is a wonderful, funny host who had the audience laughing with his many stories, impressions, and unique takes on many of the lyrics. He also is a master of a technique that, while certainly not new, he has taken to new heights. As if it is not enough to play a stunning, inventive, lightning fast guitar solo, he also scats (wordless singing) the exact same solo while playing. It is a splash of orchestral color that adds an exciting dimension to a basic jazz rhythm section. Speaking of exciting, Pizzarelli played one of the most spectacular guitar solos I have ever heard during the quartet’s performance of “Paper Moon.” He took about six choruses of blocked chords played at the speed that a saxophonist would take. That quickly put to rest any notion that he quietly comps along while singing old-fashioned songs.

One of the greatest accomplishments a musician can hope for is to convert a listener who previously never even tried a certain style of music – or who was just apathetic towards it. Classical presenters are always dreaming up schemes to get young people suddenly to like concert music. John Pizzarelli and his quartet had that effect on my daughter. We dragged her to this concert since she was home from college, and she ended up loving it, describing him as having the smoothest voice she had ever heard. I totally agreed, although it is a strange phenomenon that I found this live performance to be far superior to any of Pizzarelli’s recordings. His live singing had a warmth and emotive quality that just doesn’t come through on CDs — usually it’s just the opposite.

This was one of the most enjoyable jazz performances I have ever encountered. The concert offered great songs, sung and played so they retained the essence of what makes them great plus brilliant soloists and a sound system that was perfectly mixed and balanced.