Monday, February 02, 2015

American Songbook at NJPAC: John Pizarelli

Maybe only Arthur Prysock ever experienced greater spillover success from a commercial gig than John Pizzarelli. For years, Pizzarelli got requests for the Foxwoods song, “The Wonder of it All,” but Prysock actually charted with “Here’s to Good Friends.” Of course, both also had a facility for interpreting the Great American Songbook, particularly Johnny Mercer in the case of Pizzarelli. The vocalist-guitarist takes the stage for an all Mercer concert for this week’s installment of American Songbook at NJPAC, premiering Wednesday night on NJTV.

Yes, it is all Mercer, but Pizzarelli also highlights the veritable hall of fame’s worth of collaborators he wrote with. It doesn’t get much more American Songbook than Jerome Kern, who composed the music for “Dearly Beloved.” Pizzarelli gives it a good healthy swing, featuring short but legit solos from Bud Burridge on trumpet and Kenny Berger on baritone. Acknowledging them by name, Pizzarelli gives the set an old school big band vibe, which is refreshing.

Shifting gears a bit, “Skylark,” written by Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael, gets a stripped down arrangement with only the barest of rhythmic support, but it’s the sort of melancholy song that lends itself to such treatment. However, the medley of Mercer’s four Academy Award winning songs really don’t really fit together so naturally, starting with “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” (Harold Arlen) and ending on with Mercer’s Henry Mancini collaborations, “The Days of Wine and Roses” and “Moon River.”

Pizzarelli cranks up the swing for an up-tempo high-energy rendition of “Something’s Gotta Give.” A bit surprisingly, he embraces some of Mercer’s more novelty-ish tunes, like “Goody Goody” and “Accentuate the Positive,” doing his best to keep them honest. Of course, Pizzarelli also has the sort of musical theater chops for those sort of numbers. In fact, he reminds the audience he met his wife, vocalist Jessica Molaskey when they were both performing in a Mercer show.

Unlike the Osnes and Fontana season opener, Pizzarelli never sits down for an interview segment with host Ted Chapin, but he has a lot more band to showcase. John Mosca on trombone, Ken Hitchcock on flute, and Konrad Paszkudzki on piano all get some nice, tasty solo spots, while drummer Kevin Kanner and Pizzarelli’s brother Martin on bass lay down rock solid support. (FYI, it is only a limited family affair, with neither their father, guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, nor Molaskey making a guest appearance).

It is just a pleasure to hear good standards get a muscular going over. “Dearly Beloved” has an especially catchy and appealing melody, but it is not exactly overplayed, so it is quite nice to hear Pizzarelli put it into the mix. Thanks to NJTV and NJPAC, it is a lot of fun to have the chance to tap your toe along with the Mercer songbook Again, this is great original programming that ought to be a model for regional PBS stations. Highly recommended, American Songbook at NJPAC: John Pizzarelli premieres this Wednesday (2/4) on NJTV, with a later WNET Thirteen airdate scheduled for March 28th.

(Photos: Daniel Cardenas/NJTV)