Live at Birdland
Watching John Pizzarelli perform his comfortable brand of jazz in an intimate club setting is a truly wonderful way to spend an evening. Son of semi-legendary jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli (with whom he has performed and recorded), John’s refreshing, upbeat stage demeanor and clever banter between songs perfectly compliment a night spent listening to an emerging master tackle everything from Gershwin to James Taylor. Backed by his brother Martin Pizzarelli on bass and the rather astounding Ray Kennedy on piano, the trio at its best is tight while appearing loose. This type of effortlessness that can only come from over ten years of experience on stage together and a true love for the music being made.
Having seen the John Pizzarelli Trio at the top of their game a couple of years back, and having been appropriately blown away, it was with great excitement that I learned of Telarc’s decision to release a live 2 CD set this spring. I admit, however, to being worried that the warmth of their live show wouldn’t necessarily translate as such on album, but from the opening minutes of the first CD, all those fears were quickly put to rest. As Pizzarelli and gang launch into “Just You, Just Me,” a smile began to spread across my face. They had captured the warmth.
Live at Birdland consists of two separate live shows (one on each CD) at the legendary jazz club over a couple of nights in late September of 2002. Mixing covers, originals and standards, the Trio whip through a set with intensity and humor, each given his own chance to shine on most numbers — though no one usually manages to shine brighter than guitarist/vocalist Pizzareli himself. A truly inspired jazz guitarist, Pizzarelli’s solos are often the highlight of each song, while his smooth, Chet Baker like voice provides just the right amount of cool on songs like “Moonlight Becomes You” and, surprisingly, a slow jazz take on James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight”. Keep in mind, this is a man that has done an entire album full of Nat King Cole covers as well as an entire album of jazz renditions of Beatles tunes, so to say he is well-versed musically is a bit of an understatement. Still, the two Taylor covers he plays here capture everything that is right with this album, and indeed, with the Trio itself: unique but familiar, surprising yet ultimately inviting.
Pizzarelli is also quite the entertainer between songs, delivering intriguing stories filled with equal parts wisdom, modesty and humor. It is to the credit of the album’s producers that they realized the necessity of including some of this banter on the record itself, as it captures Pizzarelli’s light-hearted demeanor and his way with words. Even more so now than when I had the chance to see him, Pizzarelli truly knows how to work a crowd without necessarily seeming like he’s trying.
If I had a complaint about this album it would be that not enough songs from Pizzarelli himself are included in the live shows — though this is most likely always the case at any of his shows, as he chooses to focus on more easily recognizable tunes than to devote to much of his set to his own compositions. Still, Pizzarelli compositions like “Tea for Tatum” and “The Day I Found You” hold up remarkably well alongside bona fide standards. And for those of you who like what you hear in these songs, be sure to do yourself a favor by picking up Pizzarelli’s Kisses in the Rain, which features some of the best original work he has ever done.