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Bucky and John Pizzarelli, courtesy of the artists
For a father and son team who has performed together for more than 33 years, you might think that Bucky and John Pizzarelli would have seen it all. Between them, they’ve certainly played with almost everyone who’s anyone, from Benny Goodman and Frank Sinatra, to James Taylor and Paul McCartney. Despite the heavy names they’ve rubbed elbows with, John says that playing with Bucky is always something special. These two jazz guitar giants make it look easy, and leave their audiences convinced that it must be genetics—or perhaps something in the New Jersey water—which allows such great talent to bloom in one family. The pair will be performing in St. Louis at Jazz at the Bistro on December 18 to 21, with two sets each night at 7:30 and 9:30. Last week, John made time in his busy schedule to talk with us about performing with Bucky, his recent and current projects, and of course, his favorite St. Louis eateries.
How is performing with Bucky as a duo different than a quartet gig?
It’s fun, because we don’t get to do it that much anymore, and it’s sort of like doing a quartet gig, because we have our own repertoire. We know what we’re going to do in a sense, so that’s fun, but we don’t do it that often, so now every night’s got a discovery about it that you don’t normally have in just a regular quartet night. So since it’s a little more special, every night’s always something. I mean, the guy’s 87, so whenever he does anything, it’s something special.
Is playing with Bucky any different than playing with anyone else? Do you feel more pressure?
No, I like it more because there’s always something very… it’s just more fun really, for me, because he’s so good. There’s nobody like him, and then he’s my father, and so all that is ingredients in there and it just makes it more exciting. It makes it such a rewarding musical and personal experience.
I guess since you grew up playing with him, it’s almost like returning home.
Yeah. I mean, it’s really how I started, so going back to do this is always fun. That’s really what put me on the map.
You started learning to play from your uncles and your father, and your house was always full of some of the biggest talent of the time. Does that tradition pass on to your own kids? Do they feel the same influence from you and your wife? (FYI: That would be the wonderful jazz singer Jessica Molaskey, who’s well worth checking out, too. -Ed.)
Yeah, I think they get to see more of it. You know I think the funny thing is we always say we’re all sort of spoiled by it. The fact is that now we know so many people in the business that you always get great seats, you never really on line anywhere, and then you’re meeting people after the show, you’re going backstage to see people you just saw perform, and sometimes they’re your friends, and sometimes because of who you are, you’re able to just barge in and say hello and make friends from these people. We don’t do it as much at home, but to be able to pass that part on and say, “You may have just enjoyed this performance and because of who we are, we can go back maybe and say hello and you can learn something.” Now, that’s the kind of experience not a lot of people get to have, but I think they understand that.
Each night of the show is different obviously, but do you kind of sketch out your sets, or is it all on the fly?
It’s all pretty much on the fly, although I try to sketch it out a little bit so I can remember what we know. [He laughs.] I’m trying to get [Bucky] to stretch out a little more than he does. He has a lot of things that are in his comfort zone, but after a night or two he starts to add other things he feels better with. There’s a bunch of set things that we know, but since it’s two sets a night he gets to stretch out a little bit too. So, there’ll be a couple of things in there that we don’t normally play, that we’ll have to take out of mothballs.
Does one of you tend to take the lead more with that, or does one just look at the other and suggest, “hey, how about…?”
Well, he’ll try to remember certain things, and I will too. I just became more list-oriented during the Ray Kennedy years in our group, because he was so good at putting things together like that. So yeah, maybe we should have a little list or even an idea of what we’re going to do, so I’ll make one even if Bucky doesn’t want to make one, and I’ll have it at the ready.
You’ll both be playing the seven-string guitars and that seventh string adds the lower bass note. How does that open things up as far as possibilities for the music?
That’s the thing. Literally 33 years ago, when I started to play with my father, I had just the regular six-string guitar. I knew how to play the seven-string, but I didn’t use it on the gig or anything. Then one day, literally right before the gig in... I think it was the Morristown Library; it was like a Sunday library gig. They had a little jazz series, you know, and my dad and I played. So my father said, “Don’t bring that guitar today. Don’t bring your six-string; bring the seven-string. Then you accompany me when I play and I’ll accompany you, and we’ll both have the low bass notes, and this way we can accompany each other when the other one’s playing and create the bass notes for the thing.” And literally, he just said, “Go!” [He laughs.] I remember being on the gig, holding this big Gretsch seven-string guitar and going, “This is like, weird. So I gotta remember now how to do all this stuff with this extra string, and uh, I’m on a gig! There’s no practice time!” So it was really funny, and the funny thing was, that I said “Ah, that’s a great idea!” and then I was on the gig and I was like, “Oop, I gotta really figure this out now,” so it was funny.
Your music has been called accessible jazz. Is that something you think about, or rather, what do you think about that?
I think the funny thing is that with Bucky, he always liked to play good songs, and then amidst all the songs that people knew, he would always throw in things that they didn’t know. We could play standard songs everybody knew: “Tangerine,” “Emily,” or whatever, and then he’d play a Bix Beiderbecke piano piece. He had all sorts of little piano pieces that he would play that were obscure, or guitar duets that were obscure, or songs that were off the beaten track. He had a way of presenting it so that when he threw in the weird stuff, you were having a learning experience and you trusted what we were doing because you already knew where we had taken you. You were like, “Oh, I never knew that song before. That was a Fritz Kreisler violin piece, and they just played that. What are these guys doing?” So he was always good at that and it wasn’t that it was accessible, it was just that it was smart. No matter what the style of jazz you play, I always feel that was always a learning experience for me. You know, we had to find a way to make you feel comfortable and then say, “Oh!” You know, you’re not compromising; you’re just doing what you do. You have to give them a little carrot on the stick to have them follow you, and then you can throw in something unusual in bits and pieces along the way and people are like, “Oh! I had an experience,” because you actually led the audience in a very interesting direction. They trusted you.
So they might think, “Oh, that was nice,” but then later they realize, “Hey, wait I learned!”
Yeah, well, they actually heard some songs that they didn’t know, whereas if I just went out there and did 60 minutes of songs you didn’t know, and didn’t speak to you about it and didn’t lead you down the path… You know, we didn’t come out an immediately play our “Eggplant Suite.”
[He imitates himself talking with a member of his audience]
“Here’s a 20 minute suite about eggplants. Musical eggplants!”
And you think, “Well that’s really great. I really wanted to hear ‘Honeysuckle Rose.’”
“Well, we’re not going to play that.“
So, I think it’s all in the programming that makes it interesting.
Well, I think a huge part of your appeal is that you’re both so lyrical and melodic in your playing. Even your solos, perhaps with some study, are singable.
Well, hopefully! [He laughs.] I always felt Pat Metheny played like that. Actually it’s interesting, because it goes from other artists, like Clark Terry. You can hear Clark Terry from a mile away, you know? You know Pat Metheny, and there’s a quality to certain instrumentalists that’s really… I mean Bucky’s the same way. You know Bucky, too, from a mile away when you might hear him play. That’s the thing: there’s no real question, I guess. It is true that Bucky’s so lyrical when he plays and he sort of passed some of those qualities on. That’s a lot of it too: that you hear something in the playing that makes you want to listen more.
Right. And of course the other draw to hearing you live is your storytelling. I’ve heard you say, “It’s all about the patter.”
[He laughs.] Well, at some times I think that’s part of it too. I think with me, I probably overdo it too much with my own presentation, but with Bucky it’s fun to tell a couple of stories from the book live, because it’s great to watch his reaction. It makes for an interesting experience on that note too. I think the music’s never compromised, so that’s the other half of that. I think that the music remains on a very high level, and also there’s an entertainment value and a little fun to the fact that there’s these little stories that are informative to where we’ve come from.
Speaking of stories...your memoir, World on a String, has a great collection of them. I have to admit I haven’t finished reading it quite yet, but…
That’s all right, neither have I. [He laughs.]
You’re still working on Joe [Cosgriff’s] half?
Yeah! He’s still working on my half! [He laughs.]
What made you say, “Now’s the time to write a book?”
It was literally Joe who said, “You’ve got these stories, you’ve got a centerpiece there with the Sinatra business, you’ve got some good Rosie Clooney things; why don’t you put together a premise and we’ll pitch it?” Actually, he said, “I’ll put it together and I’ll pitch it for you.” I sort of went, “Okay, sure,” and then he put together the Sinatra thing from… Well, you know, he was on the Sinatra tour and did a number of those things with me. So, when he pitched the thing, there was one publisher in particular that said, “Great idea!” Actually, the funny thing was that the editor met with us and said, “Sometimes I get ten manuscripts and every once in a while I’ll say to my husband, ‘read a couple of these.’” So, she said she gave her husband four or five of them and he came in and said, “These are all no big deal, but you gotta do this one,” and it was our book. So she said, “I gotta do it, my husband said, ‘This is the one,’” so, it was crazy. The next thing you know, we’re writing a book and I still kept going, “We’re not really writing a book, are we?” It was all about the process of Joe collating everything, asking all the right questions, and keeping it all consistently in our voice.
Well, it’s great so far, and I’ve talked with other people who’ve really enjoyed reading it.
I think it’s a fun read. I mean, it’s a nice book. Actually, if you go look at the Jazz Times website, it’s nominated for “Jazz Book of the Year” and all that stuff. I probably won’t win but I was like, “Well, I’m still in a category for something this year,” so that’s good.
Your last album, Double Exposure, was out in 2012, and now that the book is done, does that mean you’re working on the next album, or is it too soon to say?
Well, actually we have a brand new group now. We got a kid named Kevin Kanner on drums and a gentleman named Konrad Paszkudzki is playing piano with us. Martin is still playing the bass, but it’s the new JPQ. So we’re trying to get a sound and an idea. We’re sort of just taking our time on our gigs and trying to find out what our strengths and weaknesses are, and go with it. You know, we’ve had some pretty fierce piano players in our group over the years, and Konrad’s 25 years old. Kevin is 33, so we’re really all discovering what we’d like to do together, and how we’d like to do it. It’s just so much material for those two guys to learn. You know, you’re talking about a group where the idea of the group has been together for almost 20 years. More than 20 years! Okay, about 23… and so, trying to put together a repertoire and going out on gigs now and saying, “Okay, you have to learn these 80 songs.” [He laughs.] “These 80 arrangements will be fine.” So that’s where we’re at, at the moment.
You talk a lot about cooking and food on Facebook and also in your book. Do you think if you weren’t a musician, you might have become a chef?
Well, the good news is that I’ve known enough chefs now to know that I wouldn’t want to be one. It’s easier to play the guitar, unless I was really good at it. I’m a good enough cook to know that it’s fun to do at home and cook for people, but I’m not thick-skinned enough to have a restaurant and have somebody say, [He imitates the voice of a haughty woman.] “Oh, I really don’t like your ravioli. I’m not paying for this.” Whereas they’ve already paid for you when they hear your music, and if they don’t like it they can leave. [He laughs.]
You visit here fairly often, so where would you say is your favorite Italian place in St. Louis?
Oh, there’s two! There’s Viviano’s on The Hill, which is a great spot, and then Rich LoRusso’s place, LoRusso’s is a fun place to go too. I’ve been Charlie Gitto’s downtown, and the other one, there’s Tony’s downtown... There’s a bunch! I mean, St. Louis is full of great restaurants of all kinds. I mean, you’ve got O’Connell’s too, and then you get your concretes at Ted Drewes. Rick Haydon’s taken me to some great spots; it’s just a great city. It’s great to be there for four or five days, because you can have a lunch of pretty much any kind, anywhere and hang out, so that’s really great.
Finally, I hate to bring it up, but I know you’re a huge Red Sox fan, but I guess we’ll forgive you anyway.
[He laughs.] I know… but well, you’ve got to beat us! But you know what? You beat us for years. We had to make up for all of the heartbreaking losses to the Cardinals: 46 and 67.
Jazz at the Bistro is located at 3536 Washington. For more information about this and other shows, call 314-534-3663 or visit jazzstl.org/jazz-at-the-bistro. Fans of Pizzarelli may also want to note this: St. Louis native and former member of the John Pizzarelli Trio, Ray Kennedy, one of the top jazz pianists of his time, is currently no longer able to play due to his 18-year fight with multiple sclerosis. His family is raising money to help cover medical costs as well as to help support his wife and two young daughters. Find out more here.