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Richard Rodgers Puts New Songs into John Pizzarelli's Heart

John Pizzarelli is full of surprises: surprising influences, surprising insights, and surprising selections on his Richard Rodgers tribute disc, With A Song In My Heart, released on Telarc Jazz on August 19. Also surprising, given the seven-string guitarist’s long-standing relationship with the jazz canon and his penchant for thematic albums, is that he hadn’t done a Rodgers album before now.

"Actually, it was my management’s idea," he said, speaking from his home in New York, awaiting some friends expected for dinner. Some folks at the Rodgers and Hammerstein Foundation had been looking for someone to do some new jazz interpretations of Rodgers material, he said. "They were aware of my work, so my management threw out the idea. It was fine with me, right up my alley. You know, when someone suggests, ‘You should do record of Afro-Cuban music,’ that’s not what I do, it’s not what I’ve done for the past 25 years." But Rodgers sure.

The R&H Foundation people sent Pizzarelli boxes and boxes of music and he set about selecting tunes. The end result was probably not what the average student of Rodgers’ would expect.

"I could do ‘I Could Write a Book,’ but what else is there?" Close to 1,000 other tunes, it turns out, many much loved, many others not so familiar, and a few that could have been written yesterday. Pizzarelli had plenty of help making selections his wife, the actress and singer Jessica Molasky; his old friend Jonathan Schwartz, the WNYC radio man; and his long-time arranger, Don Sebesky "We had a lot of things to plow through and lots of ideas and it was fun," he said, "a fun process to look for different songs and some that were familiar."

Molasky, for example, recommended "You Have to be Carefully Taught," from South Pacific. "I was not familiar with it," he said, "then I hear the song, and I go ‘Wow, that could been written yesterday by, like, Bob Dylan.’"

Schwartz, who once had a nightclub act in the ’80s, suggested "I Like to Recognize the Tune," Rodgers and Hammerstein’s response to jazz treatments of their songs back in the Big Band era. "There were all sorts of early lyrics ‘a guy named Krupa played the drums like thunder, but the tune was 12 feet under -a whole set of lyrics with ’40s references to it...They didn’t like jazz that much."

And Sebesky suggested "Johnny One Note" Pizzarelli channels Bob Dorough on his take, paying tribute to a Dorough cover he called great as well as the title track and "She Was Too Good To Me." The latter two songs Sebesky had arranged for none other than Chet Baker. Pizzarelli calls Baker one of his influences, and indeed on tunes like "With a Song in My Heart" you can hear it plainly in his singing.

"I’m a mimic of certain proportions," he said. Interrupted by laughter in the background, he corrected himself. "Epic, my wife says, epic proportions."

His knack for mimicry also found its way into his playing. "A friend, who was a bass player, pointed out how great the trumpet solo is, and he said, ‘We should all learn that someday’ this was back in 1988 so the first thing I said to Don was ‘We should pay homage to that trumpet solo,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, yeah, it’s in the first chorus anyway.’"

If that anecdote suggests a close relationship between the guitarist and the arranger, it’s not a misleading suggestion. Pizzarelli and Sebesky have been working together for about 15 years, starting with a couple arrangements Sebesky did for Pizzarelli’s "New Standards" album.

"We didn’t hit it off too terrifically," Pizzarelli recalled. "It was just an arranger-artist relationship. But at the insistence of my manager, who knew him he’d managed him when he was at CTI he did two tracks on my Christmas record [Let’s Share Christmas], and subsequently we did a thing at Blue Note to promote the record .

"So, when we did this gig at the Blue Note," Pizzarelli continued, "he asked ‘What else have you got?’ and I gave him a tape of the group playing some songs and he came up with eight or nine incredible arrangement and that became [the album] Our Love Is Here to Stay, and we became fast friends. Then we did the Beatles record [John Pizzarelli Meets the Beatles] I’m really fortunate to have worked with a lot of great arrangers, and he’s done most for me. I trust him implicitly."

When it finally came time to record, most of the hard work had already been done, and the session lasted just two days.

"The second anyone suggests something, I go out and do it before anyone can change their mind," Pizzarelli quipped. He said he called Sebesky the same day the idea was pitched and immediately set to work getting the project all mapped out including lining up guests artists Cesar Camargo Mariano to join him for "Happy Talk" and Bucky Pizzarelli, his first collaborator and his dad, for "It’s Easy to Remember." The band played a week at Birdland before going into the studio, and so had a few tunes pretty well-oiled.

"We rehearsed in the studio a bit," he said, "then the first day we did ‘I Have Dreamed,’ the thing with Bucky, the thing with Cesar. Then that night the horns came in and we rehearsed charts, and the next day we recorded the horns and between takes I’d fix things . I was fun. I like working like that . It can be nerve-wracking, but the energy is real good . And it was my baby, top to bottom. Telarc’s good that way there’s no one bothering you, once you get the idea can run with it."

As well-oiled as the group sounds on record, Pizzarelli admitted that, on the verge of taking the project out on tour, he still keeps handy on the bandstand some of the more difficult lyrics.

"Some of them are [tongue-twisters]," he said, "but it actually makes it easier to remember because, there are no bald rhymes. Like in ‘Mountain Greenery,’ ‘Lover let’ rhymes with ‘coverlet’ you just glide along and they take you there, they’re written so well.

Pizzarelli admits it’s a challenge putting one’s personal stamp on standards that have been recorded scores if not hundreds of times. "That’s another reason why I chose the songs I did," he said. "The only real tried and true song on the record is ‘Lady is a Tramp,’ and there’s not a lot of records of that, anyway . The thing is to choose enough songs that aren’t on the beaten track, to make the record interesting. That’s sort of putting your stamp on it you put a stamp on songs not everybody has heard as opposed to trying to reinvent the wheel."

Pizzarelli and Molasky recently were featured in a Jazz Times article that painted a portrait of a professional couple who have achieved an envious sense of balance, working with people they love and respect on projects they care about. "It’s the thing that’s important to me that we seemed to have pulled off, and maybe even to my own detriment in certain ways. People say, ‘He could be bigger, he could do this, he could be whatever,’ but the thing I’m appreciative of is we do get to do what we want to do. If we don’t like ideas, we don’t do them It’s enjoyable to go to work. We like what we play, and we like what we do for a living. It makes it easier than digging ditches which I’ve done!"

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: John Pizzarelli
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