Late in the evening on Sept. 9, the buzz of light chatter drifted through an absolutely packed Skinner Hall, as audiences from all over the neighboring Hudson Valley awaited Vassar’s annual jazz concert, this year featuring the John Pizzarelli Trio.
The small talk ceased as the trio swept onto the stage and, without further ado, began their set. Strumming to lighthearted lyrics, Pizzarelli’s face filled with mirth as he crooned out, “Pens come from Pennsylvania, vests from West Virginia and tents from Tent-essee,” drawing laughs from an audience that was already tapping its feet to the upbeat performance that had commenced out of nowhere.
Only after playing three songs back to back did Pizzarelli get around to introductions. The trio comprised Pizzarelli on guitar and vocals, Mike Karn on the upright bass and Ted Rosenthal on the piano.
The singer then regaled us with anecdotes related to the artists whose songs he had just performed, interspersing his spiels with witty jokes. He looked the part, too, sporting his guitar and salt-and-pepper hair, as a string of dad jokes came out of his mouth.
His delightful stage presence during the outstanding sets, featuring lively beats and slow jazz, immediately indicated why Vassar’s Music Department selected this world-renowned jazz guitarist and vocalist for their Fall 2017 Concert Series.
This concert series brings carefully selected artists to the prestigious Skinner Hall stage. Within this deeply held tradition, the Music Department organizes a yearly jazz concert, an event eagerly anticipated by students and faculty alike. Director of Choral Activities Christine Howlett delved into the notion behind the Concert Series: “As we strive to do each year, we have a rich variety of performances by guest artists, faculty and students. Our guest artists [this year] include John Pizzarelli, The Brentano Quaret and Latin tango aficionado Pablo Aslan.”
Last year’s Fall Concert Series included modern jazz, rare classical music, Gaelic harp pieces and senior recitals from Vassar students.
The next performance in the Fall Concert Series will be from Vassar’s very own organist, Gail Archer. Archer will be performing selections of Max Reger’s compositions in the Chapel.
Pizzarelli, the latest feature in the series, is a contemporary interpreter of the Great American Songbook, which contains the most influential American popular songs and jazz standards from the early 20th century. Hailed by the Boston Globe for “reinvigorating the Great American Songbook and re-popularizing jazz,” Pizzarelli has concentrated on doing covers of songs by Paul McCartney, Johnny Mercer, Frank Sinatra and Antônio Carlos Jobim for the past few years.
Director of Jazz and Wind Ensembles James Osborn explained that Pizzarelli was influenced deeply by artists he listened to while growing up in Paterson, NJ. “As a kid he was listening to the Beatles and all those popular artists of the day, and that influenced his work,” commented Osborn. In fact, an early album of his focused on music by the Beatles, and after its release, Paul McCartney apparently called Pizzarelli up personally to let him know how much he enjoyed it.
Pizzarelli first learned jazz guitar from his father. As Osborn continued, “His father was a very famous jazz guitar player in his own right—his name was Bucky Pizzarelli. Bucky is now in his 80s, I believe, and is still performing. John still maintains that his father was his most important teacher.”
A child prodigy, Pizzarelli began playing guitar at six years of age and performed with such titans of the jazz world like Benny Goodman, Les Paul and Zoot Sims.
He released his debut solo album ‘I’m Hip (Please Don’t Tell My Father)’ in 1983. Pizzarelli then formed a trio with his younger brother, Martin, and released several tribute albums to Nat King Cole. In 1997, Pizarelli starred in the Broadway show ‘Dream’, about the music of Johnny Mercer.
Currently, Pizzarelli hosts a weekly radio show called “Radio Deluxe” with his wife Jessica Molaskey, who is an actress that has appeared in multiple Broadway productions. Each program features a list of songs personally selected by Pizzarelli and Molaskey, frequently playing both new and old versions of songs from The Great American Songbook.
Pizzarelli’s most recent album, “Sinatra & Jobim at 50,” is a tribute to Antônio Carlos Jobim, a Brazilian jazz musician and one of the pioneers of bossa nova, and Frank Sinatra, who recorded a collaborative album with Jobim 50 years ago. The album features Daniel Jobim, Antônio Carlos Jobim’s grandson, on vocals.
Osborn also mentioned his own views on Pizzarelli, commenting, “The thing I like about John Pizzarelli is that he’s very engaging on stage, he has a great sense of humor and he’s always improvising with the spiel he gives. He may touch upon on a current event or somebody he sees in the audience, but every show I’ve seen him in, he cracks the audience up. And you just have such a good time at his concerts.”
As per his usual witty style, Pizzarelli introduced one of his songs, the jazz classic “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” by Duke Ellington, with the disclaimer, “But before you get too excited about it, it’s a particularly depressing arrangement that I’ve come up with.” Despite his humorous introduction, the piece wasn’t depressing at all. Rather, it was reminiscent of noir detective films and dark crime dramas. With its fast tempo and haunting style, it was my personal favorite from the show.
As audience member Sam Cibula ’20 commented on the concert, “It was the very classic type of entertainment you’d expect at a jazz club or a restaurant in the ’50s. I liked the songs, and they all played very well. I especially liked the Bossa Nova music, that was my favorite part.”
Towards the end, each member of the trio performed a solo piece highlighting their individual talents, after having given us a taste of their harmonious coordination as a group. When the two 45-minute sets of the program were over, the trio received a standing ovation, after which Pizzarelli performed a sprightly encore.
Overall, most of his sets were invigorating, infused with an energy that couldn’t stop you from tapping your fingers against the armrest or your foot against the floor. In addition, his slower pieces had a very calming quality to them, and several audience members closed their eyes during those songs to truly enjoy their subtle charm.
As Osborn, whose expertise lies in jazz, expressed, “Most people in the audience will probably be focusing on his singing, but he is a dazzling jazz guitarist. He is very fast, very clever, he has interesting ideas when he plays his solos. Everyone at his concerts, even non-jazz folk, tend to enjoy his music very much.”