VAIL — One of the most memorable compliments John Pizzarelli has ever received is, “I don’t really like jazz music, but I like what you do.”
Upon hearing this, the famed guitarist stopped in his tracks for a moment, wondering how anyone could really not like jazz, then realized that some people simply don’t understand the vast musical umbrella the genre covers.
“People get so scared by the word ‘jazz,’” said Pizzarelli, who grew up surrounded by music thanks to his famous father, Bucky Pizzarelli. “Some people think you play jazz for yourself and not for people around you. Growing up, jazz for me was sometimes the same group of guys playing the same sort of music. Now you have bebop, swing, Latin jazz … there are so many different variations. It’s really exciting. It’s almost impossible that some variation wouldn’t appeal to every kind of person.”
In a career that began as a small boy playing with his father 33 years ago, Pizzarelli has created more than 20 studio albums, 11 collaborative records with his father and four more with his wife, singer Jessica Molaskey, with whom Pizzarelli co-hosts the nationally syndicated weekly radio program, “Radio Deluxe.”
‘WHY YOU’RE DOING WHAT YOU’RE DOING’
Pizzarelli is quickly becoming a regular attraction in Vail, having played last year’s Jazz @ Vail Square series and also kicking off the Bravo! Vail season in partnership with the Vail Jazz Festival with a monumental performance alongside the Dallas Symphony Orchestra earlier this summer. The guitarist and his quartet, his brother Martin on bass and newcomers Kevin Kanner on drums and Konrad Paszkudzki on piano, make a point to connect with every audience, a skill Pizzarelli has honed since his early days of performing.
“A lot of artists from my father’s generation would get up on stage and played song after song after song,” Pizzarelli said. “Some guys can rely on their artistry so they don’t have to speak. So afterward you’d say, ‘I didn’t get much about the person, but he can really play the saxophone.’ I like to know why you’re doing what you’re doing.”
There is a charisma Pizzarelli and his quartet bring to the stage that stretches far beyond the jazz genre.
“It was around 1983 that I saw Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen and Frank Sinatra in the same venue,” he recalled. “Each guy had a different way of communicating. When Billy told stories between songs, it really added something to the whole experience and when Sinatra sang, there would always be a theatrical aspect. I don’t try to bring that to the show, necessarily, but I keep everybody at ease and let them know what’s going on. I like to keep people informed and entertained rather than, ‘Here’s a song. You’d better like it ’cause it’s jazz.’”
Although he is famous for putting his own stamp on jazz classics from the Great American Songbook, Pizzarelli also sprinkles his style onto pop hits from Neil Young, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Seals and Crofts, and The Allman Brothers, to name a few.
“The quartet show is much more improvisational but in a sense, we already know what we’re playing. Obviously you have to have a set list ready. With our group, we can pick what we want. When we get there, we feel it out. I like that,” he said. “We ask ourselves what record do we want to highlight? Do we want to play more Sinatra? More Bossanova? I could do more Nat Cole. I may play some Ellington. It’s nice to have these problems.”
In the end, Pizzarelli relishes knowing that something in his repertoire struck a profound place for nearly everybody listening.
“The best thing about any performance is introducing music to new fans and have people tell you what the music meant to them,” Pizzarelli said. “You never take for granted that people pay their hard earned money to come hear you. It’s really sort of special.”
Shauna Farnell is a freelance writer contracted by the Vail Jazz Foundation to write this story. Email comments to email@example.com.