Unforgettable: see an unforgettable Nat King Cole tribute show featuring John Pizzarelli
Special to the Daily
Musical dexterity is John Pizzarelli’s forte. Along with expected nods to jazz giants like Duke Ellington, Richard Rodgers and Johnny Mercer, the New Jersey native has also tipped his cap to more contemporary artists, including The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Steely Dan and Tom Waits.
Over the past two years, Pizzarelli has paid homage to a pair of major influences, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. His 2017 release, “Sinatra & Jobim @ 50,” was a nod to the storied 1967 album “Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim.” Having worked with Jobim’s grandson, Daniel, on 2004’s “Bossa Nova” album, Pizzarelli reached out to his longtime friend for this project. Together, they revisited numbers from the original Sinatra album, including “Baubles, Bangles and Beads,” “Dindi” and “I Concentrate On You.”
Now, Pizzarelli marked Cole’s 100th birthday this February with “For Centennial Reasons: 100 Year Salute to Nat King Cole.” The album features the Pizzarelli Trio performing a selection of classic songs by the legendary vocalist.
Having grown up as the son of renowned session guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, who himself continues to play gigs, it’s easy to see how the younger Pizzarelli went down his diverse career path. He grew up listening to plenty of Beatles records, which would often vie for playing time on the family hi-fi alongside discs by the likes of Wes Montgomery, Dick Haymes, Count Basie and, of course, Sinatra. Often, these were recordings his father played on, although according to Pizzarelli, his father was rather low-key about his day job.
“My brother found all the books from all the places that (my dad) played in the 1960s. There are all these date books, and it’s mostly just studios — it’s never really even the artists,” he said. “It will say something like, ‘Columbia, 30 Street,’ which is where they recorded the Tony Bennett, Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis records. He didn’t even have the artist names next to the studios. Only Dion and the Belmonts are who we know who the dates are for, and that’s around 1958.”
Pizzarelli got his start when he was handed a tenor banjo at the age of 6. With two uncles who both played the instrument, lessons ensued at Victor’s House of Music in Paterson, New Jersey, where one of them worked. While tablature from the “Elton John Songbook” spurred Pizzarelli to switch from banjo to guitar, it would be other old-school instrumentalists like George Van Epps, Nat King Cole sideman Oscar Moore and George Barnes that inspired him to make his debut with 1983’s “I’m Hip (Please Don’t Tell My Father).”
In subsequent years, Pizzarelli toured extensively and collaborated with many artists. But for him, the most intriguing times came when he performed live with Paul McCartney and Sinatra on separate occasions.
“I’d opened 18 concerts for (Frank Sinatra) in 1993,” Pizzarelli recalled. “Having also done a major gig with Paul McCartney, I say both of them had the best food, McCartney on the vegetarian side — you would totally be a vegetarian if you could always eat with Paul McCartney. With Sinatra, these are big productions. I don’t think we played for less than 8,000 people in all those concerts except for in Atlantic City.”
Variety is the spice of life for the Garden State native, and it’s the same with his touring life. This summer, it’s only logical that he’ll be performing a show with his trio based around the “For Centennial Reasons” album, which features Pizzarelli on guitar and vocals, Mike Karn on double bass and Konrad Paszkudzki on piano.
This is not Pizzarelli’s first deep dive into Cole’s catalogue. He also released “P.S. Mr. Cole” in 1998 and “Dear Mr. Cole” in 1994.
While the current tour features his own trio, Pizzarelli has frequently done shows where he has presented an all-Nat King Cole program with the Ramsey Lewis Trio.
“(The show with Lewis) a fun thing. Ramsey plays a bunch of great piano solos that are associated with Nat, and I sing all the Nat Cole things. We not only cover ‘Straighten Up and Fly Right’ and ‘Route 66’ but there’s also ‘Unforgettable’ and some of the pop standards in there, too,” Pizzarelli said.
Music lovers can see Pizzarelli as part of the Vail Jazz Club Series today at 5:30 p.m. or 8 p.m. at the Sonnenalp Hotel in Vail Village. He will perform as part of Vail Jazz at Vail Square on Thursday at 6 p.m. in Lionshead Village.
For more information and to buy tickets, visit http://www.vailjazz.org or call 970-479-6146.