Jazz guitarist turned grief into album

Credit: Courtesy of John Pizzarelli

Credit: Courtesy of John Pizzarelli

Elton John once said that music has healing power that has the ability to take people out of themselves for a few hours. Such was the case for jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli in 2020 when COVID-19 triggered a global lockdown.

His father, storied six-string instrumentalist Bucky Pizzarelli, died on April 1 followed by Ruth, his wife of 66 years, on April 8. In the wake of those losses, the younger Pizzarelli turned to his instrument and the work of a fellow string-bender for solace. The result was the 2021 album “Better Days Ahead: Solo Guitar Takes on Pat Metheny.”

“I was spending a lot of time playing the guitar in the mornings and I started to play a lot of Pat Metheny tunes, a couple in particular, that I had played in the past,” Pizzarelli recalled in a recent phone interview. “I was trying to find a repertoire to keep me busy and I started to post a couple of them online. My buddy in Edwardsville, Illinois, Rick Hayden, said that I should quit posting everything and he said he’d show me how I can record all this stuff while I was sitting around. Long story short, I got a bunch of things sent to me, hooked it up to my iPad and recorded the 14 Metheny songs. It gave me something to do while I was not doing everything else.”

It was also during this time that the New Jersey native started performing hour-long lunchtime concerts online sponsored by the music union in New York for first responders and hospital workers. Pizzarelli teamed up with wife Jessica Molaskey, herself a respected jazz vocalist, for what became “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere.” What started as a single performance grew from there.

“That (first concert) was something and then I decided to try and do that [on a regular basis],” Pizzaelli said. “Thursdays are good because it gives us Fridays off — not like I had anything to do on Friday anyway. It just blossomed into something that was another thing that saved our lives during the pandemic. Eventually it went to all requests.”

Those weekly online gigs eventually led Pizzarelli to make the newly released “Stage & Screen,” a collection of songs informed by classic songs from Broadway musicals and Hollywood films. Sources for these songs range from well-known films (“Casablanca,” “On the Town,” “Royal Wedding”) to musicals that are movie adaptations (“Honeymoon in Vegas”), classic (“Babes in Toyland”) and obscure (”70, Girls, 70″). It all came together during a quick three-day recording stretch back in November 2021.

“When we started to go back to work, we were just picking things out of the air,” he said, describing the genesis of the album. “‘I Want to Be Happy’ was just a tune that we decided to play. I’ve always liked that tune — it’s a great little jazz song. And then I heard Blossom Dearie sing ‘Tea for Two’ and she sang it as a ballad. I decided to do it that way, and the more we did it, the more comfortable we got with it. And then we had a number of tunes that came out of the Thursday night set. The idea was that I had all these songs and when I looked at them, some of them were from movies and some I had in my back pocket like ‘Coffee in a Cardboard Cup.’ ‘Stage and Screen’ just seemed like a nice idea for lack of a better title. We put everything together and thought it would work.”

Helping out with the heavy lifting and rounding out Pizzarelli’s new trio are bassist Mike Karn and pianist Isaiah J. Thompson. Karn’s involvement with the guitarist dates back several years while Thompson came aboard in late December 2019. The 63-year-old guitarist is thrilled to be playing with this new combo.

“Isaiah, Mike and I are so close and we love playing together,” Pizzarelli said. “It was great to go in the studio and do that, too. Capturing Isaiah at his age is an important thing, too. I wrote Christian McBride and asked who the young guys were because I had to get a young guy in there. The first name was Isaiah on his list of four guys. It’s been a joy to work with him.”

Pizzarelli’s oeuvre in the past three decades has found him diving deep into the canons of everyone from the afore-mentioned Metheny, Nat “King” Cole and Frank Sinatra to solo and Beatles-era Paul McCartney, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Duke Ellington. Now he’s licking his chops over the possibilities of performing the tunes from “Stage & Screen.”

“The good news is that we have this new record and its material that we haven’t played out on the road in total,” Pizzarelli said. “It’ll be nice to take these tunes out there. It’s mostly been Nat Cole and other things. Now we’ll be able to bring these songs out there and that’s the best part—getting this new repertoire out there after years of Nat Cole material. This is sort of our little book now of our things and that’s what’s going to be fun about that.”

Given the losses Pizzarelli has experienced, doing “Stage & Screen” allowed the jazz guitarist to further heal and recharge his creative batteries both in the studio and the concert stage.

“I really enjoyed it because in general, it was a really easy project to do that I felt I played well on, which is unusual,” he said. “I wanted to capture what we were doing. We were just getting back to work and we had to get this group on tape for lack of a better term—now on hard drive. I was excited to get it down. The thing is I’ll listen to it a lot, and the more I do I’ll think I’m glad it sounds the way it sounds. I think it’s swinging too and those things are working. It was nice to have a couple of instrumentals on the record and to get those things down and think that it’s a good start. It’s a post-pandemic beginning.”


John Pizzarelli

8 p.m. June 6. $35-$45. City Winery Atlanta, 650 North Ave. NE, Atlanta. citywinery.com/atlanta.