John Pizzarelli is no Frank Sinatra–though he does play him on stage, as he will in the Power Center on June 30 as part of the Ann Arbor Summer Festival.
“Play” is the key word to understanding Pizzarelli. In the first place, not only is Pizzarelli no mean vocalist, he’s also a virtuoso jazz guitarist, and over the past thirty years, he’s played as well as sung his way through a big chunk of the Great American Songbook, the mythical collection of the greatest American pop songs of the past century. Along the way, Pizzarelli’s done discs of songs dedicated to particular singers or styles, including Dear Mr. Sinatra, his 2006 disc of tunes associated with the man from Hoboken, some of which he’ll be doing here, along with tunes from his most recent disc dedicated to Duke Ellington.
“From Sinatra, we’ll do ‘How About You,’ ‘You Make Me Feel So Young,’ and ‘Ring-a-ding-ding,'” says Pizzarelli on the line from Manhattan, “and ‘Satin Doll,’ ‘Don’t Get Around Much Any More,’ ‘Mellow Tone,’ and a bunch of others from Ellington.” Of course, Pizzarelli won’t be alone on stage. “My quartet’s coming with me: my brother [Martin] on bass, Larry Fuller on piano, and Tony Tedesco on drums.”
How would Pizzarelli compare himself to Sinatra as a singer? “I don’t compare with Frank Sinatra as a singer,” he answers immediately. “Nobody compares with Frank Sinatra. He could do anything; he could adjust his voice and his style to whatever song he was singing.” How would Pizzarelli describe his voice? “It’s more conversational, more like Nat King Cole. And with maturity”–he pauses to laugh and correct himself–“with age, it’s gotten better. I have a better understanding of how to use it. When you’re young, you have a tendency to take it for granted. Plus I understand the songs better now.”
“Play” is also the key word in the sense of the fun, the feeling of sheer joy, that suffuses Pizzarelli’s performances. Not that he’s not serious: his craft is too polished and his relationship to his material too respectful for him to be flippant. But listening to Pizzarelli, one gets the sense he enjoys playing and singing, enjoys music, and, especially, enjoys life. This quality comes out most purely in Pizzarelli’s uncanny ability to scat sing along with his guitar solos. No matter what giddy arabesques he weaves on the guitar, his tenor is right there with him. How the hell does he do it? “I don’t know,” he replies and laughs again. “The voice follows the guitar is all I can say. I learned it from [bassist] ‘Slam’ Stewart and [guitarist] George Benson, who was my hero when I was young. But I’ve been doing it for so long, I don’t know how I do it anymore!”