Pizzarelli: Nice Guys CAN Do Cool

John Pizzarelli — affable ace of the guitar; genial genius of Songbook stylists — swings over to the AxPAC for a Special Evening of all things Sinatra on August 18. 

It’s a stylistic difference as big as Night and Day. On the one hand, Frank Sinatra — a skinny street punk from the wrong side of the Hudson, who stared down the world with a steely blue gaze and a chip on his shoulder the size of the Hoboken docks. A complicated craftsman who re-zoned himself into the sharkskin/ fedora Rat Packer we best recall today, then gerrymandered the world His Way when the world wasn’t falling into line fast enough. An artist and an asshole whose overheated brand of Cool was too damn HOT to cool down.

On the other hand, there’s John Pizzarelli — fellow Jerseyan born into a musical bloodline; a smiling smoothie on guitar and a paragon of easygoing elegance as a keeper of the Great American Songbook key. A veteran recording artist, engaging radio personality, catchy jingle singer, jackrabbit scatmaster and crowdpleasing entertainer who’s been called “impossibly cool” (and, with wife Jessica Molaskey, “The First Family of Cool”). A man for whom Cool and warmth are practically synonymous.

The 51 year old son of seven-string jazz guitar great Bucky Pizzarelli is also a scrupulously satisfying reinterpreter/ recreator of other folks’ vintage pop records — having covered dozens of hits and standards, and recorded album-length tributes to The Beatles, Nat “King” Cole, Richard Rodgers, Duke Ellington, and one Francis Albert Sinatra.

When John Pizzarelli takes the stage of the Axelrod Performing Arts Center (at the JCC of Monmouth in Deal Park) on Thursday, August 18, he’ll be joined by his septet the Swing 7 Band for A Special Evening featuring the Songs of Frank Sinatra — a more intimately scaled sequel to a Radio City Music Hall concert in which he performed the Chairman of the Board’s signature songs, backed by the full faith and credit of a 40-piece orchestra.

The younger Pizzarelli, who’s made numerous recordings with his father, brother (bass man Martin Pizzarelli) and wife — as well as such friendly collaborators as James Taylor, Kristin Chenoweth, George Shearing, Rosemary Clooney and Manhattan Transfer — will be taking his act to Beijing and Shanghai for the first time in the months ahead. In the meantime, he’s equally excited about his first gig in Ocean Township, and upperWETside had the pleasure of hearing it firsthand.

upperwetside: Can I gush? I first became aware of your music back in the 1990s, working up in the city and having to find radio stations that several generations of people in the office could at least tolerate together. Whenever something by you came up on WNEW or wherever, it stood out from the pack as having that downright playful sort of reverence for the songs you covered…I think you had me with the little touch of Gene Krupa cowbell on “Sing Sing Sing.” Anyway, it’s music that passed my litmus test, in that I suspect you’d be doing what you do for free; just have a home recording studio in your garage for your own amusement.

JOHN PIZZARELLI: Well thanks; I guess I could see doing something like that — but I would always have to have some kind of an audience for what I do. You just can’t replace live music, whether you’re the one playing it or listening to it. I was raised by a family who loved music, and I really enjoy playing for people. It’s the only thing I know how to do!

And you do it with what’s been referred to in some circles as “cool.” Now back in my day, COOL came with tons of attitude; cool acted like it didn’t care what anybody else thought. Cool didn’t win you over with a smile and an infectious enthusiasm.

I’m not sure that I’m redefining Cool in any shape or form…in my case, they’re talking about my singing style. It’s the kind of style that comes from somebody like Nat “King” Cole, who made it all seem so effortless and smooth, particularly in his old trio days.

That was a big turning point for me, when I first heard the old Nat Cole stuff like “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” “Frim Fram Sauce” — around 1980-ish, when Capitol finally got around to re-releasing those recordings.

Same label as what we all think of as the beginning of Sinatra’s prime. Now when you do a show like you’re going to be doing down here on August 18th, how does a warm and easygoing performer like yourself step into the swaggering persona of Sinatra? Not that you’re doing an overt impression, but some of those songs are just so SINATRA that you almost have to be some kind of “profiler” to get into the proper mindset. Although I still can’t see you punching out a photographer.

(Laughs) Well, unlike Sinatra, there are no photographers following me around whenever I go anywhere! We pay tribute to the songs, and the ways in which he worked with the songwriters and arrangers to make those songs what they are. That’s the legacy of Frank Sinatra, really.

With this particular Sinatra show I’ll be working with a seven-piece band, including four horns — a smaller version of what we did at Radio City Music Hall, but something that I think will be perfect for the sort of theater we’ll be doing it in. We’ve added some new stuff to the show that’s not on the record — “My Kind Of Town,” for one — along with things like “Ring-A-Ding Ding.”

Now THOSE are the kind of Sinatra signature tunes that were just made to order for him — the ultimate for me was “Come Blow Your Horn,” which is SO swaggering that I don’t think anyone else could or should attempt it. The really wild thing about those Jimmy Van Heusen tunes is that what we all kind of think of as the Sinatra persona was pretty much copied wholesale from Van Heusen. Who was pretty much a made-up character in his own right.

Right; Sinatra wanted to BE Van Heusen! His favorite songwriters, guys like Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn, really had his number. And the funniest thing is that Jimmy Van Heusen was actually a guy by the name of Chester Babcock (laughs).

And NOBODY wanted to be Chester Babcock! Now, are there some Sinatra tunes that you would just never cover, whether because they’re just so specific to Sinatra — or just plain bad, like “Mama Will Bark” or the disco “Night And Day“?

“Mama Will Bark,” definitely not — but I actually DID do the disco version of “Night and Day!” And at Carnegie Hall, during the 80th birthday show…on top of everything else, I had to follow Michael Feinstein, Joe Williams and Vic Damone to do it! We performed each of the different recordings that Sinatra made of that song — the Axel Stordahl arrangement, the Nelson Riddle, the Don Costa, and the Joe Beck disco — and after Vic Damone did this beautiful rendition of the version from Sinatra & Strings, they send me out on stage to the tune of (imitates the dramatic disco-beat opening riff)!

Wow! You’re a brave man. And I thought Adam Ant was brave for following the Michael Jackson moonwalk on that Motown TV special. You’re also getting to be a fearless frequent flyer, with your first-ever gigs in China coming up. Will this be the farthest afield you’ve ever performed from the Café Carlyle?

I’ve played in Australia, Japan, Singapore…and I’ll be going to Russia next April. I’m excited about the concerts we have scheduled in China, but I’m not sure exactly what to expect — I’m not even sure how long it’ll take to get there! Then in November, my wife and I are at the Carlyle all month long — a nice way to come home.

I’ve been looking into new and different places to play, and what I’ve been discovering is that there are all these little arts centers all over the map, sometimes in the weirdest, most unexpected places. The Surflight, where I played just a couple of weeks ago, is one, and the place where we’ll be performing the Sinatra show is another that I haven’t been to, although I’m sure I’ve been near it many times.

But that’s what it’s all about…these great little theaters and venues that you didn’t know existed, outside of the big cities, are places that are really embraced by the local audiences in their communities. It’s something that really comes across, and it makes doing a show like that an enjoyable experience for everyone.

Tickets for John Pizzarelli: A Special Evening featuring the Songs of Frank Sinatra are priced between $30 and $60, and can be reserved right here.