By Michael Katz
There were generations bumping into each other Tuesday night, both on the stage and in the crowd at Lucy’s 51 in Toluca Lake, the current home of John Pisano’s Guitar Night. Much of that is by design. For fifteen years, Pisano has been bringing guitarists from anywhere and everywhere to share an evening with him. Last night one of the best young players around, 26 year-old Graham Dechter, joined forces, along with an equally young rhythm section, Katie Thiroux on bass and Matt Witek on drums.
The setting at Lucy’s 51 is an eclectic mix. It’s a neighborhood bar and restaurant, the food tasty and affordable, the service friendly. The usual Pisano following of first-call guitarists and guitar lovers inhabits the closer tables, while a younger, definitely non-poseur bunch fills in from the back, only vaguely aware that there are some world class talents at the other end of the room.
The two headliners started off with a gently swinging intro to “Stompin’ At The Savoy,” Pisano’s plump chords inviting the audience in, while Dechter teased the melody, then slipped into a bluesy theme. Before long he was giving an overture for the evening, including a taste of Wes Montgomery-like fingerings, abetted by some nice bass work from Katie Thiroux.
Pisano’s Guitar Nights work from a book of standards, and if you attend often enough you’ll hear versions of some his favorites: “Just Friends,” “Yesterdays” and “I’ll Remember You” were three that popped up last night, and the fun is watching how the guitarists hone in on the themes, play with the tempos, banter back and forth, tossing in quotes from other tunes.
Pisano seemed content to play rhythm early on and let Dechter show off, and you couldn’t blame him. It’s hard to quantify what separates the best jazz guitarists from the crowd, especially at an early age. There’s enough technical ability to go around, but in this setting you look at how Dechter plays with tempo and phrasing. It’s a little bit like a running back searching for holes, suddenly changing direction and darting through.
The highlight of the first set was Tadd Dameron’s “Good Bait,” and, yes, I’ll admit that anything that even remotely suggests fishing will get my attention. Pisano established the friendly theme and Dechter took off from there, his left hand flying over the frets. Thiroux, raven-haired and lithe of hand, plucked a chocolate-colored bass while Witek kept a steady patter on the drums.
By the time the group launched into a blues to end the first set, you could sense a musical awareness that was filtering forward from the stage. The noise level behind the Guitar Night regulars had dropped, more heads at the middle and back tables were riveted toward the players, more applause greeted the solos. As some of the front row regulars departed, a bunch of the back-of-the-room crowd migrated toward the empty seats and took in the second set at close hand.
After a brisk run through “I’ll Remember April,” Pisano weaved his way into the opening of “Our Love Is Here To Stay.” You could feel the spirit of Ray Charles inhabiting the space – he would have felt right at home. The tempo morphed from laid back to Dechter’s insistent drive, again with some Wes-influenced riffs. Fingers tapped, heads nodded.
“I Should Care,” the penultimate tune of the second set, was exquisite, with John Pisano carrying the melody beautifully before Graham Dechter caught up with him, the two of them circling around the theme for the appreciative crowd. Finally, there was “Cotton Tail,” wherein Pisano and Dechter more than made up for the lack of a saxophone player, bouncing riffs off each other, Pisano clearly saving his best for last. Thiroux deftly worked her bass solos in between the two guitarists, and Matt Witek stood out with some superb stick work as the group bowed out for the evening.
So I have kept up with John Pisano’s Guitar Night, from Rocco’s to Spazio’s to Vitello’s and now to Lucy’s 51. The cuisine has shifted from pasta to burgers and salads, but the music is still pure gourmet.
To read more iRoM reviews and posts by Michael Katz, click HERE.
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John Pisano photo by Bob Barry.