By Don Heckman
Who would have thought that Tuesday night’s Disney Hall performance by jazz guitarist and singer John Pizzarelli would wind up in a singalong with the entire audience joining in on “The Twelve Days of Christmas?”
The answer is anyone who’s ever seen Pizzarelli, his trio, and his wife, singer Jessica Molaskey, in action. Together, they have created some of the jazz world’s most consistently engaging entertainments. Like Louis Armstrong, Dave Frishberg, Dizzy Gillespie and Mose Allison, among others, they’ve done so in an irresistibly swinging jazz setting. As they did on Tuesday.
Their set was especially enlivened by the blending of seemingly dissimilar songs into lyrically pointed combinations. Not quite medleys, they were more like a contrapuntal tossing back and forth of words and music. The pairing of Irving Berlin’s “The Best Things Happen When You Dance” and Bobby Troup’s “Nice Girls Don’t Stay For Breakfast,” for example, was a perfect opportunity for Pizzarelli to play the seducing male to Molaskey’s reluctant female. On another blend, Molaskey accurately noted the co-dependency aspects of the lyrics to “I Want To Be Happy” (“But I can’t be happy, until you’re happy, too”), while Pizzarelli responded casually with “Sometimes I’m Happy.”
And there were other blends, equally pointed in their own ways: Stephen Sondheim’s “Buddy’s Eyes” with Billy Joel’s “Rosalinda”; Joni Mitchell’s “Circle Game” with Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Aguas de Marco.”
Backed by the solid support of pianist Larry Fuller (whose soloing was one of the evening’s musical highlights), bassist (and brother) Martin Pizzarelli and drummer Tony Tedesco, the vocal excursions were balanced by plenty of opportunities for Pizzarelli’s high flying guitar lines to solo, often in unison with his vocal scatting – notably so on “Sleigh Ride.” Molaskey, a Broadway star in her own right, applied her warm and supple voice to a touching reading of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” and Pizzarelli touched on the real meaning of the holiday with an equally moving “Count Your Blessings.”
But back to “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” It almost seemed like another of his throwaway lines when Pizzarelli proposed a singalong of the old classic, assigning the melody of one of the days to each of the many individual audience areas. And there was faltering along the way, especially from some of the smaller sections. But, unexpectedly, it all came together – with the upper center section offering a near-professional version of “Five golden rings” – and the others responding with, at the very least, plenty of enthusiasm.
As I suggested above, it wasn’t exactly what one expected at a jazz concert. But it was delightful, nonetheless. As was the balance of this utterly enjoyable evening. Call it a musical Christmas present from the Pizzarellis – a Christmas present to remember.
Photo courtesy of the Pizzarellis.