By Marilyn Lester . . .
On August 13, 2019, celebrated jazz pianist-composer George Shearing would have turned 100 years old. Shortly thereafter, celebrated jazz guitarist, John Pizzarelli, was scheduled to salute the centenary at Birdland Jazz Club. And we all know what happened then. So, two years on, Pizzarrelli has finally mounted the program of A Tribute to George Shearing—a centennial plus two. It was worth the wait. The laid back, charming, naturally quick-witted and humorous guitar virtuoso did George proud. The program reflected Shearing’s mighty contributions to jazz, both with and without son John and father Bucky Pizzarelli’s collaborations with the master.
Shearing, an emigre to the US from his native England (who died in 2011 at age 91) was a composer as well as a recording artist and concert performer. What better way then, but to begin with 1952’s “Lullaby of Birdland,” a swinging tune that’s the most notable of his compositions. Shearing himself joked that he’d written around 300 works, 295 of them completely unknown. In this outing, among other reference points, Pizzarelli drew from the 15-track album he recorded with Shearing in 2002, The Rare Delight of You. He began with a delightful, “The Lady’s In Love With You” (Frank Loesser, Burton Lane), quickly followed by the wry “Everything Happens To Me” (Matt Dennis, Tom Adair). The latter is a perfect example of Pizzarelli’s vocal style— with a light but pleasing tenor, unfettered by showiness, he has the ability to zero in on the lyric and put the song at hand very effectively across.
Pizzarelli’s guitar chops are, of course, nonpareil. In this tribute to Shearing he paid homage to the now-famous, perhaps legendary, George Shearing Quintet, formed shortly after Shearing’s emigration to the United States in 1949 (and disbanded by him in 1978 in favor of solo work). The sound of the quintet was unique in its time, with the signature instrumentation of Margie Hyams on vibraphone, Chuck Wayne on guitar, John Levy on bass and Denzil Best on drums. Replicating that dynamic were bassist Mike Carr, drummer Andy Watson, pianist Isaiah J. Thompson and noted vibraphone master, Chuck Redd.
Bucky Pizzarelli (1926-2020), guitar virtuoso father of John and a near contemporary of Shearing’s played memorably with him at a Carnegie Hall concert, which included a tune on The Rare Delight of You, “Something To Remember You By” (Arthur Schwartz, Howard Dietz), which Pizzarelli presented in a toe-tapping, zippy Latinized arrangement. This number especially showcased Redd’s ability to accent a tune with subtlety and with excellent creative ideas and precise timing. Also stunning was the harmonic integration of sound frequently achieved by Redd and Pizzarelli. Pizzarelli likewise possesses a mastery of harmonizing his own vocals, often using terrific scat technique, with his guitar playing—notable on “Isn’t It Romantic” (Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart).
Showcasing the band, without vocals, was a swinging “East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)” (Brooks Bowman), as well as a rousing, highly improvised “C Jam Blues” (Duke Ellington), delivered at breakneck pace with periods of prime Pizzarelli scat. Contrasting that particular blues was a blues ballad “Azure-Te (Paris Blues)” (Wild Bill Davis, Donald E. Wolf) drawn from an album Shearing recorded with Nat King Cole (and also in Pizzarelli’s own repertoire). For shots of fun, Pizzarelli delivered “Lemon Twist” (Jio Saavn) with a wink and a nod to cocktails, and “rye” lyrics by Bobby Troup. Later in Shearing’s career, in the 1980s and 90s, an alliance with jazz vocalist Mel Tormé proved popular. With a nod to this duo, and also a cut on the Shearing-Pizzarelli album, a very fun and highly uptempo “Lulu’s Back In Town” (Harry Warren, Al Dubin) highlighted both Pizzarelli’s scatting with an amazing agility on the guitar.
Blind from birth, George Shearing’s contributions to jazz have run deep, especially considering what it took for the young pianist to overcome a handicap, humble roots and survive war-torn London to finally arrive in the United States. In this tribute, the album title, The Rare Delight of You and a swinging rendition of “If Dreams Come True” (Benny Goodman, Edgar Sampson) aptly speak volumes about this tribute—a sublime post-pandemic lockdown centennial celebration of George Shearing by the John Pizzarelli Quintet.