By Ron Fassler . . .
The husband and wife team of John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey have returned to the Café Carlyle for a two week engagement that is as warm and inviting as sitting by a cozy fire. A master on the guitar, Pizzarelli is the son of the late Bucky Pizzarelli, himself a jazz guitarist of the highest caliber (his great-uncles were also renowned musicians, and his brother is a bassist). John is also known for something his father was not, which is that he sings. Perhaps it’s not a voice you might especially write home about, but it’s one that is more than serviceable. Personally, in listening to his recordings over the years, I’ve found it comforting; a low growl that can extend to some lovely high notes with a scat that’s always at the ready. This was my first time seeing him live and his stage presence is both relaxed, present and a total delight. When accompanied by Molaskey, their relationship blooms right in front of you.
In this new show, their first back at the Carlyle since Covid shut things down, the concentration was a trip down Memory Lane of not just songs, but places and settings around what was once New York City’s plethora of jazz clubs, then as prolific as butterflies. Native New Yorker that I am, I loved hearing stories about long dimmed bright spots as The Ballroom, Marty’s, Michael’s Pub, The Rainbow Room, The Algonquin, Village Vanguard, Bon Soir . . . I could go on (and they did, pleasurably). Backed by Mike Karn on bass and Isiah Jay Thompson on piano (both great), the set was a salute to the American Songbook, which came as no surprise to the delight of the packed opening night crowd.
“When You’re Far Away from New York Town,” a Broadway tune by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz from 1962’s long forgotten Jennie was part of the opening medley of songs about the city, which also included Rodgers and Hart’s “Manhattan,” setting a perfect mood. Clever little Easter eggs were planted in some of the arrangements, like when during Jerome Kern’s “Pick Yourself Up” Karn’s bass plunked out “Them There Eyes.” You had to be on your toes to follow clues, but there were rewards for the effort.
There was a nice salute to the late Dave Frishberg, who passed away about a year ago. A wonderful songwriter, Pizzarelli sang “I’m Hip” which was the title track of the very first album he made almost thirty years ago. After joining him in the song, Molaskey dryly commented that she was singing “on the occasion of her new hip.”
Pizzarelli and Molaskey offered a beautiful duet of “The Fool on the Hill,” a Beatles tune made famous by South America’s Brazil ’66. And for comedy, their delivery of Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s “The Reader’s Digest” was a gem. For those who don’t remember how popular the magazine once was, Reader’s Digest was a way to read a popular novel in condensed form and be able to keep up in conversation with people who took the trouble to read the whole thing. Comden and Green’s witty lyrics had the audience in stitches as Molaskey and Pizzarelli tried out quick versions of famous stories in two to three sentences—in song.
Late in the evening, Pizzarelli’s rendition of the George Shearing arrangement of “Lullaby of Birdland” was a highlight. His guitar playing is a thing to behold and the veritable line about hearing a pin drop was true last night.
The great joy of this show lies in the affection for the Great American Songbook. In an interview from twenty years ago, Pizzarelli told CBS Sunday Morning that “the melodies and those lyrics are works of art, like Picasso.” He’s not wrong. And at the Café Carlyle, he’s proving it nightly through Saturday, November 19.
John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey are performing November 8 through Novembe 19 at Café Caryle (35 East 75th Street, at Madison Avenue). www.rosewoodhotels.com/en/the-carlyle-new-york/experiences/cafe-carlyle