by Brian Scott Lipton
While much of the world sat glued to their TVs, waiting for one of the most important American stories of the past 20 years to unfold, lucky patrons at the Café Carlyle on Tuesday, November 6 (at least those who had the grace to put away their cellphones) found the ideal distraction in John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey’s stunning show, the aptly-named “American Stories.”
And now that our election is literally yesterday’s news, you should definitely make a pilgrimage to this storied cabaret (through November 17) as this long-married pair of music makers – joined by pianist Kondrad Paszkudzki and bassist Mike Karn — treat us to a beautifully curated and expertly executed program of some of the finest tunes penned by America’s greatest songwriters.
As is often true of this dynamic duo’s evenings, Molaskey – the epitome of the term “singing actress” – handles much of the heavier lifting. The show is essentially bookended by her wondrous, deeply-felt renditions of two Paul Simon songs, the weary-yet hopeful “American Tune” and the slightly more optimistic “Gone at Last.” Even better is the way Molaskey fully inhabits the protagonist of Stevie Nicks’ “Landslide,” a woman who reluctantly yet unapologetically faces her own personal evolution; if this song doesn’t pierce your heart, perhaps your body is missing an essential organ.
Pizzarelli, the master guitarist with a remarkably unaffected vocal delivery, concentrates more here on the up-tempo tunes, ranging from Johnny Mercer’s deliciously lighthearted “Jamboree Jones” – one of the few songs ever written about the intersection of football and music – and Nat King Cole’s irresistible “Errand Boy for Rhythm,” played with unbelievable finesse. Still, there’s no denying Pizzarelli knows his way around a ballad, as evidenced by a haunting version of the classic “As Time Goes By.”
As great as each performer is separately, an undeniable secret to their success – and the reason so many fans return to the Carlyle each year – is the couple’s medleys. Some of this set’s pairings were lovely yet a bit predictable: “Plenty of Money and You/We’re in the Money”; “Trip on a Train/Waitin’ for the Train” and even Simon’s “The Late Great Johnny Ace/Boy in the Bubble.”
Meanwhile, a teaming of Stephen Sondheim’s elegiac “Children and Art” (which made me long to see Molaskey play Dot) and “Children Will Listen” gained added heft from the addition of Pizzarelli’s folk-inflected version of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s still-prescient “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.” And there can be little doubt that the one of the show’s high points was a heart-stopping pairing of “Killing Me Softly” (magnificently sung by Molaskey) with Pizzarelli’s sublime take on George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (admittedly the one non-American number in the show).
Finally, one hopes every night of this run will conclude with Pizzarelli’s anthem, the exuberant “I Like Jersey Best” — a humorous salute to the performer’s home state — now made more delightful than ever with its “tributes” to Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, The Beach Boys, Roy Orbison, James Taylor and more. It’s hard to get more American than that!
Photos: David Andrako
John Pizzarelli & Jessica Molaskey: American Stories continues at the Café Carlyle (35 East 76th Street. 212-744-1600) through November 17.