By Marilyn Lester . . .

What a night at Birdland! The John Pizzarelli Trio delivered a boffo set of incredible music via three preternaturally attuned stringed instruments (yes, the piano is one), with Isaiah Thompson on the keys, Mike Karn on the double bass and Pizzarelli on guitar. “Amazing” doesn’t half cover the sound the threesome produced. From the super-charged opener, a swinging “(I Would Do) Anything for You” (Alex Hill, Claude Hopkins, Bob Williams), it was apparent that this was a group that played so in the pocket their sound was delivered as a single organism. This entrée into the evening also showcased technical expertise, with Pizzarelli’s nimble and flexible fingers moving at speed. 

Add to this richness of music-making, the synergy of Pizzarelli and Karn. With the bass frequently forward, Karn was liberated from time-keeping to pursue creative ideas. Talented bassists, like Karn, will even utilize the instrument like a giant guitar or violin. His work, for instance on a bluesy “Sweet Lorraine” (Cliff Burwell, Mitchell Parrish), especially demonstrated the chemistry between the two musicians, with Pizzarelli’s guitar offering truly supportive harmonies.

As if being a master of the guitar wasn’t enough, Pizzarrelli is also an accomplished natural vocalist and raconteur who’s witty and often straight-out funny. Early on he quipped that he wasn’t going to speak much, just play, because “how many times can I say I’m thrilled to be back.” Indeed, because of Covid-19, the last live gig Pizzarelli played was in early March 2020, before the world shut down for 18 months.

During that time, he, like many musicians, gigged via live stream. Early in the pandemic beloved father, mentor and guitar legend, Bucky Pizzarelli died of Covid at age 94, with his mother following two weeks later. Those streaming shows helped with loss, and so did the production and release of Better Days Ahead, his first solo guitar album (no vocals), recorded in Pizzarelli’s upstate cabin with an iPad and some production assistance from friend Rick Haydon. “Bucky,” Pizzarelli said, “is here in so many ways.

Not the least these ways being a grand story of Pizzarelli’s youth and how Bucky, mentoring his young son, declared that listening to the music of The Nat King Cole Trio would “change his life.” It was no surprise then, that Cole’s work (he was a major jazz star before he turned to pop music and crooning) was honored along with the senior Pizzarelli. An early work of the Cole trio, “Hit That Jive, Jack” (John Alston, Campbell “Skeets” Tolbert) featured plenty of swing, prime scat by Pizzarelli and a superb piano solo by Thompson. Another piano solo on the lovely ballad, “Nature Boy” (eden ahbez—who refused to capitalize his nom de plume) was a particular showcase for his artistry on the eighty eights.

As a vocalist, Pizzarelli gives meaning to the term “vocal instrument.” His singing is as much an extension of himself as is his guitar mastery. His vocal tone is soft and pleasant and packs a mighty punch, especially on ballads. Jazz, as opposed to pop singing, often moves through rhythm rather than through lyric interpretation. The trio’s samba arrangement of “Baubles, Bangles & Beads” (Robert Wright, George Forrest), for example, was inspiring in this rhythmic way. But there are exceptions to every rule, which Pizzarelli well knows, and his interpretation of the last number Cole sang on television before his untimely death (“The Jack Benny Show” 1964), “When I Fall in Love” (Victor Young, Edward Heyman) was particularly moving. But perhaps, most special of all, in a wide-ranging set of exquisite music, stunningly delivered, was Pizzarelli alone with guitar— a duet with self—on a beautifully emotive and evoking “This Nearly Was Mine” (Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II), leaving no doubt we’re thrilled to have John Pizzarelli back too.

The John Pizzarelli Trio is appearing at Birdland Jazz Club (315 W, 44th St., NYC) through Thursday, October 14. On Friday and Saturday, October 15 and 16 Pizzarelli is performing with Matt Munisteri (guitar), Mike Karn (bass), Aaron Weinstein (violin) and Jessica Molaskey (vocals). See for details.

Photos: Jessica Molaskey