John Pizzarelli will forever be associated with “The Wonder of it All,” that unforgettable jingle from the Foxwoods ad that ran on TV and radio heavily in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.
Of course, the Grammy Award-winning guitarist’s career has been about a lot more. He’s most recognized as a leading interpreter of songs from what is often referred to as “The Great American Songbook,” a loose collection of pop and jazz standards from the first half of the 20th century.
Pizzarelli has played with jazz and pop legends including Rosemary Clooney, James Taylor, and Natalie Cole, as well as his father and musical mentor Bucky Pizzarelli. You’ll have a chance to hear his exceptional guitar work when he performs a holiday show in Newport on Friday, December 16 at Jane Pickens Film and Event Center. He’ll be accompanied by his trio, which includes Mike Karn on Bass and Isiah J. Thompson on piano.
The “Great American Songbook,” once understood to cover music through the 1950’s, continues to evolve. Pizzarelli has been part of the movement to expand the reach of the “Songbook,” adding popular tunes from the second half of the 20th century to his repertoire. In a recent interview, I asked Pizzarelli how he views the development of the genre.
“When I started, at thirty years old, the audience was mostly older than me, and now I’m 62 and a lot of those people have followed me but I also notice a lot of the audience is younger than me,” he explained. “The people that have followed me along, all grew up with the music of Paul McCartney, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young … the music of my generation. I’ve always tried to find those connections with the people who are listening to me.”
You can expect a mix of tunes at the Newport show this weekend, “we’ve been playing a lot of Nat Cole and some Bossa Nova, it changes on a nightly basis,” said Pizzarelli. He’s been out there back at it since February. “We started at Birdland (in NYC) in February, we went to Brazil, went to Portugal for two weeks last summer, and played the West Coast.”
I asked him how the non-English-speaking world responded to American classics. “We did a Nat King Cole show in Portugal. They know Nat Cole, they know the hits,” he said. “In Brazil, I first went down there almost thirty years ago, I was so surprised, they know the ‘Great American Songbook’ from movies, from musicals. People know the lyrics; it’s always interesting for me to see how the songs make their way around the world. Even in Japan, you go into record stores, you can find vocal jazz, even things you can’t find here.”
During the pandemic, Pizzarelli began a series of concerts from his home which he dubbed “It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere.” He’s still doing them. “Everyone was so invested in them. On the road, I met some of the people who requested songs I played. It’s been really exciting and sort of emotional to meet these people out on the road. It’s great to know that the music means something to people, it’s been a great gift.”
Pizzarelli shared that he has a new record coming out in April. “It’s called Stage and Screen. When I put together this new group of songs, I was trying to find a connective line and realized that most of the songs were either from a movie or a Broadway show, hence the title.” The album has standards, some newer songs, and lesser-known tunes. “We’re looking forward to having that come out April 21,” he added.
“I’m looking forward to playing in Newport and hope everybody comes out to hear some music. It’s the holiday season, I’m excited to get out on the road and see everybody.”