The closest you’ll get

John Pizzarelli does Sinatra and Cole at the Schuster

By Rick Eichhorn

Photo: John Pizzarelli [left] and his father, Bucky

Growing up, John Pizzarelli’s father emphasized the importance of always being a consummate professional. Using sports analogies, his father would say things such as, “you always got to deliver the ball,” emphasizing it didn’t matter who or how many were in the audience. In short, always be on your game.

This weekend, Pizzarelli is bringing his A-game to the Schuster Center for a return engagement with the Dayton Philharmonic and conductor Neal Gittleman. A world-renowned jazz guitarist and vocalist, Pizzarelli has been hailed by The Boston Globe for invigorating the Great American Songbook. This time, he’s devoting the show to Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole.

“The pops concert we did with John Pizzarelli a couple of seasons back sticks in my mind as one of the most fun and rewarding pops concerts I’ve ever done,” Gittleman said.

Pizzarelli added, “It’s a wonderful orchestra. We are so happy to be back with them. Sinatra and Cole. It’s not going to get any better than that.”

Like his famous father, jazz guitarist Bucky, Pizzarelli’s first instrument was the tenor banjo. His father was given his banjo by his uncles, professional musicians Pete and Bobby Domenick. Pizzarelli was six when he got his banjo.

“When you’re little, it’s a little easier to play,” he explained. “It has a smaller neck. You can bang away on it.”

During Pizzarelli’s early childhood, his father was a musician with Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” band, as well as an in-demand studio musician and performer. Legends like Benny Goodman would stop by their home. For sure, the Pizzarelli household resonated with the richness of music and creativity. Pizzarelli’s sister was a classical guitarist, his brother played the upright bass, and the Domenicks remained a constant influence. Pizzarelli once said about his uncles, “They were just always playing music. The only way to talk to these guys was to learn Honeysuckle Rose.” To this day, he remembers their enduring presence: “They’re such great spirits. Uncle Pete’s banjo sits in my living room today.”

In 1972, “The Tonight Show” moved to Los Angeles, but the family’s New Jersey roots were too strong and deep for his father to follow Carson. For that, Pizzarelli feels lucky. The New Jersey and New York scene has been a strong influence on his life as well.

Soon, Pizzarelli picked up the guitar. “I already had the calluses,” he joked. And, like a lot of teenagers, he bounced around a few rock ‘n’ roll bands. Then, one day, he heard a recording by Nat King Cole. In Cole’s trio, he heard the excitement and freshness of rock. He heard music with a sense of style and humor, and arrangements where each instrument played an integral part.

“It was exciting stuff for me,” Pizzarelli said of Cole’s trio. “Nat King Cole is really the reason why I do what I do.”

What he does is play lots of music, whether on the road with an orchestra, touring with his quartet, playing a special event with his father, in performances with his wife — Broadway star Jessica Molaskey — or just lazing on his couch working out a few guitar passes while watching “Sports Center.” Pizzarelli has numerous albums of his own, as well as countless studio sessions with mega stars such as Paul McCartney and James Taylor. Three of his own albums are dedicated to the music of Sinatra and Cole: Dear Mr. Sinatra, Dear Mr. Cole and P.S. Mr. Cole. Nat King Cole died when Pizzarelli was around five years old, but Pizzarelli actually had the good fortune of touring with Sinatra in 1993 as his opening act.

“Both artists would be tremendous influences on my life,” Pizzarelli said, adding, “I didn’t feel like I was ready for the Sinatra material in my twenties. In my forties, I got to Sinatra.” He went on explain about Cole, “My using the Nat King Cole trio was as a foundation. Inside it, we were doing what we wanted to.” He compared that foundation as the legs of a table. “When we put the top on it, it was John Pizzarelli.”

“He doesn’t imitate Sinatra or Cole,” Gittleman noted. “He does his own thing, but you’ll hear echoes of Frank and Nat in the way he delivers the songs.”

Perhaps due to his storied musical background, one thing Pizzarelli is known for is his stage banter. His audience will never be left wondering, What was that song? Why is he playing that? Indeed, he and his wife host a syndicated radio show called “Radio Deluxe with John Pizzarelli,” and he’s written a book titled “World on a String: A Musical Memoir.”

Whether in song and story, or some sort of mash up of both, when Pizzarelli takes the stage armed with only his guitar and vast talent, the goal is pure entertainment. In addition to planned arrangements with Gittleman and the Dayton Philharmonic, Pizzarelli noted, “We put sections in for improvisation. The beauty of jazz is it’s never the same thing.”

To expose new audiences to jazz, Pizzarelli enjoys taking modern pop songs and layering on various styles and influences from the Great American Songbook. Depending on who you talk to, The Songbook consists of standards of enduring popularity from about 1920 up to around 1960.

“It’s an amazing group of men and women,” Pizzarelli said of the songbook. “As finite as it is, it’s got a quiet infinity to it. People are constantly finding little gems out there nobody has ever done before.”

John Pizzarelli and the Dayton Philharmonic will perform at 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 10, and 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 11 in the Mead Theatre of the Schuster Center, 1 W. Second St. Tickets range from $23 to $78. Parking is $7 in the Arts Garage, located at the corner of Second and Ludlow. For more information, please visit JohnPizzarelli.com.

Reach DCP freelance writer Rick Eichhorn at RickEichhorn@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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