Album reviews

John Pizzarelli – ‘Stage & Screen’

John Pizzarelli – Stage & Screen

(Palmetto Records JOPI01. Album review by Len Weinreich)

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Even though the sound on this CD is detailed and crisp, I have a problem with the atmos. I fail to detect the clash of ice-cubes expertly agitated in a cocktail shaker, the crystalline clink of high-grade stemware, the shedding of inhibitions or the low hum of conversation masking carnal intent because the true home for this album’s content is a Manhattan boîte, underlit and intimate.

Stage and Screen presents us with a dozen (actually more, if you separate each of the multiple melodies in Oklahoma Suite) show tunes from hard-core professionals like Vincent Youmans, Jerry Bock, Jules Styne, Betty Comden, Adolf Green, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein II, Sammy Cahn, Burton Lane, Alan Jay Lerner, Jerry Bock, John Kander and Fred Ebb, all meticulously crafted for use on Broadway or Hollywood. Four of the songs have the word ‘time’ in the title and two of them are ‘list’ songs (when lyrics itemise a series of experiences, metaphors or items related to the love object). Sadly, on the subject of choice of repertoire, the sleeve notes remain shtum.

John Pizzarelli is a fine guitarist with an engaging vocal style. His trio, the classic combination of guitar, piano and bass as favoured by Nat ‘King’ Cole, Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson, exhibits a considerable level of instrumental interplay. Pizzarelli opens the album with Too Close For Comfort, scatting in unison with his guitar line in the manner of Slam Stewart or Major Holley, two string bass masters from the previous century who hummed in harmony to their arco solos. Unfamiliar to me is I Love Betsy from Broadway show ‘Honeymoon In Vegas’, a ‘list’ song crammed with references close to the heart of every chauvinistic New Yorker. I Want To be Happy is a snappy instrumental showcase for Pizzarelli’s guitar, the agile hands of pianist Isaiah J. Thompson and the plucky digits of bass player Michael Karn.

Tea For Two is a show-stopper. At glacial pace, Pizzarelli whispers the verse of in a close-to-the-microphone manner before Thompson offers an inventive reading heavily laced with tremolo. Then, after the relaxed solo guitar intro to Just In Time, Thompson reveals his gift for melody, unleashing long lyrical lines prior to Pizzarelli pitching into another unison scat solo before the piano and guitar trade tumbling eight bar phrases.

Some Other Time from Leonard Bernstein, Adolph Green and Betty Comden’s Broadway musical On The Town is a elegiac meditation for Pizzarelli’s guitar. And Rodgers and Hart’s tribute to deja-vu, Where Or When, is outfitted with a suitably dreamy beguine rhythm and a ravishing interlude by Thompson. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma Suite, a medley of greatest hits from the long-running musical, opens with bassist Karn’s arco treatment of the verse to Oh, What A Beautiful Morning before the group revisits the melodies of I’m Just A Girl Who Can’t Say ‘No’, People Will Say We’re in Love, Surrey With A Fringe On Top and Oklahoma.

Time After Time by Sammy Cahn and Jules Styne is one of those rare songs (Star Dust is another) that demands its own tempo (dead slow) and Pizzarelli handles the long, sustained notes as though he were murmuring gently into a beloved’s ear. For the 1951 Fred Astaire movie, ‘Royal Wedding’, Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner wrote You’re All The World To Me, the album’s other ‘list’ song, an encyclopaedic jaunt through geographical references (Paris, the Alps, Lake Como, Sun Valley, Cape Cod and a night in Capri), all familiar to an American audience, covered at energetic tempo.

Hands up those who’ve heard of Herman Hupfeld? Yes? No? Possibly the only composer whose fame was eclipsed by a misquoted line of dialogue (the deathless phrase, “Play it Sam”, not “Play it again Sam”, was actually spoken by Ingrid Bergman, not Humphrey Bogart. Now go off and win your pub quiz). Hupfeld wrote As Time Goes By in 1930 but it wasn’t until 1942 that the song achieved legendary status in the movie ‘Casablanca’ and can always be relied upon to push the buttons of nostalgic patrons in a Manhattan boîte.

The album closes with a nimble Coffee In A Cardboard Cup written by Kander and Ebb for a Broadway show, 70, Girls, 70 (no, I hadn’t heard of it either). But the performance is so up-beat and energetic that even a slightly boozed-up audience might be moved to stand unsteadily and applaud.

The sleeve acknowledges many people up to and including Bob Turner, the piano tuner. But full praise should be heaped upon engineer Bill Moss at Red Button Audio for the crisp, faithful sound.

However, I have a beef. When I slipped the CD into my computer player, I was informed that its genre was ‘alternative’. ‘Alternative’ to what? I reckon I can recognise jazz when I hear it. To ignore this album’s jazz credentials and misdescribe it as ‘alternative’ is hardly helpful to the music we support and admire.

All in all, good venerable show tunes well played and sung by three professional musicians. All jazz musicians. Playing jazz.

John Pizzarelli, guitar and vocals; Isaiah J. Thompson, piano; Michael Karn, double bass. Recorded at The Jacob Burns Media Arts Lab, Pleasantville, N. Y., U.S.A. November 2021. Seven String Ltd.

LINKS: Stage & Screen at Proper Music

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