Fleet-fingered jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli has not been back to Penn State in about 16 years, he said during a recent interview.
“My last show at the college was a double-bill with Maureen McGovern,” he said.
One wonders if the two shared a duet of McGovern’s famous torch ballad “The Morning After” from the disaster flick “The Poseidon Adventure.”
“Unfortunately not,” Pizzarelli quipped. “She did that one solo. Thankfully, the gig stayed afloat!”
Expect more of Pizzarelli’s affable wit and superb fretwork as he presents “Straighten Up and Fly Right: The Nat King Cole Tribute” at Eisenhower Auditorium next week.
Returning to Penn State to accompany Pizzarelli is Grammy Award-winning pianist Ramsey Lewis, known for his hits “The In-Crowd” and “Wade In The Water.” Flanked by Lewis’ trio, the two afford renditions of songs popularized by Cole, a titan of 1950s vocal pop and jazz, including “Unforgettable” and “Route 66.”
Pizzarelli chatted with Weekender about his admiration for Cole and Lewis alike, as well as some interesting influences on his performing.
Q: Do you recall the first time you heard Nat King Cole’s music?
A: It’s hard to pinpoint a particular song and place in time. I probably heard a lot of it incidentally when I was young. My father, guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, accompanies Cole on a recording of “Send For Me.”
The moment I really delved into his career was when I heard a version of, appropriately enough, “Straighten Up and Fly Right.” Cole wrote in the 1940s with another musician, Irving Mills. This particular recording was sung by Frank Weber. I wanted to hear more, and I wanted to learn more. I went to a Sam Goody’s — remember those? A two volume retrospective of Cole’s hits had just been released, and my dad all too eagerly egged me on to buy it. After that, I was stuck — and what a great place to be stuck in.
Q: Do you recall the first time you heard Ramsey Lewis’ music?
A: I saw that question coming! (laughs) I probably heard “The In-Crowd” several times growing up. I’ll steer the question this way — I met Ramsey Lewis in the 1990s when we were booked by the same agency. So (the Nat King Cole tribute) has been an idea that was on the table for a while, once we could get the concept and scheduling coordinated.
In many ways, Ramsey Lewis’ career parallels that of Cole’s. They are both from Chicago. Their careers both found their ways during the civil rights era. They were both crossover stars with fans of all backgrounds and ethnicities. Ramsey’s not a singer, of course, but his playing has a warm, inviting feeling similar to Cole’s.
Q: You shared in an interview that comedy albums from the ’70s by Bill Cosby and George Carlin influenced the rapport you have with your audiences.
A: Yes — I always wanted to be “entertaining” to an audience beyond just playing an instrument. I wanted to talk to them. I remember seeing jazz bands with my dad and sometimes the musicians didn’t say two words to the crowd. They didn’t announce the song titles or anything! And I loved comedy — Johnny Carson’s monologues, George Carlin’s albums like “AM/FM.” The timing a comedian must possess is quite similar to the timing a musician has to have. Everything has a rhythm to it. So yes, (comedy) was an influence.
I remember the John Pizzarelli trio opened for Jerry Seinfeld on a few dates in 1994. It was fascinating watching Seinfeld in stand-up mode — how he improvised when he needed to, or how he modified his material from show to show as he needed to. Definitely a musical-like quality to how a comic’s mind works.
Q: In addition to comedians, what other non-musicians have inspired your work?
A: I love to cook, and I am a fan of chef and restaurant owner Mario Batali. I love watching him in action on his shows. Again, there is a rhythm to his work. The patience and studiousness a talented chef exhibits isn’t too different than that of a guitar player.
IF YOU GO
- What: “Straighten Up and Fly Right: The Nat King Cole Tribute” featuring Ramsey Lewis and John Pizzarelli
- When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 13
- Where: Eisenhower Auditorium, University Park
- Info: www.cpa.psu.edu