In the early 70s, John Pizzarelli played in rock bands, idolizing The Beatles. As he entered his 20s, he began playing more jazz gigs with his father, Bucky Pizzarelli.
Still, he needed a repertoire of jazz standards to hone in on. When a friend gave him a record of “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” originally by the Nat King Cole Trio, his style took shape.
“Everything that trio did, I’m still doing,” Pizzarelli said. “It’s something that means a lot to me.”
On Thursday, Oct. 21, the Grammy-winning virtuoso guitarist and vocalist will bring his trio to present “For Centennial Reasons: 100 Year Salute to Nat King Cole.”
Margaret Hamamoto, marketing and development director of The Argyros, helped bring the artist to the valley.
“Known for his charm, wit and onstage banter, we are all in for a fantastic night,” Hamamoto said.
Michael Karn on bass and Isaiah Thompson on piano will join Pizzarelli onstage for the authentic “drumless trio,” creating a light, swinging sound.
“It’s an interesting program of how Nat started with the trio and then where they went together,”
Although the songs are decades old, Pizzarelli said they still sound fresh.
“It’s not a museum piece, it’s not a history lesson,” Pizzarelli said. “I just try to keep it fun and informative.”
In some cases, like with something as groundbreaking as “Paper Moon,” they honor the original arrangement. On others, they add their own twist on it. Pizzarelli does not sing like Nat King Cole.
“We’re extensions of what they started,” he said.
Pizzarelli says the way musicians accompany one another is just as important as how they solo. The magic occurs in the dynamic between the players.
“It’s like a musical conversation with three guys,” Pizzarelli said.
Pizzarelli has recorded over 20 albums and has played on more than 40. Over the years, he has re-interpreted the Great American Songbook.
As he fell in love with jazz, Pizzarelli’s father reminded him to research the secret ingredients behind big names. When Pizzarelli discovered Count Basie, his dad told him to pay attention to the guitarist Freddie Green. When Pizzarelli discovered Billie Holiday’s “Lady in Satin,” his dad told him to pay attention to the guitarist Barry Galbraith. When Pizzarelli discovered “Sinatra and Strings,” his dad told him to pay attention to the arrangement by Don Costa, who chose the chords that really make the record soar.
“There was always something he was able to impart on me that made me listen to music differently,” Pizzarelli said. “That was a very key element in my learning about jazz.”
Pizzarelli himself became the secret ingredient in the studio many times. He played guitar on a few tracks on Paul McCartney’s standards album “Kisses from the Bottom.”
“It’s really amazing that I sat in my room as a 14 year old learning all those Beatles songs and had the opportunity to play with him,” Pizzarelli said. “It’s sort of stunning.”
He won a Grammy for producing and performing on James Taylor’s album “American Standard.”
“I’m glad I put in the work,” Pizzarelli said.
Pizzarelli got the chance to play live with Taylor a few times. For two weeks in New York City, he performed as a duo with Michael McDonald. He has opened for Frank Sinatra. He traveled to Brazil to play with local musicians. He has played on Jimmy Fallon, Conan, Jay Leno and David Letterman.
“There are amazing rooms I’ve gotten to be in over the years” Pizzarelli said.
Thursday marks the first time Pizzarelli has played in Sun Valley. He was supposed to do this show in early 2020 when COVID hit. Pizzarelli left New York on March 12, 2020 to escape the city. They had a little cabin an hour north to hide out during the pandemic. While he was up there, he mostly just played the guitar.
His father passed away in early April. Whenever he sat down to play something, he thought about how his father had arranged the song.
“I was really playing guitar as therapy,” Pizzarelli said.
These days, Pizzarelli debates his 24-year-old daughter about the best Beatles album. She says “Revolver.” He’s stuck between “Abbey Road” and “Sgt. Pepper’s.” When they get together for dinner, they take turns playing.
In quarantine, he plugged into his iPad and recorded an album of solo guitar Pat Metheny covers. During that time, he once again found intimacy with his guitar.
“You think about Les Paul and Peter Frampton and Dave Grohl—they all tune the guitar the same way, yet they all find a way to make it work,” Pizzarelli said. “It’s a very interesting instrument.”