When jazz guitarist and singer John Pizzarelli performs a one-night stand 8 p.m. Friday, April 26, at the Grunin Center at Ocean County College, fans will delight in the fact that he will play an entire show filled with songs popularized by the late and legendary Nat King Cole.
In February, Pizzarelli released the album “For Centennial Reasons: 100 Year Salute to Nat King Cole” as a tribute to the 100 anniversary of the birth of the late and legendary performer. He’s been touring behind the retro-yet-modern-day musical project ever since.
“(Cole) is basically the reason I do what I do, and we have the same kind of trio — piano, bass and guitar,” says Pizzarelli, a New Jersey native who still works with his dad, world-class jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, who recovered from a stroke several years ago and still performs occasionally at 93, often with his son.
John Pizzarelli was not only born into a musical family, but he also married into one. He has played behind his wife, singer Jessica Molaskey, as well as recorded a dozen albums with his dad and worked with his brother, jazz double bassist Martin Pizzarelli. Plus he’s made about 40 albums solo over the past 35 years.
Anyone familiar with the music of Cole — and the musical sensibilities of Pizzarelli — will understand why Cole’s music is so special to him.
“It’s just the most fantastic music for me to play, from ‘Straighten Up and Fly Right’ to ‘Route 66’ to ‘Frim Fram Sauce’ and all those great songs (Cole’s) group used to play,” he says. “It’s just thrilling to me every night to delve into that songbook.”
His tribute to Cole isn’t the first time he’s honored the musical legend, considered one of the greatest singers of the 20th century.
“Back in ’93, I made a record called ‘Dear Mr. Cole’ and I made another one called ‘P.S. Mr. Cole’ in ’99. So when I noticed it was going to be (the anniversary of) his 100th birthday, I wanted to try and find more material,” Pizzarelli explains. “And I did. I thought it was a good time, at this point in my life, to go back in time to say ‘thank you’ just one more time because the music and the singing of Nat King Cole was just so inspirational to me. That’s another reason why this record has been such an adventure for me.”
At 59, Pizzarelli is at an age where he can easily straddle two popular genres of music — the big band sounds of the 1940s and the rock ‘n’ roll movement. He and his trio will perform mostly music Cole culled from the Great American Songbook during their set in Toms River.
He will not, however, perform from his 1998 album “John Pizzarelli Meets the Beatles,” a play on the band’s second U.S. album titled “Meet the Beatles.”
McCartney, who had previously worked with Pizzarelli on some studio projects, finally listened to those tracks — 12 years after the album was delivered. He liked what he heard so much that he came up with an idea which he put in a letter he sent to Pizzarelli in 2014.
The musician says he’ll never forget taking one look at the oversized envelop handed to him by the FedEx driver. He couldn’t help blurting out the name on the return address line.
“It’s from Paul McCartney!” he yelled at no one in particular.
“Yeah, yeah, sign here,” the driver said, acting as though he heard things like that at every stop.”
“The letter said he liked my interpretation of the Beatles songs and he wondered if I’d be interested in making a record of his (songs) from his post-Beatles catalogue,” Pizzarelli remembers. “He even suggested the title of the record, which was ‘Midnight McCartney.’ It was a really wonderful ride finding all those songs, too, so that was quite a wonderful undertaking.”
Converting McCartney’s mostly rock ‘n’ roll songs into jazz numbers wasn’t that difficult, because the songs had all of the right building blocks in place, Pizzarelli says.
“It’s moments like that when you realize he’s been a very good songwriter for a very long time,” Pizzarelli praised. “And here were are doing songs like ‘My Love’ or even ‘Silly Love Song’ which we re-imagined as a (Antonio Carlos) Jobim bossa nova. Sort of like, ‘Oh, this makes sense.’ And you realize that the songs are that touching. Or they have good ideas in there.”
Perhaps the best part of that letter? After McCartney asking him to cover his songs, of course, was the way he closed his missive.
“The attraction for me is lesser-known tunes done in a mellow, jazz style,’” the letter concluded. “As I said, this may tickle your fancy or you may decide these are the ramblings of a deranged composer with too much time on his hands.”