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REVIEW: Straighten Up and Fly Right!: John Pizzarelli at The Dakota

Three looks at singer John Pizzarelli (color) with his bandmates pianist Isaiah J. Thompson (center-bottom) and bassist Mike Karn (center-top).

The Dakota was packed last night with hard-core John Pizzarelli fans. Many knew of Pizzarelli through his radio show with his wife Radio Deluxe), followed his regular streaming show It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere, and were probably well-versed in every album from the artist’s productive, 40-year career. In the middle of the set, Pizzarelli even commented: “This is my Dream Audience: when I dream at night, this is what it is like.”

Pizzarelli’s first album, released by Stash Records in 1983, had the wonderful title I’m Hip (Please Don’t Tell My Father). Of course, Pizzarelli’s father knew how “hip” his son was. After all, that father was “Bucky” Pizzarelli, who was hailed by the New York Times as “Master of the Jazz Guitar” and “Mainstay of the New York Jazz Scene” after Bucky passed away from COVID. John Pizzarelli grew up performing on stage with his father, and they continued to perform and record together, continuing long after John established his own reputation and following.

On Tuesday evening among the faithful followers got what they came for. Pizzarelli – very ably supported by Isaiah J. Thompson on piano, and Mike Karn on bass – offered a lot of Nat King Cole. And it was not just the well-known classics, like “Sweet Lorraine”, “Nature Boy”, and “Straighten Up and Fly Right”. He also included many so-called deep cuts, like “Hit that Jive” with its fast-picking music, and fast-singing lyrics (“Hit that jive Jack, Put it in your pocket ’til I get back, Going downtown to see a man, And I ain’t got time to shake your hand”); and the melancholy “This Will Make You Laugh”.

Pizzarelli has said that he prefers to “dress the part” – no “casual Friday” look for him. True to his words, on Tuesday evening he was there in a suit and tie. As he explained in an interview, he wants the audience to know that he and his bandmates are adults “going to work” and taking the music seriously. Thompson and Karn were thus similarly dressed for success – the former sporting a quite nice beret. One might almost have thought that they were coming to offer legal representation, not coming to perform the Great American Songbook.

Amid the tour-de-force through Nat King Cole’s works, the ensemble took time for two songs from Pizzarelli’s most recent album, 2021’s Better Days Ahead (Solo Guitar Takes on Pat Metheny): a haunting, slowed-down version of “Last Train Home”, and “James”. As the singer explained, everything ties together in the small musical world: “James” is Metheny’s homage to James Taylor, and in 2021, James Taylor’s “American Standard” *produced by Taylor, Pizzarelli and Dave O’Donnell) won the Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album.

John Pizzarelli is always sweet and fun to hear: his elegant voice, engaging scat singing, moving arrangements, and interesting comments. This tone was kept up by the lyrics of a couple of curiosities: “I Love Betsy” from the Broadway show Honeymoon in Vegas (“I like Shake Shack, I like MOMA, and New Jersey’s ripe aroma…Heck, there’s lots of stuff I like, but I love Betsy and she loves me. She likes hockey, no I swear, she likes guys with thinning hair”), and “Rhode Island is Famous for You” (“Pencils come from Pennsylvania, vests from Vest Virginia, and tents from Tentassee, … and Minnows come from Minnowsota, coats come from Dakota, but why should you be blue? For you, you come from Rhode Island, don’t let them ride Rhode Island, it’s famous for you.”).

It all came to a close with a powerful triplet of songs from Duke Ellington: “Satin Doll”, “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”, and “In a Mellow Tone”. The theme of the night, however, was offered to the masses earlier, in Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy”: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return”.

Brian Bix