Legendary guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli and pianist-singer Tony DeSare photographed at River’s Edge Café, where they’ll be returning this weekend as part of the Summer Jazz Café series.
By TOM CHESEK
Maybe it’s that seventh string on his guitar; a custom-crafted Benedetto Signature model that transports his playing to a dimension beyond your garden variety six-pickers. Or maybe it’s the sixth sense he’s developed that allows him to steer a tin-pan standard from the outskirts of improvisation back to safe harbor. Could be it’s just the sixty-plus years of professional experience he’s racked up; years that have seen this lifelong Jersey guy play with everyone from Vaughn Monroe, Les Paul and Benny Goodman to Rufus Wainwright and his own kids.
Impressive stats are about the only thing that Bucky Pizzarelli does strictly by the numbers. Like one of his relaxed, satisfying sets of songbook standards, the guitarist has forged a long-play career that’s segued easily from big-band bombast to small-combo swing; from one of the most sought-after session players in New York, to a stint as a band member on the old Tonight Show, and on to a late-life role as a bandleader and recording artist under his own name. He’s made an investment in a musical family (meticulous guitar whiz and jackrabbit scatmaster John, bassist Martin and classical guitarist Mary) that continues to pay dividends for his own career. He’s played ’em all, from the Hollywood Bowl, Carnegie Hall and the White House (three times), to the River’s Edge Café on Broad Street.
It’s to the River’s Edge that Pizzarelli returns this weekend, as headliner of the latest two-night stand in the 2008 Summer Jazz Café series. Even at the age of 82, the guitarist is hardly the sort of guy who would say no when friends call to set up a gig and whenever Joe Muccioli of the Red Bank-based Jazz Arts Project requests his presence at another of his soirees, the Buck is sure to stop here.
For the weekend shows, Pizzarelli is joined by a pair of seasoned cats, rhythm guitarist Ed Laub and bassist Jerry Bruno, with whom he’s played for “over 60 years.” Friday’s set makes it a quartet, with Tony DeSare, the Manhattan-based piano-bar crooner making an encore appearance in Red Bank with the Pizzarelli trio. Joe has even talked Pizzarelli into hanging around on Saturday afternoon, for a free, all-ages “Legends and Lions” jazz workshop that starts at 4p inside the restaurant.
As the veteran jazzman prepared for another in a lifetime’s worth of gigs, the oRBit desk at redbankgreen caught up with him at his Saddle River home of 40 years; a place that’s not far from the Mahwah stomping grounds of his old pal Les.
Your bio mentions so many of the greats but since we have just a little time we’re going to skip over all those guys and go right to Mr. Big himself, Joe Muccioli. When did you first meet up with Mooch?
We’ve been friends for a couple of years now; he got me to play the Jazz Cafe when he did it over at the (Two River) theater, and last year at the River’s Edge. It came off very well, too; great people, great food.
Joe’s a busy guy; he’s just back from playing the Montreal Jazz Festival.
He’s playing with Joe Piscopo; doing the Sinatra act. You know what I like about Piscopo? He’s clean as a whistle, not like some of these other guys you see these days. When I was working TV shows, boy, you couldn’t say “damn” on the air; they’d throw you right into the street.
Back in your TV days, you were a member of the old Tonight Show band, early in Johnny Carson‘s run as host. But this, I’m guessing, is before they did the show in Burbank, and as far as I know there aren’t any surviving tapes of these things…
Yeah, I think they burned most of the old tapes. Well, nobody thought about that sort of thing then; you know, who wanted to watch a repeat of an old talk show? But I played with Skitch Henderson when he was the bandleader, and with Doc Severinsen when he took over. Also Milton DeLugg, who did it for about a year in between. Then when the show moved to California, I stayed back east; I worked on the Dick Cavett show, and Jack Paar when they brought him back to go up against Carson.
That was kind of the end of an era for the old network orchestras; nowadays even the established talk shows get by with a much smaller band of six to eight players.
Oh man, that’s just noise, those guys. It’s not music, it’s just a blur.
Well, somebody must have surely said that about your generation once upon a time. I know you’re old-school and proud when it comes to the standards, but you have to admit that one of the good things about the current state of the music business is that the fans have access now to just about anything ever recorded. With CD remasters and all the things available online, anyone can get a great musical education in a very short time.
That’s true; you have so much out there right now, from all the different eras. Just like all the old movies. You can do computer downloads, and find out all sorts of things. But if you want to hear a good record, I recommend you go out and buy it (laughs).
I do have to ask you about a couple of the people you worked with. One of the surprises in your history is that you had a close working relationship with an early rock and roll act, Dion and the Belmonts.
That was during my studio days. I played on a lot of their records, “Teenager In Love” and all those. Those guys really knew what they were doing; they were part of the vocal style, a couple of years before everybody started to play their own instruments.
And Benny Goodman, you played with in the later stages of his long career. Was this in a big-band format or a smaller combo?
Goodman went to England in 1970 and took me along; I was the only American in what was otherwise an 18-piece, all-English band. We did 26 European cities, all one-nighters, which was pretty unusual then. But you know, it was for real; Benny’s stuff always swung, no matter what kind of band he was leading.
I think one of the things you can be most proud of in your career is not so much who played with, but who you replaced. You took over from Charlie Christian with Goodman, and you were with Stephane Grappelli after Django Reinhardt.
But the best thing is that they didn’t ask me to play like those other guitarists. Charlie had his own way of doing things, and I had mine. Everyone was able to play their own way.
Another distinctive guitar player you worked with was Tal Farlow, who lived around here in Sea Bright later in his life. He retired from music for a while and worked painting signs, as opposed to the fine-art painting you like to do, but once every week or two he would sit in and do a gig at an Italian restaurant near Sandy Hook called, I think, DeRosa’s (NOTE: it’s now Off the Hook). Just a low-key setting, far away from the music business, with this legendary musician sitting there smiling and messing around with some old tunes for a small room full of diners.
That’s great. He had a great style, too; it’s like Les Paul does with his shows every week. Telling stories, playing what he wants to play.
So what can we expect to hear when you hit Red Bank for a weekend? Do you have a proper set list, or do you play it loose, tell stories like your pal Les?
Oh, we’ll be bringing out things like “Tangerine,” “In a Mellow Mood,” “Stompin’ at the Savoy” all the standards. People who come out to see us love to hear melodies; we like to establish the melody when we play, so we concentrate on the standards.
Joe also has you set to do a jazz workshop seminar at the River’s Edge that Saturday. I was wondering what sorts of things you tell the young players who come to see you in situations like that; especially given the fact that you play a 7-string guitar, which is pretty uncommon and not something that a lot of kids can relate to
When you pick up a 7-string, it’s an orchestra. You can’t accompany yourself or other performers the same way with six strings. When I talk to young guitar players, I tell them that they need to learn the way that I learned and get introduced to rhythm guitar. You can’t be off in your own little world all the time, playing nothing but leads, thinking you’re the first one that ever did what you’re doing. You learn by learning what the other players do.
Back when I started out, you didn’t have all sorts of books and tablatures to study from; back then, you had to meet another guitar player and hope that he’d teach you a few things. If you want a music lesson now, go out and get some books…spend a year on Gershwin, Ellington, Kern, Harold Arlen. Learn the standards, and develop things from there. Well, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get going to a gig!
Start time for all Jazz Café shows is 7:30p; entertainment charge is $15 and there’s a food-order minimum of $15 as well (owner-chef Bob Guido has put together a special menu of Italian cuisine and desserts for these events). Reservations are recommended and can be made by calling (732)741-7198.