John Pizzarelli on Nat Cole and Dave McKenna
I quoted from John Pizzarelli’s memoir, World on a String, in yesterday’s blog on Frank Sinatra, and I’m delighted to say that the excerpt is consistent with the qualities of wit, humility, and scene-setting that the 52-year-old singer-guitarist conveys throughout the book. Actually, he’s got a collaborator named Joseph Cosgriff, but anyone familiar with Pizzarelli will recognize his voice immediately, and for that credit surely goes to both.
Pizzarelli is best known for working in the trio format of piano/bass/guitar that Nat King Cole established 70 years ago, and he writes , “Immersion in Nat Cole’s records was a game-changer for my career…I was hooked on the brilliant simplicity of the trio cuts. The easy tempo Nat achieved on ‘For Sentimental Reasons’ and ‘Route 66’ sounded every bit as rock’n’roll as Led Zeppelin II…By the time my ninety-nine dollar stereo had worn out the grooves of those records…I’d joined my father [guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli] as a true believer in the genius of everything Nat’s ever played.”
Dave McKenna took the plunge into Nat's state-of-the-art keyboard style as a young teen in Woonsocket, RI, in the early '40's. Forty years later, he appeared on Pizzarelli's second album as a vocalist. Pizzarelli allows that “my singing on those original Stash albums is sometimes cringe-worthy… [but] McKenna’s and Bucky’s harmonies on Hit That Jive, Jack more than makes up for the singer’s work.”
Pizzarelli made a second date with McKenna and Bucky that also featured Clark Terry, Milt Hinton, and Connie Kay, but he still “had a lot to learn…Instead of tying their hands and making five jazz legends play a lot of written-out sheet music, I should have trusted the (better, more swinging) charts they carry around in their heads…The Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson once said about his Big Red Machine teams of the seventies that the best thing he did on most days was stay out of his team’s way. It would have been a sound approach for me on this session.”
I’ve had my quibbles in recent years with Pizzarelli’s excessive stage patter. It could be that I’ve just seen too much of the man in person, or maybe it's the unamused look of his sidemen as he rolls out wisecrack No. 63, but while the patter can get tiresome, his musicianship and taste in songs remains impeccable. Now as World on a String makes clear, he knows how to tell a good story, one that's preferable between covers than tunes.
Pizzarelli concludes the memoir with a chapter (FAQ) devoted to, you got it, frequently asked questions. After acknowledging John Bunch as his ideal piano accompanist, he writes, “If I were just going to listen to a piano player, it would be Dave McKenna, hands down. And that’s knowing that Art Tatum is available as a choice. For my listening ear, there was nothing like McKenna’s monster left hand leading the rhythm, while he played melodies that would, in many cases, define how I heard that song in my head from that day forward.” I couldn't agree more.
Pizzarelli discusses World on a String with Terry Gross on Fresh Air this evening, and Jazz a la Mode will follow with his music and a cut from McKenna's sublime Christmas Ivory. Here’s a bird's-eye view of Dave playing Harry Warren’s “Lulu’s Back in Town.”