Jazz guitarist delights Clark crowd with charming performance

The Francine and Sterling Clark Art Institute was packed to the upper balcony with members of the Williamstown community on Friday night for the highly anticipated performance of John Pizzarelli, acclaimed jazz guitarist and singer.

Jazz concert
John Pizzarelli (far right) and his band performed a series of choice works and classics during their concert at the Clark on Friday.

Accompanied by pianist Larry Fuller, percussionist Tony Tedesco and bassist Martin Pizzarelli (John Pizzarelli’s brother), John Pizzarelli lived up to his reputation as “a rare entertainer of the old school” (The Seattle Times), mixing jazz music and his own casual wit for a night that was both relaxing and enjoyable.

Described as “the genial genius of guitar” by The Toronto Star, John Pizzarelli has long established himself as a much beloved figure in the jazz community. He is widely known for his appearances opening for music greats such as Ramsey Lewis, Rosemary Clooney and even Frank Sinatra himself. He also received a Grammy award nomination for his album “With a Song in My Heart” and hosts his own radio show, “Radio Deluxe with John Pizzarelli.” Despite these accomplishments, however, John Pizzarelli revealed an easy, self-deprecating sense of humor on the stage. As the performance fell on his 52nd birthday, the concert opened with a round of “Happy Birthday” from the audience – after the noise had died down, he joked, “I don’t look a day over 51, though, do I?”

The concert opened with the song “Will You Still be Mine,” a piece that set the tone for the rest of the performance – played in smooth, flowing tones, the piece featured lengthy solos by John Pizzarelli and pianist Fuller that, despite their complexity, the pair seemed to play with effortless ease. Mixing quick, rolling melodies with slower and more romantic ones, the group moved swiftly from piece to piece, lulling the crowd with songs like “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket” (“A lovely Easter theme!” John Pizzarelli joked) and “Harvest Moon” before rousing the audience again with bouncing tunes like “I Know that You Know” and “Satin Doll” by Duke Ellington. At one point during the first half of the performance, the other three musicians left the stage, leaving John Pizzarelli alone. He played a quiet, swinging piece entitled “Just Squeeze Me,” giving the audience a wide smile as he plucked out a quick, clear melody on the guitar.

As the performance progressed, John Pizzarelli’s easy stage presence and enthusiastic interactions with the audience began to make the night feel much more like an informal gathering of friends than an uptight, inflexible recital. As the second half of the show opened, John Pizzarelli saw a piece of paper an audience member had left on the piano with a song request and promised to play it later that night. From this point on, the concert was filled with several favorites that even those with little jazz experience would probably recognize. For instance, after telling the story of how the next piece to be sung was presented to Frank Sinatra as “the rotten piece from the top of the pile,” the band broke into the popular tune “Witchcraft.” Other big names included “The Girl from Ipanema” and old favorite “New York, New York.” Perhaps the highlight of the night, however, was the audience request for “I Like Jersey Best.” The group chose to spice up the song, which is a great favorite of John Pizzarelli’s fans and the unofficial jingle of New Jersey,  by cycling through a series of imitations of other singers while they played. Most hilarious imitations included Bruce Springsteen, the Bee Gees and the Beach Boys (complete with theatrical “ooo-eee-ooo”s).

Although people of all ages and music preferences could find something in this concert to enjoy, at its heart John Pizzarelli’s performance was nonetheless geared toward the jazz-literate members of the audience who knew and loved musicians like Frank Sinatra and Paul Simon in their heyday. As John Pizzarelli gestured to the audience, this most devoted section of the crowd gleefully recited lyrics like “Switch-a-rooney!” from “Satin Doll” or “the pinelands and the vinelands” from “I Like Jersey Best.” The Boston Globe credited John Pizzarelli with “reinvigorating the Great American Songbook and repopularizing jazz,” and after attending this concert, it was easy to see why: With the help of his band, John Pizzarelli revived an enthusiasm for jazz music rarely found in the stiffer, more formal concerts one frequently sees.