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JVC Jazz Festival-New York City
Bucky Pizzarelli's 80th Birthday Celebration
The Sunny Side of the Street of Jazz
Monday, June 19th 2006 - Kaye Playhouse @ Hunter College, New York
by John Coltelli
photo by Paul Mendez

Bucky Pizzarelli
with Howard Alden, Harry Allen, Gene Bertoncini, Paul Faulise
John Frosk, Fuss Kassoff, Jay Leonhart, Tony Monte
Ken Peplowski, John Pizzarelli, Kenny Rankin, Martin Pizzarelli
Tony Tedesco, Larry Fuller, Mike Renzi, Aaron Weinstein
Warren Vache & the Wire Choir (Southern Illinois University)

Produced by John Pizzarelli

On a rainy evening in late June, the high rise luxury apartment buildings of Park Avenue form a corridor that leads to the Kaye Playhouse located at Hunter College in New York City. This 650 seat auditorium will host the 80th birthday celebration of noted Jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli and will feature performers such as his son, John Pizzarelli, Kenny Rankin, Jay Leonhart and other noteworthy friends who are scheduled to drop by. This intimate setting, filled with many who remember much of Mr. Pizzarelli's more than fifty years of performing, will resonate with the sounds of classic feel good Jazz and the emotions stirred by family and friends.

Born the son of a Patterson, New Jersey grocer, Bucky Pizzarelli learned guitar and banjo at a very early age from his uncle Pete. Departing the Union Avenue store as a child, Bucky would often carry his instrument along with the groceries he was to deliver. With his rounds completed, he would often times perform for his captive, yet willing customers. Later years saw this commitment to the instrument reflected in performances with Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Tony Bennett and Benny Goodman, with whom he toured for many years. He also replaced the legendary Django Reinhardt in Stephan Grappelli's trio. His accomplished strumming created a great rhythmic powerhouse that was the foundation for many bands, including The Tonight Show Band led by trumpeter Doc Severenson.

Hosted by Mr. Pizzarelli's son, John, the concert began with duet versions performed by father and son of, "It's Been a Long, Long Time" and "Don't Take Your Love From Me". These songs set the stage for a retrospective that would take us back to a time when Jazz was America's popular music and when Swing dominated the charts. Clarinetist Ken Peplowski continued this retrospective with, "A Little World Called Home", as did saxophonist Harry Allen on "If I'm Lucky".

The feistier, 40's Swing portion of the show, with horns blazing, gave a rare, authentic view into the history of the music and made the bygone era come to life. The time of an ever-expanding America, a country which shortly thereafter found itself at war, was reflected in the dynamic, full bodied sound these veterans churned out. The thumping energy and unleashed spirit that helped build a nation resounded off the Kaye's walls and the feel good nature of the music spoke of optimism and joy. There was no angst here, no blues, no self doubt, just the ebullient sound of a music machine doing what its done best, bring smiles to the faces of it's audience. This was the sunny side of the street of Jazz.

Asked about this approach to the music John Pizzarelli asserts, "Enjoy what you're doing, music should always be a joy, whether you're playing hot jazz or just accompanying in a little band, it's always fun to do and that's the thing. My dad loves playing rhythm, or playing lead, anything about the guitar is fun for him. This is feel good music, it's the best jazz there is!"

Bassist Jay Leonhart gave further testimony about this optimistic approach before his performance, "To Bucky, the glass isn't half full, it's always flowing over!"

Throughout the performance, a slide show of pictures straight from the family album made their way to the screen behind the performers. Photos of Bucky's father, his uncle, the family owned store, all made the audience feel as though they were in the Pizzarelli's living room, witnesses to a holiday gathering and the ensuing musical accompaniment.

Afterwards, responding to a reporter's remark about this intimate living room- family feel, John Pizzarelli adds, "That's always the feeling, you know, yeah that's exactly what it was like. That's why I had all the guys stay on the stage at the end."

The concert took a hair pin turn with the introduction of guitarist/vocalist Kenny Rankin whose solo performance on, "Pardon Me, Didn't We Meet", and his bluesy, subdued version of George Harrison's, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" stood in bass relief to the sunnier material we had been treated to earlier. Rankin's accompaniment and angelically voiced bending of blues notes were therefore all the more powerful and inspiring. Mr. Pizzarelli's influence on Kenny Rankin has been profound and was commented on after the show.

"In 1962, I quit the group I was with in Vegas and bought a $50 dollar guitar and a Peter, Paul and Mary songbook.", Mr. Rankin goes on, "When I got to New York I went to Manny's on 48th street and I picked up a Guild Mark V and a book of chords. Then I went to Don and I said, how's this for a beginning?" ‘That's good', "he said and while pointing to Bucky, he says,' you see that guy over there, keep your eye on him!' "Bucky showed me my first A Major 7th, so to know Bucky is to love him, he's just an extraordinary man and a wonderful soul and I'm just privileged to be in his life!"

Mentoring young musicians has always been an important part of the elder Pizzarelli's life. Considering his use of the rare 7 string guitar, he has taught many about the deeper, more expansive sound this additional string can render.

Having begun in Russia during the late 1800's, the 7 string guitar is capable of a heavier bottom end and allows for expanded chord voicing possibilities. Additionally, it became possible to play bass lines while playing chords and lead solos. Introduced in the United States by George Van Eps in the 1930's, this unusual guitar's second bass string, tuned to low A, is in large part responsible for the full, rich tone evident in the Kaye Playhouse this evening. It is also this seventh string that helped develop the heavy rhythmic style Mr. Pizzarelli exhibits and created the chord solo style of lead guitar work

The modern era has felt some of this seven string blazing when guitarist Steve Vai adopted the seventh string and Ibanez built him an axe in 1990, in turn, younger players in heavy metal bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit continued the tradition.

Beyond the technical mastery exhibited throughout the concert, it was John Pizzarelli's chemistry with, and concern for, his father that shone brightly this evening. The love and respect John had for his mentor were self evident, whether it was displayed in getting him a stool to sit on or in his gently handing over an instrument to play.

Bringing the concert to a fitting conclusion were six young guitarists from Southern Illinois University's music program doing, "In A Mist" from a Bix Beiderbecke piano roll transcribed for guitar.

With the elder Pizzarelli looking on, the influence he's exerted over music during the course of the last half century and the continuing legacy his pioneering efforts have wrought were clear.

As the crowd filed out the 68th street exit of the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College and into the New York night, they were touched by the Pizzarelli's musical tour de force and their stroll down the sunny side of the street of jazz.

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Publishing Date: 04/09/2006

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