Hits from the American Songbook

Conductor Ken Hsieh Featured Performer John Pizzarelli
Dates 6 October, 2006 Venue Orpheum Theatre Reviewer John Jane

John Pizzarelli

The choice of "Hits from the American Songbook" as the title for this Thanksgiving weekend concert at Vancouver’s Opheum theatre with John Pizzarelli and Vancouver Symphony Orchestra was right on target. This remarkable collection of tunes written by the likes of Strayhorn, Kern, the Gershwins et al and known as the Great American Songbook has always had a special relationship with jazz.

Since Pizzarelli and his trio last performed in Vancouver in January, last year, when they gave a Nat King Cole tribute show, Larry Fuller has replaced Ray Kennedy on piano. Fuller may not be as sparklingly improvisational as his predecessor, but nonetheless does bring to the unit a unique style nurtured from his time playing with Ray Brown. Younger brother Martin Pizzarelli and Tony Tedesco provide a solid anchor on stand-up bass and drums respectively.

Led by the charismatic Pizzarelli, this complaisant quartet of jazz musicians are at the top of their game. Their repertoire, based on the American Songbook serves up laid-back interpretations of swing tunes and timeless jazz standards. Add to this a stellar orchestra, and all the pieces seemed to be in place for an evening of top-drawer entertainment.

As a singer (John) Pizzarelli has the same pleasant crooning style as Harry Connick Jr. And though he may lack the vocal range of this talented artist, he interprets these well-known songs with eloquent expression.

While the focus in the second half was on the music Harold Arlen, the fare presented by the Pizzarelli band in the first set was pretty eclectic, starting with a harmonious rendition of the Gershwin classic “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.” This was followed by the quartet’s temporary departure from the American Songbook repertoire with “Estaté” (Summer) sung in Italian.

The VSO’s lush orchestrations, under the energetic direction of conductor, Ken Hsieh, generally blended well with the jazz quartet’s loose and improvisational style. The exception was every Sinatra wanna-be’s favourite karaoke song, “Witchcraft”, when the orchestra overwhelmed them with a wall-of-sound.

The quartet closed out the first half with the instrumental “Honeysuckle Rose,” featuring Larry Fuller on solo piano.

Pizzarelli’s musical talents are often matched by his wry humor and he occasionally likes to offer his audience amusing anecdotes. One that he is particularly fond of relating is when the band opened a few dates for Frank Sinatra in 1993. In those days it was difficult for even an opening act to penetrate the tight circle of protectors surrounding the singer. When the Jersey native finally got close enough to “Ol Blue Eyes” to shake his hand, he was coolly told to “Go eat something, you look awful.”

The Sinatra story led to Harold Arlen’s quintessential salon song, ” One for My Baby” - finding Pizzarelli sharply lyrical. In contrast, he was brisk and swinging on "That Old Black Magic" and “Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead”

From start to finish, this was a performance that succeeded in every way, affirming the potent association between straight-up jazz and the Great American Songbook is ever-vibrant.

© 2006 John Jane