Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

December 13, 2019

REVIEW: Mahaiwe, John Pizzarelli Big Band

Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, Great Barrington, MA
December 7, 2019
by Lisa M. Covi

John Pizzarelli
John Pizzarelli Big Band packed the Mahaiwe for what is an annual show. Pizzarelli vocalized with his jazz guitar while fronting a 16-piece orchestra that performed fresh takes on classic, but wide-ranging selections. A consummate entertainer, Pizzarelli connected with familiar fans and new audience members via stories of his distinguished career, amusing patter and even a vaudevillian “spit-take.” His repertoire, customized arrangements of American songbook classics, conveyed his group's mastery of swing, call and response, and tight improvisations.

Some featured performers included Andy Fusco, a saxophonist who previously played with Buddy Rich, John Mosca on trombone, and Konrad Pazkudzki on piano. Pizzarelli's wife, Jessica Molaskey, who appears with him on his weekly “Radio Deluxe” show and contributed lyrics to his arrangement of Tizo's “Perdito,” was unfortunately home with a cold and did not appear. Pizzarelli dominates with his personality and performance, but he is also quick to credit contribution and skill to his band.

Aside from the novelty selection “I Like Jersey Best,” little of the music was composed less than 50 years ago. Another exception, “Nat King Cool” from the 2019 album, “For Centennial Reasons,” is the third tribute he's released to the iconic jazzman that inspired Pizzarelli. At the top of the show, Sinatra-style vocals on “Love is Here to Stay” was a little slow for my taste, but I was swept away by Brandon Lee's soulful trumpet solo and the sweet quote at the end of the song. The first set ended with Holiday selections such as Leroy Anderson's “Sleigh Ride,” substituting rhythmic horn bleats for the famous whip crack. The second set started with several Johnny Mercer pieces including a particularly expressive performance of “Come Rain, Come Shine.” During a pause in Duke Ellington's “C. Jam Blues,” toe tapping in the audience was audible.

Improvisations tended to be note-heavy and fast in tempo. During several call and response passages, the musicians seamlessly passed the solos back and forth. Each instrument was separately amplified and the mixer let us hear the highlighted musicians with only a few slips. Pizzarelli's voice was a bit nasal at first but within the first few numbers opened up as he demonstrated his mastery of scatting the notes he plays with technical proficiency. Overall, the evening was dependably and vastly enjoyable entertainment by dynamic performers who brought New Jersey charm with stylistic big band flair. The energy, enthusiasm, and swing of Pizzarelli's Big Band made timeless songs relevant and real.