THE BOOK SHELF: John Pizzarelli's "World On a String" and Michael Feinstein's "The Gershwins and Me"

By Steven Suskin
02 Dec 2012

John Pizzarelli
Photo by Krissie Fullerton
Personality and characters; the book is overloaded with them. One can expect musicians to be a colorful lot, at least in the retelling. Pizzarelli relates how his old New Jersey home was a way station for jazz musicians before and after gigs, his mother providing piping hot, never-ending platters of eggplant for whoever might stop by. (He tells the tale of when KOS decided to make his first Pizzarelli stop on less than an hour's notice, causing Mom to use — horrors! — store-bought sauce. And how KOS — which is Pizzarelli lingo for Benny Goodman/"King of Swing" — called her the next day, pleading for the recipe for the secret sauce. Which she couldn't tell him was Ragu, out of the jar.) Pizzarelli being Pizzarelli, he even includes Mama Pizzarelli's Eggplant Recipe in the book. To quote the Bard, or Frank Loesser at least, "I must try it. (Early in the week.)"

This is a modest fellow, despite his success. Success, for a jazz musician/bandleader, can be measured by the respect of his peers, 40 or so full albums, and a nonending string of bookings in the most important clubs in the world — to most of which he is invited back annually. But he remains, on stage and on page, humble and unprepossessing. His biggest thrills, it seems, are playing with his idols, ranging from KOS to Frank Sinatra (on the one hand) and James Taylor and Paul McCartney (on the other). A typical Pizzarelli tale: in 1998 he recorded "John Pizzarelli Meets the Beatles," which RCA — his then label — so disliked that they buried it. In 2011, Pizzarelli is called to a recording session for McCartney's "Kisses on the Bottom." He is introduced to the man, whose first words were: "You made a Beatles CD." Adding, after a pause, "it's very good." That's the sort of life Pizzarelli has led.

What comes through, loud and clear, is what might be considered the Pizzarelli credo — and this applies to Bucky, John, brother Martin (the superb bassist) and Jessica: no matter how unimportant the gig, always do the best you possibly can. And if you find yourself playing on a lousy night to an audience of only two, give them an even better show!

The only other thing that need be said about "World on a String" is that sitting alone reading it, I found myself erupting in laughter at least a dozen times. (KOS in boxer shorts, Bucky with his "higher, higher," the gall bladder joke, etc.) Not what you expect from an autobiography of a guitar player, or an autobiography of just about anyone except Groucho Marx. And yes, Pizzarelli includes a backstage chronicle of his one Broadway musical, that Mercer revue Dream. Which you should find highly entertaining, unless your name is Lesley Ann.

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