Gil Evans' Centennial Tribute, Plus a Conversation With John Pizzarelli and Jon Cleary's Video Exclusive


Photo Courtesy of Metronome/Archive Photos
Copyright Metronome/Getty

Performing at the Highline Ballroom in Manhattan, The Gil Evans Orchestra -- led by Gil's son Miles Evans -- will conclude a week of Gil Evans Centennial Celebrations on May 21st with a performance that pays tribute to the jazz arranger/composer icon. Appreciated for his development of "cool" jazz and fusion, Evans' recordings with trumpeter Miles Davis include the 1957-1960 run of classic albums Birth Of The Cool, Miles Ahead, Porgy And Bess, and Sketches Of Spain. Gil Evans also collaborated with many other jazz acts, including the Claude Thornhill Orchestra, Astrud Gilberto, Jaco Pastorius, and Maria Schneider. Here is the official promo video for the upcoming performance.


A Conversation With John Pizzarelli

Mike Ragogna: John, you're forty albums in, so we have a lot to talk about. But let's start with Double Exposure, your latest project. How did you choose the material for your projects?

John Pizzarelli: I make lists of what I want to record throughout the year on plane flights or train rides or in my mind, just driving the car around, or whatever it is I'm doing. There's always the idea, "What's the next record going to be?" I start to make lists, and for the last six to seven years, I've always started with the songs that I loved coming out of my teens and throughout my twenties, even going back as far as my very early years, so that's where The Beatles come from. The idea is that I've never had a way to present these songs that I felt would make it something that would stand out, but I needed something that I felt would tie everything together. It really comes back from when we did The Beatles record 16 years ago, where we took The Beatles' songs and we presented them as other songs, so Don Sebesky came up with the idea to do "Can't Buy Me Love" with the arrangements of Woody Herman's "Woodchopper's Ball"; we thought about "Moondance" when we did "Things We Said Today"; we presented "Here Comes the Sun" as a Jobim song.

So there was an idea there to present, not just saying, "Hey let's swing The Beatles." I'm finally getting this list together of these songs I really like -- Donald Fagen songs, Elvis Costello, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, The Beatles, etc. My wife and I had been doing this cross-referencing of other songs throughout. When we did the Ellington record, I thought about "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" and I thought, "Well, you know, that seems to really be a sad song, all these things that this guy did and he just doesn't get around anymore because he doesn't have the girl." So I always thought about, "Well, what if I put it in a minor key?" That's something Jess and I had done on her songs, switching the idea of the song that was in a major key but putting it in a minor key and then it changes the whole idea of the song. That's what we did with "St. Louis Toodle-Oo," which, actually, Steely Dan had made a record of, and we put those chords around the melody of "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" and it changed the whole idea of the song. Then we heard "I Feel Fine / Sidewinder" and I felt it would be great to take these ideas of jazz from the '50s and '60s and put that around some of these songs from the '70s and '80s and '90s, and I think that's how it became the foundation for what Double Exposure became.

Listen to John Pizzarelli's cover of "When I'm 64" from Meets The Beatles:

MR: Because we're inundated weekly with hundreds of releases, I think what happens as the decades go by is that we forget some of the great songwriters. On the other hand, there are songwriters who probably will be acknowledged for quite some time, like Bob Dylan. And you covered Joni Mitchell's "Free Man In Paris" here, she's another one of those songwriters.

JP: That's the other thing about growing up in the '60s and '70s, and your bio says you're one of the great interpreters or re-inventors of The Great American Songbook. For me, that's one part of the whole thing, but really, The Great American Songbook -- or basically, the songbook in general because I think three of the writers on this record are Canadian -- The Great North American Songbook doesn't stop. There are great songs that have been written since 1964 where they say "The Great American Songbook" ends because of "Sound Of Music" and Richard Rogers and all that jazz. But look at Joni Mitchell's body of work, it's incredible. Look at what The Beatles wrote... there are great songs. James Taylor, Donald Fagen -- there are songs out there that have been written, it's just that they're not in the same song form. They take a long time to get there, and you've got to figure out... what the style of presentation is, trying to find a way to make that all work. Taking Tom Waits' song and putting "Lush Life" inside of it was something that I thought was very interesting, in a way, that tied together what both of these guys are saying, the same thing, but putting it in their language.

MR: Yeah, with Double Exposure, you're suturing songs and styles, showing the relativity between the two worlds.

JP: It was Don Sebesky's idea. He was the one said, "I think it's Double Exposure" and then nobody could think of something that would say it better, and I think it really did.

MR: You cover "Drunk On The Moon," which is a Tom Waits classic and it comes from one of the great singer-songwriter albums of all time, The Heart of Saturday Night.

JP: Yeah, I actually referenced it in the liner notes that that was the record that came into our house from one of my sister's boyfriends. A lot of the records were brought in by these great guys that came over with their records. When I was 15 and 16, and here my sisters who were older than me, they'd bring these guys who'd bring these really cool records over. So we started to hear early Billy Joel records, get early Tom Waits records, Springsteen before Born To Run -- the Greetings From Asbury Park record and things like that. There were a lot of interesting things. Jackson Browne was one who came in early, so there were a lot of cool records that came in. For a household that had Sinatra, Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, Tony Bennett, and Ella Fitzgerald, here were these other records coming in, so it was very interesting the way that these records were getting mixed together.

MR: I loved all those artists and records as well, and I see the relationship between the two worlds. Where later pop records might be less in the musical setup, the lyrics were more evolved, meaningful, and specific, or at least they tried to be.

JP: Yeah, I first heard that in Jackson Browne's work. That was a big deal for me when I first heard the record Late For The Sky, and I was thinking, "Wow, this guy is not just moon-June-spoon-ing it. There's a whole other thing he's talking about." Then there were people like Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon that were writing very amazing things. The Court And Spark record, in particular, was a big one for me being in our house. That was really cross-pollination of jazz and pop music in the same place. I guess they grew up in that era too, they were part of that, but they were cross-referencing those things. A lot of them were influenced by The Beatles, I guess, but then there were all these other things. Wherever Joni went, it was always amazing; there were always amazing things that she started to do. She was always reinventing herself.

MR: With Joni, it's interesting, because later on in her career, she revisited her own material with the help of arranger Vince Mendoza. The recordings were a perfect blend of old school pop standards and contemporary lyrics, with an undercurrent of rock 'n' roll, creating a pretty unique style.

JP: Well, look at "Harvest Moon" and Neil Young. With Neil Young, there are also so many different things. I spent a plane ride last week just listening to a number of Neil Young songs, and it's quite amazing for songs that talk about what's going on in the world in 1968, '69, and '70. There are love songs like "Harvest Moon," then there's "Cinnamon Girl," then there's "Heart Of Gold," "Rocking In The Free World." It's amazing with all the different hats that he wears and all the different things. "Harvest Moon," in particular, just stuck out as another one of those songs. He's just writing whatever comes to mind, I guess. So many different things flying around.

MR: Since we're also talking about heritage, you're the son of legendary guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli. You inherited a lot from your dad, didn't you.

JP: (laughs) Well, you know, when I was 21, when I was just coming out of my teens and looking for a voice, I spent between the ages of 18 and 25 thinking I could be like Billy Joel, or I could be James Taylor or Peter Frampton even. So I was ready with all these things, but I had a lot of solo gigs around town, playing the guitar and doing things, and it was my father who pointed me in the direction of Nat King Cole. I was making my money by playing with my father, but he said, "You're the only guy who plays jazz to support his rock 'n' roll habit." My father always pointed me in the right way... it was the Nat Cole repertoire the he pointed me to. It was George Van Eps, 7-string guitar master, about whom my father said, "Listen to this." It was those kind of records that really informed what I was going to do for the next 30 years, and it was all around that time between 1978 and 1984.

MR: Did he sit you down and teach you as a kid?

JP: No, the only thing he told me was when I was about six-and-a-half, he gave me a banjo and my father said, "I'm going to take you to my uncle, the same guy who taught me, and he's going to teach you how to play the banjo." I said, "Okay," so I learned "Bye-Bye Blues," "Bye-Bye Blackbird," or "Bye-bye" anything. So I played for six years, and then at 12, I picked up the guitar, because there were guitars everywhere in our house -- our couch, the corner, anywhere. I played along with Elton John records. My sister had Elton John records, so the first song I learned to play on the guitar was "Country Comfort," which is from the Tumbleweed Connection record. So I'm playing the guitar and then my father shared me with my bands that he said, "Well, if you could learn all these crazy guitar solos from all the guys you like, why don't you listen to the Django Reinhardt record? Or even better, I did these duets with George Barnes, so learn George Barne's part and we can play duets on my gigs." He was just pointing me in the right direction, and I just loved it. I liked listening to music and trying to learn stuff off the record, and he saw me, and he just needed to push me in the right direction.

MR: John, what is your favorite album of all time?

JP: Favorite album of all time? Wow... there are so many. I think Abbey Road is pretty close to the top of the list. It's funny. You could say Abbey Road or you could say In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning, because they're the types of records you put on and say, "Oh, I'll just listen to one or two tracks." The other day, I put it on the plane and I listened to it all the way through, and I'm sitting there thinking, "It's the most incredible thing." You always discover something on that record. I feel the same thing when I listen to Sinatra In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning. I constantly hear things -- I hear George Van Eps playing the guitar, I hear stuff that Sinatra is doing, his singing. I hear sweet muted trumpet things, and it's amazing. So I think those two. And Frampton Comes Alive! would win an honorable mention.

MR: Ah, there's Frampton again. You also are a rocker.

JP: I'm more than a rocker. (laughs)

MR: True, apparently you're also a Boston Red Sox fan.

JP: (laughs) Well, there are always some faults I guess that are in everyone, and that's the cross I have to bare.

MR: (laughs) It's interesting because you don't dare say that you're a Red Sox fan when you're visiting New York or New Jersey.

JP: You know that I walk my daughter to school every morning when I'm in town, and I usually wear my Red Sox hat. I've been a New York Giants football fan, a Rangers fan, so I had to take the Red Sox hat off while the Giants were making their move, because they'd think I like the Patriots. There are many problems when you walk someone to school and what hat you're going to wear in the morning. These are things I need to figure out at 7:45 in the morning.

MR: Speaking of wearing many hats, you, sir, are also a radio host with your wife, Jessica Molaskey.

JP: I am. I have a little show called Radio Deluxe that we do right out of our living room, which is an amazing thing. I actually found out that one of our major listeners is James Taylor. About two weeks ago, I was out in California doing the Paul McCartney business for his new record and James Taylor grabbed me, and he says, "Gee, John, I love that Radio Deluxe that you and your wife do. That's just fantastic, tell me all about it!" I was thinking, "Is this conversation happening?" Was it one of those "weird punch" things? I'm in LA, so who knows. We do it out of living room once a week, it's on about 40 stations throughout the United States and Canada. It's been a lot of fun, it's basically just talking about our day and what music we love. We play everything, all the music we've just talked about.

MR: By the way, I listen to it as well, and it's a joy to listen to.

JP: It's amazing people are listening.

MR: (laughs) No, people are definitely listening. There are a couple of times when I was driving across country, and your show actually kept me sane in the midst of all of the fire and brimstone programming.

JP: Yes, I can understand that. Thank you very much.

MR: How do you feel about having recorded on 40 albums at this point?

JP: It's pretty amazing. I know there are 20 just on my own, and there have been a lot of other fun ones. It's amazing. I always feel like when I get to 20 now, it's been about 30 years that I've been working, and I feel like I have a number that I feel I can always raise. You know, I've been doing that for 30 years, and I always wanted to get to a good number, and I feel I'm finally getting to that good number where I can start that argument with one of those statements.

MR: I bet you can remember those years as if they were yesterday.

JP: I can remember hearing those records that we've talked about, meeting people on the way and not realizing how important those things were. I'm looking at a poster right here in my living room that says "In Concert, Frank Sinatra, Special Guest John Pizzarelli." Who would think that would be a poster that existed in the world ever.

MR: Tell us about that one, the Frank Sinatra experience.

JP: I was lucky. I was on RCA at the time and Sinatra was doing a tour of Germany. Since BMG owned RCA and BMG, being a Germany company, the Bertelsmann group said, "You should get Pizzarelli to open the show." They couldn't get anybody to open the show, and two months before, in April, I was told the concerts were June 1st through the 6th. The smallest group was Dortmund, it was about 5,000. Everything after that was over 10,000. I'd come out of work in clubs that maybe had seen 1,000 in a concert hall at that point, so it was pretty amazing to get out there and go, "Okay, here's 20,000 in Derby Park in Hamburg." It was amazing, just the whole aura about opening for Sinatra. The only thing closer could be playing with Paul McCartney. That was the thing that would take you over the top of that, the only guy who has that kind of juice anymore in the industry, you know?

MR: Before we leave Sinatra for McCartney, what was your interaction like with Frank. Is there a story?

JP: Oh yeah, of course. I did meet him. The short story was I was taken down a hallway in Berlin, I shook his hand. He didn't really say anything to me and I thought that would be the story. But as I was just about to walk away, he said, "Eat something, you look bad." So those were my five words from Sinatra.

MR: Words you'll cherish forever!

JP: Yeah, I'm going to put them on my tombstone. "Should Have Eaten Something," it's going to say.

MR: And, of course, you recorded the project Dear Mr. Sinatra. You also recorded Dear Mr. Cole.

JP: Yeah, I did two Nat Cole records. The first one was a request, actually. It was the fourth record I made, it was for RCA in Japan, and it was with Benny Green, Christian McBride and myself, so that was a pretty amazing little record to make. At the end of the decade, we book-ended it with a record called P.S. Mr. Cole. That was with Ray Kennedy and my brother on bass. Basically, I couldn't ignore the fact that the reason I do what I do is Nat King Cole, so it was fun to get that done. I think, in the future, there will be another Sinatra record, I'm also sure of that. In the next five to six years, we'll bookend the Sinatra record. I don't think you can limit it to one record.

MR: Wouldn't it be interesting for someone to tackle Come Fly With Me, the whole album, hint, hint?

JP: Very good, I like that idea. I like the idea of taking a record and saying, "Let's just address this one album." I like that idea, and if I use it, I'll get the correct spelling.

MR: (laughs) So, Paul McCartney...Paul McCartney?

JP: That's a good question. (laughs) That was the question I asked Tommy LiPuma when he called me. He had called me about six weeks before the session. He left a bunch of messages on my machine. I called him back and he just said, "I got this date and I think you'd be perfect for it. And I said, "Paul McCartney??" He said, "Yeah he's going to make this record of standards and we love the way you play, and your rhythm guitar would complement the songs he's doing." So I thought, "Great!" I played on 10 of the 14 cuts, so I was really lucky. It was an amazing experience to be part of that.

MR: Were you on "Valentine"?

JP: Yes, I'm on "Valentine." They added Eric Clapton playing the classical guitar, but I'm in there. He actually recorded it a bunch of times. He did it with a big orchestra with Johnny Mandel, and then he also he did one version where he played the piano and Bob Hurst on bass...myself accompanying him. I felt like I was part of The Beatles at that moment, because he was doing the piano playing and we played it like we were being filmed for Let It Be. That's how I felt. It was so wild because I was watching this guy with the headphones singing, and he was playing the pianos and I was trying to find a George Harrison guitar part to play behind him. Then he said, "This is really great, but we need to do something that fits on the record. The idea, the attitude isn't right." We were like, "Can we get copies of it though?" We were so happy. Then he recorded it again with Diana Krall on piano and the same group the next day, and that's the track that you hear on the record. He took it out to Abbey Road and he added Clapton and they added the strings out there.

MR: I thought his performance of the song was a real highlight of the Grammys this year.

JP: Yeah, I was there, I was right behind him. I outsmarted myself, I was in the dark. Anthony Wilson and I were playing guitar on it, we memorized our part. I felt there would be no stand in front of us, so we'll look great sitting right behind Paul McCartney, but without the stand or a stand light, we were in the dark, so it's funny because we outsmarted ourselves.

MR: John, What advice might you have for new artists?

JP: Oh, me? If you're talking about vocalists, I could start there. In this style of music, I think the best place to start is always as basic as you can start. I think singing the melody and getting yourself established is always a good thing. I think what Norman Granz did with Ella Fitzgerald, making all those songbook records, though she wasn't too keen on the idea. The idea was to get as much Ella Fitzgerald out there singing songs that everybody knew, in a sense. I think that's why that Lewis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald record is so cool. They're just singing those standards so beautifully with the best rhythm section in the world. I think that's the thing. I've said that to a number of people. There's a piano player that I really like who I saw playing a bunch of Johnny Mercer songs one night. I said, "You should make that record." And he's made some really good records with complex ideas, but I said, "You know, if you just start with that very simple record... You have a nice little trio, you do Johnny Mercer, it's a great place to start." I think it's always best to start somewhere simple and then reach out from there. I may have started out a little too crazy too, but My Blue Heaven record was a good place to start.

MR: Do you have a favorite recording in your Dad's catalog?

JP: Oh, yeah, I think there are a number of things he's made on the Arbors Records label in the past ten to twenty years. There's one thing called Manhattan Swing with John Bunch and Jay Leonhart. They do a great Duke Ellington record. It just sums it up, listening to that group throughout the '90s. They were so great together. My father made a couple of really good solo records, one's called April Kisses and any one of those solo things that he's done on Arbors. We made a really good one the other day called Twogether. We played together from 1980-1990, and we made that record in early 2000. It's a good representation of what we used to do and I really like that record too.

MR: Nice, making records with your father. How can you beat that?

JP: Yeah, we've had a lot of fun making records together, just discussing music. Growing up to try and reach my father's level as a guitar player has been really fun. So that's just a great gift.

MR: How would you place your father in the whole history of jazz guitarists?

JP: I think he was a sideman's sideman for years, coming out of the studios of New York. I would put him in the Top 10 of the guys. There's obviously Joe Pass...I think Wes Montgomery is a god, like Django is a god. There were different degrees of guitar player. But of the jazz guys, I definitely think my Dad's in there because I think he was a complete guitarist. He was as good a sideman as he was a leader. He could play as good single notes as he could accompany somebody. I really think he had all the gifts, and that was just as important to him as being in the Top 10. He wouldn't worry about being in the Top 10 as long as he was on the Paul McCartney record too. He was just as happy playing rhythm guitar behind Paul McCartney as he would behind me. He was just a complete guitar player.

MR: What do you think about this Jessica Molaskey person?

JP: I think she's responsible for why Double Exposure exists. I think the thing about her, she challenges me on a musical level. It's such a great gift to work together. She's got such great ideas. Her ideas are so good that people think they come from me. They can't believe that this woman, this "Broadway" person could think up these things. They would say, "Oh it's John's arrangement." I would go, "It's not my arrangement, that's her idea. These are all her ideas that we made happen." She says, "I think we have to do this, we have to put 'Cloudburst' with 'Not Getting Married Today.'" We have such a good time working together, we're constantly challenging each other to come up with things, so Double Exposure really comes from doing a couple of records. She did one called Sitting in Limbo, which is really where this Double Exposure comes from. There are ideas on that record that have come to fruition on Double Exposure. I love working with Jessica because she's a great musician and she's just smart as smart.

MR: By the way, you collaborated on "Take A Lot of Pictures," the original track on Double Exposure.

JP: Right. Well, you know, we wrote that a couple of years ago. That was also a Frank Sinatra expression. When we would watch him backstage getting his picture taken, they'd say, "We take another picture, Frank?" He'd say, "Take a lot of pictures," implying he wasn't coming back, so take a lot of pictures. Another I read in a book called The Way You Wear Your Hat was the expression, "It looks like rain." If someone was coming up and talking to him and he wanted to get out of there, he would say to his buddy, "It looks like rain," and they knew that was the signal to get out. That was the idea. I gave those two phrases to Jess and said, "We should write something about that." That's basically how the songs get written. She says okay and she writes the lyrics, and I put it to music. It's mostly her lyric and my music, and we set it to "Popsicle Toes." The idea of after "Popsicle Toes," after the initial hit of "how fun was that," you realize that things have gotten a little crazy.

MR: "Popsicle Toes," throwing in a Michael Franks song.

JP: The Art Of Tea.

MR: Yup, The Art Of Tea. Were you a fan of Kenny Rankin?

JP: Oh please! That was another record that was brought in, Silver Morning. I really loved The Kenny Rankin Album with the Don Costa arrangements. That was just phenomenal. All my early coffee house guitar playing in college..."Here's That Rainy Day," "House of Gold," "Haven't We Met," and "Penny Lane," all from those two records.

MR: He was an artist who never was as big a star as he should have been.

JP: It's true, it was really amazing. We had him on our radio show and he just played the guitar for two hours. We were happy enough to just let him do that. Then he passes away just about two years later. It was funny because he made his way to New York and we all were able to hook up. Everybody got to be friends with him for a brief moment of time. But that voice, and that guitar playing was always so singular. You always felt, "THERE'S something. Geez. What a sound!" It was just amazing.

MR: Yeah, his version of "Birembau," his originals "SIlver Morning," "Haven't We Met," and "Doing It In The Name Of Love," plus his amazing guitar Everybody forgets just how great a guitar player he was too.

JP: Yeah, "People Get Ready," I think he did too on one of those records. He was a wonderful guitar player and that voice was just soaring.

MR: Yeah, and I would say that he's got the definite version. That was on Silver Morning too.

JP: Yeah, that's on the John Pizzarelli iPod. (laughs)

MR: (laughs) Well I don't want to take up too much more of your time, but I want to slip in your cover of "Diamond Girl," which has that Miles Davis vibe going on.

JP: Thank you! It was funny because a year ago, we got to bring the horns into Birdland. I had a lot of these arrangements started, we did "Walk Between the Raindrops." We actually had Thad Jones' "Tip Toe" written out for the four horns. It was these kinds of literal translations. We even had "So What" before "Diamond Girl." It was really too much. So what I said to Don was, "We gotta get rid of the bass line, but we can keep the vibe of that song." But then I thought "Diamond Girl" is like "So What," so that little horn figure in there informed the Miles Davis business, and then we had our little Miles Davis solo, and we had our Coltrane thing in the back. I was really happy with that. I really thought that "Diamond Girl" and "I Feel Fine" really bookended the record with the idea of Double Exposure.

MR: Considering your back catalog, this album seems like it's the result of equal parts experience and experiment.

JP: Well, thank you very much. I'm really pleased with it because it's probably 10 years in the making. I've been putting those songs on lists and coming up with ideas, but finally, coming up with a way to present it and I'm really pleased with it. It was long road to hoe to get to this.

MR: John, thank you for all of your time. You were very generous with your time, and we got a lot of great stories. Let's do this again, it seems like there is still an awful lot we still hadn't talked about.

JP: I have plenty of time, anytime. Thank you so much, I appreciate it.

1. I Feel Fine / Sidewinder
2. Harvest Moon
3. Traffic Jam / The Kicker
4. Ruby Baby
5. Alison
6. Rosalinda's Eyes
7. In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed
8. Drunk On The Moon / Lush Life
9. Walk Between The Raindrops
10. Free Man In Paris
11. Take A Lot Of Pictures
12. I Can Let Go Now
13. Diamond Girl

Transcribed by Narayana Windenberger


"Everything I do gohn be funky from now on' pretty much sums it up. I can't remember the first time I heard this tune But I can recall wishing to myself that I'd written it. It is about as good a mission statement for me as a young teenager soaking up every drop of New Orleans culture as you can get.

"Luckily for me I was able to get to New Orleans before my mold was fully cast, early enough for the cayenne and second line to be written into my DNA. This, of all the songs available for this record, resonates particularly with me. 'Gonh be myself, gohn do my thing, little soul can't do no harm, cos everything I do Gohn be funky, from now on.'"

Jon Cleary "Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky"