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By Alex Distefano
When I was a teenager, Guitar Playermagazine was de rigueur reading for any self-respecting picker. In those days before the Satriani sensibility drove the esteemed publication, classic axe-slingers of every bent were featured in its pages; several even wrote columns for the mag. In Guitar Player I first discovered masters of every generation and persuasion, musicians to whom a kid overdosing on early 1970s rock & roll wouldn't otherwise have been exposed. The essential lesson: for every Jimi Hendrix or Duane Allman, the world also needs a Steve Cropper or a Freddie Green—guys who live and labor by a code of restraint and good taste, and whose performances are guided strictly by musical instinct. Man does not live by teen-acceptable volume levels and "holy shit" licks alone.
Bucky Pizzarelli, already a veteran jazzbo by that time, was among the looming figures who sometimes wrote for Guitar Player. When I sought out his records, I found Pizz-pickin' as elegant as a Faberge egg, slick as a drum of silicone, tasty as a sack fulla hot Krispy Kremes and always—always—flawlessly musical, each note performed in perfect service of the melody. Pizzarelli was versatile enough to play with the most esteemed jazz musicians in the world while contributing to countless classic rock & roll sessions. Even if you don't realize it, you've heard him play hundreds, perhaps thousands of times.
Meanwhile, Bucky's son, John Pizzarelli, surfaced in the early '80s playing jazz guitar in a style that was anathema to dear old Dad's. His was a showy, aggressive attack that owed as much to rock & rollers who (as Springsteen once wrote) "flash guitars just like switchblades" as to Bucky's highbrow self-discipline. John has become a jazz star in own right, usually playing alongside his brother, the extraordinary bassist Martin Pizzarelli. The family Pizz frequently tour and record together; they appear Friday at Founder's Hall in Costa Mesa.
"I have a lot of fun hanging out with the guys on the road," says the affable Bucky, now 77. "We read each other and we know what to do. You know, when you go on the road and have to play with a lot of musicians that you've never met it can be kind of hard. It's always something different. But when I'm with John and Martin, we can do a lot of great stuff."
Although both Pizzarelli guitarists play seven-strings, Bucky's influence on his sons isn't as complete as one might think. Both sons were independent-minded music lovers who journeyed wherever their ears took them, even if Dad might wince at times.
"John had a rock & roll band and the cops were at our house every time they'd rehearse," Bucky recalls with a laugh. "John and Martin were gung-ho about playing a lot, but they dug up a lot of stuff on their own and were mostly self-taught."
The great irony here is that while Bucky might not have quite understood his children's affinity for rock & roll, he was out there playing it every night. "I did studio recordings for 12 straight years, and I'd say 65 to 75 percent was rock & roll—all kinds of wacky sounds with the guitar, wah-wah pedals and all that stuff. It was just one session to another. We'd do three sessions in one day. I did 'Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,'" he says with a laugh. "I did the first six or seven hits of Dion and the Belmonts. They were good records, though: 'The Wanderer,' 'Teenager in Love,' and all that. Great records."
Things have come full circle. These days it's John Pizzarelli who harbors rock & roll resentments of his own. When I interviewed John last year, he expressed outrage at the current vogue among rock guys to record pop standards. He held up Rod Stewart's ballyhooed It Had to Be You: The Great American Songbook for particular opprobrium, saying it didn't measure up to "the music my father has been playing for 50 years."
Pops concurred: "For rock guys, the minute they start going into standards, they're in trouble. They don't know how to do them the way they're supposed to be done," he says, resentment gland all a-flexin'. "When they hear Sinatra singing, they go, 'Oh, I can do that.' Well no, they can't do that!"
Maybe everyone concerned ought to go back and reread those back issues of Guitar Player. Bucky, a dyed-in-the-wool jazz cat, was once hip enough to play with Dion, god of the Bronx rockers. Meanwhile, John himself readily admits that Peter Frampton was a prime influence on his own style, but doesn't think rock & rollers are worthy of performing Daddy's precious standards.
My take: Dion fuckin' rules. So do the Pizzarellis. Frampton made some cheesy records, but was one mean mutha on the guitar. I prefer Sinatra to Rod Stewart, but think Rod's most embarrassing work was his '70s disco crap, not his well-intentioned standards. Can we save the hostility for people worthy of the energy? To the best of my knowledge, for instance, no one ever wrote about Mark McGrath, Fred Durst or Cher in the pages of Guitar Player—seems as good a place to start as any.The First Family of Cool featuring the John Pizzarelli Trio with Ray Kennedy, Martin Pizzarelli, Bucky Pizzarelli & Jessica Molasky perform at Founders Hall, 650 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 556-2787. Fri.-Sat., 7:30 & 9:30 p.m. $65.