“So I had Pat’s music and it was really deep and I thought this is something that I figured I would never do! But I loved this music so I began to pick the tunes I really loved and would then break the song down to what I imagined it would have been before Pat would give the song to the group and say ‘Here guys, take it away!'”John Pizzarelli
Jazz Guitarist/Vocalist John Pizzarelli, son of Bucky and Ruth Pizzarelli, brother to Martin (Upright Bass) and Mary Pizzarelli (Classical Guitar) has been a guitarist since starting out at the tender age of six. He has since become a very successful recording and performing artist on the world’s stage and in this informative and entertaining interview John shares with us the somewhat heart-breaking story behind the making of “Better Days Ahead: Solo Guitar Takes on Pat Metheny”, John’s latest release, as well as the challenges of recording an album in these difficult COVID times. A most inspiring and informative read. Enjoy!* 🙂
JGL: Hi John and great to see you. Before we start I would like to thank you for taking the time to speak with Jazz Guitar Life, it is greatly appreciated. And with that said how are you doing?
JP: I’m ok you know. We’ve been here (John and his wife Jessica) in this little cabin, which is just two rooms and a bedroom, and we got up here about a year ago and you know, doing what I can do, hanging in there and practising a lot!
JGL: So it would seem…lol! So as a result of the pandemic you’ve been isolating up in your cabin for about year now?
JP: Yeah. I was working at Birdland and I was doing this show with Jimmy Green, Mike Karn, Isaiah Thompson and Andy Watson. It was a show I put together called the New Standard and there was a Michael MacDonald song, a Stevie Wonder tune, Van Morrison, Elton John, a George Harrison tune, there was about twelve tunes that I picked that were pop hits but I found ways to translate them to Jazz and I had a great band and I was thinking that we would do a week, which would be the same two sets a night for five nights, so ten sets of the same tunes, then over the weekend we’d go into the studio and record them.
That Thursday, after the sixth set of the show, Broadway had just shut down, there were no lights on 44th Street and my wife said “You better get up here (to the cabin) ASAP!” So I got up here on Friday the 13th and we’ve been here ever since. We can do a lot from that couch over there and we do our Thursday night show from there (“Radio Deluxe with John Pizzarelli” a nationally syndicated radio program co–hosted with his wife, Broadway star Jessica Molaskey.) So it just became trying to stay away from anything that could harm us! Thankfully I just got vaccinated for the second time so I’m looking forward to being able to go into a grocery store again…lol!
JGL: LOL…yeah I can imagine. So let me get into the reason why we are here, Pat Metheny.
JGL: I was quite surprised – in a good way – last week to see on your Facebook page a video of you playing a solo arrangement of Pat Metheny’s tune “James”, and then even more surprised to find out that you had recorded an album – Better Days Ahead – that consisted of all Metheny tunes arranged by you for solo guitar.
I then found out the personal and painful reasons behind this album. If you’re comfortable with talking about it, can you share with us the how and why this album came to be?
JP: Sure. Well it was literally, as we speak, right here where I’m sitting where I would have all these pages of music and ways of recording and when I first got up here I was making little Instagram videos of standards like “Swinging On A Star” and “Some Other Time” and “Emily”. At that time I would also just sit on my couch and play “James”, which I had been playing forever, and I have been a fan of Pat’s since the “White Album” (Metheny’s first group record).
So I was playing “James” one day and then I got the idea that maybe I should learn “Better Days Ahead” which could be interesting and so I started working on that. The thing that was cool was that I could sit here all day and the phone would never ring because nothing was happening, there was nothing to be done! So I was getting into this Bucky Pizzarelli mode…he passed on the first of April and shortly after that my mother passed on the 8th…and I think it was right around then that I started working on “James”, “Better Days Ahead” and “Last Train Home”. Those were the three tunes that I could remember. I mean I was even working on “Lone Jack” for a time…lol!
JGL: WOW! Good luck with that…lol!!
JP: Ha! Yeah, I couldn’t get that one up to speed.
JGL: I have always thought that if I got the chance to interview Pat I would have to ask what was up with the middle of his solo in that tune…LOL! It’s crazy! I always thought that it was rough, but then after a bunch of listens I realized that it was purely in the moment and it is what it is…pure improvisation in the moment!
JP: Yeah, well hey, that whole record, to me, was not even about the melodies or the solos. It always seemed to me that the melodies continued into his solos (John starts to sing the “Lone Jack” solo). I found myself in 1978 in college singing all those solos from hearing them all the time.
So I was getting immersed in his tunes and after the third posting of the tunes I mentioned earlier, my buddy Rick Haydon…Rick and I were introduced to each other by the pianist Ray Kennedy who passed a few years ago…well Rick is one of the great human beings on the planet and he said “Listen, I saw what you are doing online and you gotta stop it!” He says “You gotta record this stuff man, don’t put it all out there! And while you’re at it ya gotta record ‘Antonia’!” So I got the music for Antonia and I sat here and learned it. As I was doing so I started to think “Ok, there’s something here now. Something’s going on because I am sitting here learning this music which I would normally never have the time to do!”
So I’m sitting here with absolutely nothing to do! I can’t go bury my parents because nobody can do that so all I have is this intense, amazing and heartfelt music (reaches for his iPad). This is what I recorded it on, but also I had a “slow-downer” on it. Basically I could put a song on it and it would slow it down without changing the pitch so I could hear passages more clearly which made things a lot easier.
At this time I was also talking to Pat via email because he had sent me these beautiful condolence notes about my parents and we had also been in touch over the years via email talking about Freddie Green, guitars and all sorts of fun things! We were also trying to find a time to get together when we were all off the road but you know…
So I sent him a video of me playing “James” and then sent him the video of “Better Days Ahead” and he was like “Wow! That’s so great!” And then he says “You know, you should have the lead sheets!” So he sent me the book of his music and said “Here’s the music and when we can get together I’ll give you the physical book!” I was like “Oh good, I don’t need to use the ‘slow-downer’…lol”
As I set to work on learning these tunes it was like seeing everything my father would do when he learned Classical Guitar in the 60’s, when I was just a kid. He would do this every day (mimics playing Classical Guitar), he would do the tremolo studies and learn all the music that he could which was not anything like he was doing in a club.
So I had Pat’s music and it was really deep and I thought this is something that I figured I would never do! But I loved this music so I began to pick the tunes I really loved and would then break the song down to what I imagined it would have been before Pat would give the song to the group and say “Here guys, take it away!” Then the process of choosing the tunes and how I was going to play them solo got interesting. I really started diving into these tunes. I mean they are written by one of the great guitar players of all time and he’s also like on the great composers of our lifetime! AND he just wrote two Classical pieces for Classical Guitar for his latest project “Road to the Sky”. Incredible!
So I then began sending Pat some of the newer tunes I was working on and he was always very generous and supportive. At the time I still didn’t know that I would be making a record and he was like “That’s really great. I love how you play that tune” and then he would tell me a little something about it. Then when I had the record done, I thought, I sent it out to Rick in Illinois and said “You know, I really should do “From This Place”. It’s from the new album and I love the song and Rick said “Yeah, that would really complete the album going from ‘Phase Dance’ to ‘From This Place’” So I wrote Pat and asked if he had a lead sheet for “From This Place” and if not “no harm no foul.”
It was about two weeks and all of a sudden an email from Pat “I didn’t forget about you. I’ve been looking around for it.” So I got it and the lead sheet didn’t even have a title on it, it read something like “October #6.” Anyway, I was so glad that I had gotten this lead sheet and with the rest of them, well the lead sheets changed the whole thing. It gave me a sense of what was important and what was not so important. They were the glue, like when I played “James” there were very specific parts that needed to be in my arrangement and other parts I wouldn’t have to worry about so much.
So that was the process and it became joyous given the time that all that stuff was going on there was still a moment where I would be playing, say “Antonia” or “If I Could” or “Farmer’s Trust” or “Letter From Home”, where I would hear my father’s voice in my head saying “What’s your rush!? Take your time, this is beautiful! Don’t go too fast! Make a meal of this!” So it was great. I could still hear the wisdom of the “old man” telling me what to do which really made this special.
JGL: That’s wonderful John! One of the things that touched me when I read in the Press Release sent me, was how you and your dad went to see Pat Metheny in concert for the first time and how charming and sweet a memory that was.
JP: Well it was at the Beacon in New York City and I was determined to get my father to see Pat and who I had never seen as well. It was such a fun night because he loved the music but he also intrigued by the guitars. I told Pat this “My father had names for all your guitars!” He’d see the 175 and say “Oh, he’s got the Gibson!” Or he’d say “Oh, he’s got the “screamer” which was Pat’s synth guitar that he plays on “Are You Going With Me” or “Ok, here comes the Classical!” So he really got into it and we had such a great night. It was the “First Circle” tour and they played that piece and my father was looking at Pat like “This is amazing, this is what Jazz Guitar is!” And it really was beautiful!
JGL: Nice! Did Pat have the Picasso at the time? I wonder what name your father would have given that one…lol?
JP: No, it was pre-Picasso but he would have flipped! “It’s got two necks and all those strings!!” lol!
JGL: Thanks for sharing that with us John. Wonderful memories I’m sure. So, you got all those tunes together, you have Pat’s blessing, you have your guitar and you have an iPad! Then what?
JP: I had an iRig plugged into the iPad and my guitar plugged into the iRig so there was no miking of the guitar and since it was a Classical Guitar and I was in a tiny room, it was my daughters old bedroom lol, and I just put the iPad on her old bed and would record the guitar into Garage Band. I had a really good pickup on the guitar, hold on a sec (John steps out of camera range and then returns with a Classical Guitar in his hand). So I have this Classical Guitar that Bill Moll made for me and it has what’s known as an RMC pickup on this part here (points to the bridge). It’s really clean and it just recorded beautifully so I would make several tracks and mark the ones that I liked and then would email them out to Rick and I’d mention which track I like the most. He would listen to them and then once the track was chosen he would shine it up a little. I’m not sure if he added compressed it a little or put some reverb on it but he would send it back to me and I’d give it a listen. When I first heard the sound I said “There’s a lot of reverb on it” and he said “Well listen to ‘Rainy Days and Mondays’ or ‘Cherish’ on that record (Metheny’s What’s It All About album). It wasn’t the same but I understood the aura of it. The guitar was still present but there was this nice sound in the back that sort of rang and I was really digging that. So I said “Let’s go with that sound!” and that’s how the process of making this album would work.
I would wake up every morning and play a few takes and it became very cathartic as I started to get the tunes together. I’d always be working on something, like that end to “April Joy” (plays the last few bars of “April Joy”). It’s that damn connection with that first group record…lol!
JGL: Tell me about it! I grew up with him musically, you grew up with him musically, especially you, given your proximity to Pat as a successful musician of note. He just brings it to a whole other level that I’ll never reach, and I’m ok with that. I’ve made my peace so to speak…lol!
JP: Yeah I hear you. I haven’t hung out with him or anything but the idea that there was this Jazz Guitar player who had his own sound and who was writing these iconic songs. He was making the standards as he wrote “James”, as he wrote “Are You Going With Me”, the arc of those tunes, I mean c’mon…”First Circle” with the clapping and all that (sings and claps the intro)…just amazing, what were those guys doing…lol!? I’ve heard some people say “well it’s the electronics and the this and the that”, well no, you gotta be a great musician first to make all that stuff work!
JGL: Very true John and I can see how working through Pat’s tunes would bring you joy at a time when you needed it the most. I was going to ask you about the technical challenges of making “Better Days Ahead” but apparently there wasn’t any…lol 🙂
JP: Not with the recording no. The big challenge was remembering to flatten everything out, so no compression, no processing, Garage Band was flat. The other “challenge” was just me figuring out how to do it. When I was in my early 20’s I had my little four-track cassette deck and I could bounce tracks all over the place and knew what I was doing. And now here I was looking at Garage Band for the first time and face-timing with Rick as he pointed out where things get plugged in, what things to push so I could save everything and all that…lol! I mean, I only have three gigs of memory up here (points to the top of his head) lol…so THAT was the real technical challenge, just remembering to have everything set up the same way at all times! Thanks to Rick we became a well oiled machine…lol!
JGL: Well it all sounds great John. I had thought that it had actually been recorded in a big studio room! It’s amazing what can be done today with just an iPad!
JP: Yeah. I would have loved to been in a studio but we had to make do with what we had. I mean it was the height of the summer and everything COVID was spiking and we couldn’t go anywhere so every turn was another adventure but I just kept recording and eventually I started thinking “hmmmm…I think we got something!” It still took me some time though until I sent some tracks to my manager with the thought “I think we need to put this out!”
JGL: If you don’t mind me asking John, how many takes did it take until you were happy with the output? Or had you worked on the tunes a lot before hand so that the amount of takes was minimal?
JP: That’s a great question because it’s a series of processes. First you get the music and you work on the music, then you have to work on the tunes without the music so it’s almost a process of having to learn the music twice. I would say honestly though that some tunes would go through five or six takes before I thought “yeah, that’s it!” There was also some editing on certain tunes where I just needed to clean up a specific passage or ending. I also played to a click on some of the tunes as well ‘cause I found it helped me to not rush (picks up guitar and plays through “James” pointing out where it would be easy to rush). But certain tunes I just played without a click, like “Letter From Home.” I’ve made enough records though to know when I would need to play with a click or when not. And actually, the only song that needed an obvious edit was in the middle of “Spring Ain’t Here” because I kept losing my “brain” in the middle of it…lol!
So the initial process itself worked out ok. The other part of the process is after you record it people are going to want you to play it. So that’s the performance process and it took me about six weeks to go back and start playing them again so that I could get comfortable playing through even in front of you.
JGL: LOL…well it sounds like you achieved that goal John…lol! Do you think this album would ever expand to a group format?
JP: No. I love the fact that these are strictly solo guitar pieces which was the big thing for me. As for the blowing sections I approached them much like chord solos ala George Van Eps because – and this is something that Rick and I agreed to early on – I’m never going to play better single note solos on these tunes than Pat Metheny…lol!
JGL: Yeah! One of the things that impressed me about this album was that you weren’t trying to sound like Pat and you kept the songs “pure” for lack of a better word. I’m also glad that you didn’t overdub solos but rather kept the flow throughout the various sections via how you arranged the tunes.
JP: Well for me I was still thinking about how to blow but as mentioned in a more arranged way like George Van Eps. And when I perform these tunes I at least have a recorded foundation which I can take in different directions if need be like on “James” or “Phase Dance” or “It’s Just Talk”. I know what I’ve done on these tunes so now I can mess around with them a bit more, now that I am comfortable with them. It is a fun process!
JGL: I can imagine. Do you think there will be a spot for these tunes in your live performances once you can get back on stage?
JGL: I mean, the solo Pat tunes coupled with the story behind the album, would make it that much more special.
JP: Yeah, that kind of thing would be great because it is a nice story, however melancholy. It shows that you have to find a way out of it (the loss). This music was amazing to really study it, to see Pat’s genius first hand, and it was all the things I learned from my parents growing up and applying those things while listening to those melodies which made it spectacular.
JGL: Well it is a wonderful album, regardless if one knows the story behind it or not. And you couldn’t’ have asked for a better title! It says so much on so many levels…
JP: Well you know, the whole thing was an in-house production. From doing it right here (points to the couch) to my wife painting the cover picture to my daughter doing the work on the EPK…I mean we did have a lot of time on our hands…lol!
JGL: True. But regardless, it truly was a family affair.
JP: Yeah. My father used to say “You can’t beat blood!”
JGL: Wonderfully stated and I think a perfect salutation to say thank you so much John for hanging out with Jazz Guitar Life this afternoon. It was a pleasure to talk with you and I wish you nothing but the best and let there be “Better Days Ahead” for you and yours.
JP: Thank you Lyle a bientot!
Better Days Ahead: Solo Guitar Takes on Pat Metheny the album is now available from Ghostlight Deluxe. Thank you!
*We were on somewhat of a time deadline so only focused on the new album. John has graciously agreed though to do a more in depth interview in the not too distant future 🙂
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