With cool jazz cats like John Pizzarelli behind its wheel, the Great American Songbook will just keep appreciating in value with the passing years.
Images of the great mid-20th-century cars repeatedly came to mind Saturday night as Pizzarelli and his quartet joined the Omaha Symphony for the first of two weekend concerts. With Music Director Thomas Wilkins riding shotgun, the orchestra and its guests repeatedly painted musical images of a sleek convertible cruising with the top down in open country on a summer evening.
If that's not enough encouragement for winter-weary Omahans to attend today's 2 p.m. finale, how about two hours' worth of aural romantic gems on the eve of Valentine's Day? Though Pizzarelli isn't exactly a classic crooner, his vocals and guitar riffs bring out the deep emotions in standards by the Gershwin brothers, Duke Ellington, Richard Rodgers and Nat “King” Cole.
The son of legendary jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli also showed a deft comedic streak when speaking in between songs. While opening a series of 18 shows for Frank Sinatra in the early 1990s, he met the “Chairman of the Board” for the first time in Berlin. But things went downhill with his fellow Italian-American, Pizzarelli said, because “he didn't hear 'pizza' in my name.”
Sinatra, he added, “had five words for me that have stuck with me: 'Eat something. You look bad!'”
Saturday night's opener offered musical highlights in abundance, starting with Pizzarelli's ability to deliver what one might call a jazz duet for one. While his fingers moved through lickety-split improvisations on his electric guitar, he delivered vocal “scat” solos that amazingly doubled practically every note from his instrument.
Pizzarelli and his three bandmates — including his brother Martin on double bass — form a tight combo that uses its solo breaks to demonstrate Wynton Marsalis' ideal of jazz as a musical conversation. Pianist Larry Fuller spoke his mind as his right hand glided up and down the keys, while Martin Pizzarelli plumbed the lower ranges of sound and drummer Tony Tedesco spoke rapidly with sticks and brushes.
Meanwhile, Wilkins and the symphony were given some fascinating variations on well-known standards. Ellington's snappy “Don't Get Around Much Anymore,” for example, was juxtaposed with the much bluesier tones of the Duke's “East St. Louis Toodle-oo.” Claude Thornhill's “Snowfall” formed the framework for the Michael McDonald tune “I Can Let Go Now,” while Rodgers & Hammerstein's “I Have Dreamed” was wrapped in a package of minor-key harmony with a South American beat.
The evening's most striking arrangement, however, was Pizzarelli's reworking of “Carefully Taught” from “South Pacific” into a poignant duet between himself and Paul Ledwon, the symphony's principal cellist. Percussionist Ken Yoshida also deserves note for his striking xylophone work on “Johnny One Note,” which wrapped up a five-song string of songs from Rodgers' musicals with Lorenz Hart and later Oscar Hammerstein II.
If you go to today's finale, by the way, listen for a tribute to Nebraska in “Rhode Island Is Famous for You.” That song shows up early in the concert, while the quintessential jazz travelogue “Route 66” comes at the end. In between, enjoy Pizzarelli's cruise down Memory Lane.