Bulletproof Jazz: John Pizzarelli: Details The Art Of Shout-Chorus Swing

April 1, 2009

Pizzarelli understands that in order for an ensemble to play well together, all players must fully understand their own roles in serving the groove. He also knows how to make a classic, Nat Colestyle trio (piano, guitar, and bass) fire on all cylinders. “This configuration works best when the bass player doesn’t use a pickup, so the notes decay quicker,” says the guitarist. He adds that his bassist, brother Martin Pizzarelli, recognizes that notes played on beats one and three shouldn’t ring out too long, lest they get in the way of what someone else is playing on beats two and four (“Especially on ballads”).

The biggest challenge for pianists and guitarists working together is sharing comping duties. Some kind of dialogue between the two is usually necessary so that redundant— or, worse, clashing—chord voicings don’t muddy the music. “If you’re working with a pianist, you might take turns playing rhythm while he or she plays more rhythmic stabs, and then switch off,” suggests Pizzarelli, whose latest offering is With a Song in My Heart—John Pizzarelli Sings the Music of Richard Rogers [Telarc]. This vibrant collection of songs finds the guitar and vocal phenom exploring Rogers’ music with both his trio and a “small big band.”

“A great example of a guitarist and pianist not getting in each other’s way is Joe Pass and Oscar Peterson, playing behind [saxophonist] Zoot Sims,” continues Pizzarelli, who takes inspiration from his legendary father, 7-string pioneer Bucky Pizzarelli. “Something that my dad likes to do is have the pianist lay out while he plays a rhythmic chord solo. On the new record with my wife [singer Jessica Molaskey], my father plays acoustic rhythm guitar while I, on electric, just sit on chords like a piano player.

“My dad and I played acoustic rhythm guitar together a lot—and I played the banjo when I was young. I grew up with a great rhythm guitar player for a father who would always shake his head and say, ‘No, no, no,’ when I didn’t play tasteful rhythm. Now I set the guitar’s action up a little higher, with heavier strings, so you really hear that rhythmic snap. You also mostly hear the inner melody,” adds Pizzarelli, referring to the melodic lines that sound on the fourth string as the chords change. Pizzarelli’s powerful rhythm playing channels what you might hear emanating from the Count Basie Big Band recordings featuring Freddie Green chugging away on unamplified acoustic guitar.

“A lot of my shout choruses come from when I used to play duo gigs with my father,” says Pizzarelli. “We really got into figuring out how to make things more interesting between choruses of the melody. We didn’t want it to just be the usual ‘I sing the song, I play, he plays, and I sing the song again’ thing. This all started about 20 years ago when we first played at a place called the Green Street in New York. Everyone commented on how full our arrangements sounded for just a couple of guitar players.”

One arrangement that dates back to those formative duo years with his father is Pizzarelli’s version of the George and Ira Gershwin classic, “Oh, Lady Be Good.” “We start with a piano chorus up front in Eb, then we modulate to F and I sing a chorus. When I finish singing, we go to Db and I play a solo and then go right into the shout chorus in F. The shout chorus is usually something simple we’ve come up with that swings in the tempo we’re at, and helps us get to a drum solo or change the atmosphere before going to the out-chorus—just like Basie would do.” In Ex. 1 Pizzarelli, like a one-man brass ensemble, slides into each chord from a half-step below in a manner that captures the essence of a Big Band-era trumpet section.

On his rendition of the 1929 Jesse Greer/Raymond Klages favorite, “Just You, Just Me,” Pizzarelli targets one main melody note, and, with his usual finesse, employs solid voice-leading to connect some alternate chord changes smoothly [Ex. 2]. As in the previous example, he uses a repeating, two-bar rhythmic phrase to make his point.

“When [pianist] Ray Kennedy started in our group 12 years ago, we would listen to Oscar Peterson’s record from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival a lot and try to get ideas for our own arrangements,” says Pizzarelli.

Aside from Nat Cole, Peterson and Sir George Shearing were two of the most famous proponents of the “guitarist as drummer” concept in a jazz trio. The advantage, of course, is that a guitarist can break from his rhythm duties to enhance a melodic passage at will. “I loved how Peterson and [guitarist] Herb Ellis would launch into these insane single-note lines together. I also got a lot of ideas from Shearing. He had tons of great shout choruses, and we’ve put some of them into what we do.”

An advanced jazz soloist or arranger can smoothly drop melodies from one song into the arrangement or improvisation of another. Case in point: Pizzarelli’s reworking of a classic melody from alto saxophonist and bebop pioneer, Charlie Parker. “Since ‘Recognize the Tune’ [off With a Song in My Heart] is about being able to recognize the melody, I decided to use Bird’s ‘Ornithology’ as a shout chorus for it,” says Pizzarelli, playing Ex. 3. “The line fit really well over the chord changes.” (Interestingly, Parker’s “Ornithology” was written over the chord changes to another classic tune: “How High the Moon.”)

In putting together the horn parts for With a Song in My Heart, Pizzarelli enlisted Grammy-winning arranger Don Sebesky. “I knew I was only going to get a few shots at the horns, so I let Sebesky rule the roost,” says Pizzarelli. “I wanted to do the Chet Baker shout chorus on ‘With a Song in My Heart,’ so it was great having Sebesky, because he did the arrangement on the original recording!”

In Ex. 4 Pizzarelli plays a line derived from the dissonant-sounding half-step, wholestep (“half/whole”) symmetrical diminished scale (1, b2, #2, 3, #4, 5, 6, b7) over a B7b9 chord, then moves on to a classic Em7-A7b9- Dm7-G7 turnaround. On “With a Song in My Heart,” Sebesky builds this line underneath the guitar—first in unison, then quickly expanding the harmony to create a lush wall of sound with just a few horns.

“I do a lot of duets with my wife, so I often need to come up with something interesting to play for eight- or 16-bar sections,” says Pizzarelli. “With all the possibilities for inner voice-leading and so on, each one of these sections can be like a Rubik’s Cube to figure out. I always think about George Van Eps and how he might handle it. I have all his albums in my iPod, but just Mellow Guitar, alone, is amazing. I finally learned his arrangement of ‘They Can’t Take That Away from Me,’ and have found that the intro [Ex. 5] and outro [Ex. 6] can be quite effective in other songs in E. The way he uses simple chords and gets the rubs”— second intervals generated by fretted notes sounding against ringing open strings— “is like what the Brazilian guys do. His arrangements can get you to some

He flashes a satisfied grin. “I keep exploring the music of tons of composers, including modern pop writers. I’ve recorded on a couple of James Taylor CDs, and I did a whole Beatles project [1998’s Meets the Beatles]. I keep looking at stuff from when I was growing up in the ’70s—interesting tunes from artists like Michael McDonald, the Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, and those guys. Ear training for me was figuring out the chords to this. [Plays the opening changes to Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues.”] The challenge is reinventing that music within the context of what we do. Luckily we’ve got Sebesky to help us figure it out!”


Lively and climactic, sometimes bombastic, full of accented notes, often featuring interlocking call-and-response themes, and often focused around a repeating riff— possibly even a riff from a differentsong— a shout chorus is that energized vamp section in a big-band or other ensemble arrangement that intensifies the groove and gets feet a-tappin’ and hips a-swayin’.



When it comes to strumming an acoustic guitar in the classic jazz style, it’s really not about fancy chords—it’s about rhythm. If you listen to old records by the Count Basie Orchestra, you don’t so much hear the late, great Freddie Green’s four-strums-to-the-bar rhythm playing floating up from the sea of woodwinds and brass—you feel it. Though Green’s progressions usually feature simple three-note chords, the voice-leading from grip to grip is so smooth and natural that a melody line of sorts often emerges from the shifting harmonies. Typically occurring on the fourth string, this simple, stepwise melody usually tags enough 3s and 7s in the parent chords that, when sounded against the bass line, it actually provides enough harmonic information to convey much of the song’s chord progression! Delivered with Green’s trademark quarter-note strumming attack, this lean, mean approach to harmony was the glue that fastened Basie’s massive horn-section riffs to the grooves laid down by his rhythm players. Though Pizzarelli plays 7-string, the 6- string chord shapes à la Freddie shown here should serve you well in a typical “I Got Rhythm”- style progression (i.e., “Rhythm Changes”) in Bb. Try focusing on the fourth-string melody line, and phrasing your strums like brushes on a snare drum. —JW

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