By James Wood
Back in 2014, Paul McCartney had a great idea for an album. He just needed a world-renowned guitarist and singer to make it happen.
Enter John Pizzarelli, whose musical interpretations of such legendary artists as Frank Sinatra, James Taylor and McCartney’s former band, the Beatles, have received critical acclaim. Pizzarelli even worked with McCartney on his 2012 album, Kisses on the Bottom.
McCartney invited Pizzarelli to delve into his deep catalog of post-Beatles material and take some of his lesser-known tunes and reinterpret them in a mellow jazz style.
The resulting album, Midnight McCartney (which will be released September 11), features “Silly Love Songs,” “Maybe I’m Amazed,” “Coming Up” and other tunes from McCartney’s 45-year-long solo career—all tastefully done in Pizzarelli’s trademark style.
I recently spoke with Pizzarelli about the new album, his work with Paul McCartney, guitars and more.
GUITAR AFICIONADO: How did this project begin?
I had worked on Kisses on the Bottom with Paul in 2012, and we promoted it the following year. We played “My Valentine” on the Grammys and he did a MusiCares event and a live iTunes concert. Then in May of 2014, I got this letter from Paul out of the clear blue sky. He said, “I have this crazy idea to run by you.”
The idea was that maybe I would do a record of some of his post-Beatles catalog as well as some lesser-known songs like “Junk," “Warm and Beautiful” and “My Valentine." He said if I liked the idea maybe I could call the record Midnight McCartney and include a dishy little picture of me against the Manhattan skyline [laughs].
I was like, “OK! Whatever you want to call it. Let’s go!” So I went in, did some demos, recorded the record at the beginning of this year and now here we are—Midnight McCartney!
For those of us who have never had the pleasure of meeting him, what’s Paul McCartney like?
I remember my sisters watching The Ed Sullivan Show, getting Abbey Road in the late Sixties and listening to all of the records and then following him through the Seventies and Eighties as well as the new stuff. Then meeting him and going, “OK. Now this all makes perfect sense!”
He’s a fine musician with amazing musical instincts and has done pretty much everything you could possibly imagine. I remember being in my twenties and going to William Paterson College. When he was in his twenties, he was getting off of a plane and there were 50,000 people screaming! Then he played Shea Stadium when he was 23.
To have all of that happen in his lifetime and then find out that not only is he a really great musician but he’s also a very down-to-earth guy—that’s what really stuck with me. There’s no mistaking that he’s Paul McCartney.
Let’s discuss a few tracks from Midnight McCartney, starting with "Coming Up."
That was one that I really knew well from the early Eighties . I heard that all the time on the radio. I looked at the lyric and the chords set themselves up to be a sort of blues shuffle. So then we came up with the groove. That’s when we realized it would be something cool for Michael McDonald to do. So he came in and did his thing and really put it over the top!
"Maybe I’m Amazed"
That was one I remember playing in rock bands back in high school. It was about trying to get the groove and figuring out what to play under the A section. Then it was about coming up a really good guitar part.
"With a Little Luck"
That song was my wife’s idea and was the very last thing we did. I wasn’t really sure about it, but the more I thought about it I knew we needed one more mid-tempo thing. That’s when I thought, “You know? 'With a little luck I might be able to make it work!” [laughs]. It just plays itself as a shuffle and worked out well.
Was there any extra pressure during the recording sessions knowing that Paul was going to hear the final product?
I think so. The best part was being locked in this little studio in New York and really making sure everything was right. Every time someone was asked to do something they really stepped up to the plate. There was something about saying the word “McCartney” that put a little extra magic into the process and that’s what really made it fun. You knew where you were headed so you wanted to put your best foot forward.
What did you take away from the process of diving deep into Paul’s catalog?
The material is still very good. Paul is such a smart songwriter and these songs are so well written. It was nice to put the songs in different clothes and then realize they’re still fun to listen to. When you have strong hooks and great melodies that are really pliable, you’re able to reinterpret them in an interesting way.
Do you have plans to tour this new album?
We recently did a week in New York City with a string quartet and horns and presented the whole package. We hope to do more of that in the coming year. We have it for quartet all the way up to orchestra and have gotten nothing but great reaction, so we’re very excited.
Your father, Bucky Pizzarelli, is a guitar legend. What was it like for you growing up around him and being immersed in his music?
It’s interesting to think about all of the things he’s done. He’s 89 now and has played pretty much everywhere; he even played on Kisses on the Bottom. Here’s someone who grew up listening to Django Reinhardt on the radio and Eddie Lang and ended up working with Stéphane Grappelli, Joe Mooney and Benny Goodman.
He made music with Zoot Sims, Clark Terry, Slam Stuart and all of these great jazz musicians. The idea of loving what you do is personified in what he does. He’s still making music and still looking for the perfect chord for a song.
What was the best bit of advice he gave you as a guitarist that you’ve been able to apply to your playing?
I remember he commented once on a television interview about my playing and said, “Fearless." It’s the idea that you want to be thrown into situations you might not be ready for but you have to do it anyway. That’s really what its all about. Always being eager to do something musical at any time. So that when you do get called for something you’re ready to do what they expect as well as put your own stamp on things.
What excites you the most about Midnight McCartney?
Having done these kinds of records a few different times—like translating James Taylor songs into bossanova or Beatles songs from the previous album (John Pizzarelli Meets the Beatles), this one is the culmination of all the times that we’ve tried to reinvent things. I’m excited because all of the work we’ve done with those other records has led to this one. When I listen to it I’m confident about what we did. We were asked to do something special and I was proud to say, “Here’s what we did with your idea, Mr. McCartney. We’re thrilled we were able to do this for you.”
Photo: Timothy White
James Wood is a writer, musician and self-proclaimed metalhead who maintains his own website, GoJimmyGo.net. His articles and interviews are written on a variety of topics with passion and humor. You can follow him on Twitter @JimEWood.