Reviews Press Stories
Review-Bucky and me at Dick Leonard's apartment concert
Bucky Pizzarelli and Jack Wilkins
Sunday, December 12th 2010
About 40 people were lucky enough to have been able to attend a small private concert in New York last week featuring Bucky Pizzarelli and Jack Wilkins.
The artists don't really need much introduction. Bucky Pizzarelli is a well known master. He started playing with the Vaughn Monroe dance band towards the end of WWII and has played with every great jazz musician. He's been in the pantheon of jazz guitarists for more than half a century and he just keeps getting better. No one swings harder or plays more musically.
Jack Wilkins is also a member of the jazz guitar pantheon. Jack also started out in big bands, later than Bucky, just at the end of the big band era. He worked with some of the most famous of the big bands. The list of great jazz players that he's played with is equally long.
Both players have played just about every style of popular music: rock and roll, easy listening, advertising jingles, big band jazz, small group jazz, latin jazz, swing, bebop. They have a lot of musical ammunition – a stunning command of the language of music. The audience at this little concert was treated to a marvelous exhibition of musicianship and style.
There were 9 tunes on the program. All The Things You Are, It Had To Be You, Just Friends, Body And Soul, This Nearly Was Mine (Bucky Solo), Two For The Road (Jack Solo), Pick Yourself Up, Stompin' At The Savoy. Every one was a gem. Each player soloed exquisitely and comped with amazing alacrity. It is no small feat to be able to make often played tunes come alive and these guitarists did just that, presenting each song as if they were sharing a beautiful new thing that they had just discovered. All of the solos derived principally from the melody and each player found a staggering number of musical ideas to be derived therefrom. They inverted the melody notes, delayed them, wove them into the fabric of scales and arpeggios, played them in different registers, harmonized them with contrapuntal lines and “substitute” changes. All of it worked, and it was all beautiful.
The intimate setting of the concert offered an opportunity to consider the performance from a guitarists point of view and the guitarists in the audience also got a master class.
These guys can pretty much do whatever they want on the guitar. They have amazing technical prowess, but when they play their technique is never the highlight of the show. It's always about the music. Wilkins, for example, can and often does, play extremely fast, but he only uses his blazing speed to highlight his myriad musical ideas, which derive from the melody. He never just plays a fast passage. Bucky's solos are hauntingly melodic as well. Flourishes, embellishments and technical fireworks, when used, all have a musical purpose. As a result, each tune is as unique as its melody. Tunes may have similar - even identical - changes, but when these guys play you can always tell what song they're playing.
On the importance of melody, Bucky quotes Zoot Sims: “Nobody ever walked out humming the chords”.
Every tune in this program was preceded by an introduction. Some of the intros were very short. Some were an entire chorus. Some hinted at the upcoming song. Others made you wait till it started. Among the more effective, was the 32 bar boppish intro to “All The Things You Are”, which started the performance. Both players outlined the changes in single lines. Those in audience anticipated hearing something they knew. The tension grew as the intro continued for longer than people were expecting and then resolved as the well recognized tune began. They ended the tune by playing the same introduction finishing with the first 4 bars of the tune.
During the recital, one noticed that the musicianship was at a significantly higher level than most guitar duos. What made it different from other performances? What made it better than other, similar performances? In the days following the recital, I had the opportunity to interview each player. I asked several questions: how did you learn to play? What do you think about when you're playing?
The answer to these and other questions boiled down a few things: It's all about the music: know the tune, know the changes, and listen.
And they do listen. All the time. The real proof of their musical craftsmanship isn't their ability to play fast passages or difficult chords, but their ability to listen carefully and to respond very quickly to each other's musical ideas. Each player is always 'right there'. Neither gets in the other's way. The result is magical – a conversation. Contrast this to players that have all of the technical tools but don't listen to what the other players are doing, which results in something more like two people talking at the same time - not a conversation.
In the post recital interviews both players emphasized the same things.
Both players say that they “learned to play” playing with others, particularly in big bands. By “learned to play” they mean “learned to make music”, since they could handle the instrument well enough when they started their careers. Wilkins tells a story about his early days playing in a larger group:
'When I was young, I got a gig with a big band. I was, as I say, young and I thought I was a pretty hot player. It was a new band for me and had a lot of seasoned players. So, I was playing and I guess I was showing off a little. I wanted to show that I could play anything, so I was all over the place. I thought I was doing very well, and I was impressed with myself. So, slowly, one by one, the others guys in the band are laying out. Eventually, nobody's playing but me. I keep playing for a few moments, then I stop and ask the leader, 'Why is everybody stopped' and the guy says, very quietly, and I'll never forget it 'Well, we're all listening to you.' The was just a slight emphasis on the word 'you'. And I got it. Playing with others isn't about how much you can play, buy how important it is to listen to the guys you're playing with.'
On the subject of listening, Bucky is equally expressive, if a little more succinct: “If you don't listen, you might as well go home!”
On the subject of harmony, they also had similar views. They both stressed simplicity, particularly regarding the chord changes. Bucky talked about the importance of the basic triad, particularly the third, in improvising. Jack had similar thoughts about “substitutions” versus “vanilla” changes. He expressed this with an ironic “First and foremost, you need to know the basic chords. They always work. All that other stuff (the substitutions, the extra harmonic movement) comes when you know those changes so well and you're played them so often that you're going out of your mind with boredom, but you've got to really hear the basic changes.”
It is worth noting that, though each player is a well known virtuoso in his own right, they are both in great demand as accompanists by other players.
The question and answer session was interesting as well. The guitarists answered questions from the audience about their beginnings, their favorite female vocalists (Jo Stafford, Ella Fitzgerald), the most important thing about the music (the tune), and so on. The most touching moment was when a member of the audience asked the question “Who so you enjoy playing with the most?” without directing the question to either of the two musicians. After the briefest pause, each pointed to the other and smiled.
Reviewed by Jonathan Jacobs