John Pizzarelli

Rockin' in Rhythm: A Duke Ellington Tribute

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John Pizzarelli takes so naturally to these Ellington classics that if you didn't know better, you might think they were written for him. Following With a Song in My Heart, the guitarist/vocalist's 2008 tribute to songwriting icon Richard Rodgers, and, prior to that, 2006's Dear Mr. Sinatra, it would seem that Pizzarelli is systematically checking off all of those to whom he feels indebted. And that's a good thing, because his dedication to and understanding of this music is unquestioned. Rockin' in Rhythm doesn't stray all that far stylistically from those previous outings: Pizzarelli isn't out to rewrite history here, just to celebrate a hero. On the zippy opening "In a Mellow Tone," Pizzarelli, his rhythm crew, and his brass section come out swinging. Larry Fuller's mid-song piano solo is brisk and sparkling, and when it gives way to Pizzarelli's guitar-and-scat solo, the transition is smooth and sweet. As always, Pizzarelli's guitar playing is skilled and striking, though nowhere does he let it upstage the tunes that he's here to honor. And although his vocalizing has been described as thin, on easygoing tracks like "Satin Doll" and "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good" he puts it to fine use, much as Chet Baker did: the emotionalism in his low-key delivery is palpable and Pizzarelli understands that soft and cool fit the bill, so no need to shout. His song choices aren't exactly radical, but neither are they entirely predictable (there's no "Take the 'A' Train," for example). Some tunes, though covered to death, suit the program despite their ubiquity: you can't go wrong with either "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo" or "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," and Pizzarelli fuses them seamlessly into a medley whose arrangement hews closely to the originals while still leaving room for his personalization. Other less celebrated numbers ("Just Squeeze Me," performed solo; "Love Scene") break up the familiarity, and there are several guests joining the proceedings to liven things up -- not surprisingly, dad Bucky Pizzarelli sits in on a few tracks (soloing on "Satin Doll"), and Kurt Elling and (John Pizzarelli's wife) Jessica Molaskey's duet on "Perdido" (with a Gerald Wilson arrangement) makes for a natural pairing that gives the set a welcomed lift midway. And "C Jam Blues," featuring violinist Aaron Weinstein and saxophonist Harry Allen, is a gem. Horn arrangements by Don Sebesky give more than half the tracks a zest that Ellington would certainly have approved of.

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