Jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli brings music of Paul McCartney to Grand Rapids Symphony

Jazz guitarist and vocalist John Pizzarelli has played and recorded with such luminaries as Rosemary Clooney, Johnny Frigo and Buddy DeFranco. He was the opening act on Frank Sinatra’s last tour.

But Pizzarelli, age 58, grew up listening to The Beatles, and eight years ago, he collaborated with Paul McCartney on his album Kisses on the Bottom, which was released in February 2012.

“It was quite an experience listening to him talk about the Beatles and how they made records,” Pizzarelli said to MLive in October 2012.

Two years later, the English singer/songwriter unexpectedly got in touch with the American jazz guitarist with “this crazy idea to run by you.” The idea was for Pizzarelli to make an album of McCartney’s post-Beatles songs in his own jazzy style.

“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,” Pizzarelli recalled with a laugh.

It didn’t take much to sell him on the idea, said Pizzarelli who performed McCartney’s song My Valentine with Sir Paul on TV for the 54th annual Grammy Awards in 2012.

“He’s a fine musician with amazing musical instincts and has done pretty much everything you could possibly imagine,” Pizzarelli said to Guitar World in August 2015.

Pizzarelli joins the Grand Rapids Symphony for McCartney and More at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday September 21-22 and at 3 p.m. Sunday, September 23, the opening concerts of the 2018-19 Fox Motors Pops series.

Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt leads the Grand Rapids Pops in songs by Paul McCartney, performed by Pizzarelli and his band with the Grand Rapids Symphony in the jazzy style of the Great American Songbook.

Midnight McCartney, which won the 2013 Grammy Award for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album, includes lesser known tunes such as Junk, Warm and Beautiful and, of course, My Valentine. The New Yorker declared it “may be the best collection of McCartney covers ever recorded.”

“The material is still very good. Paul is such a smart songwriter and these songs are so well written,” Pizzarelli said. “When you have strong hooks and great melodies that are really pliable, you’re able to reinterpret them in an interesting way.”

In addition to being a solo artist with some 20 recordings of his own, Pizzarelli has been a special guest on more than 40 recordings for such pop artists as James Taylor, Natalie Cole, Kristin Chenoweth and Rickie Lee Jones. He collaborated with Donna Summer and Robert Flack on the Grammy Award-winning CD, Songs from the Neighborhood: The Music of Mr. Rogers in 2005.

Not long after recording “Kisses from the Bottom,” Pizzarelli was in the studio recording Double Exposure, featuring music of Bill Joel, Michael McDonald and Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen.

“They were the pop stars of the 1970s and 80s, and they were the people I enjoyed listening to,” Pizzarelli said in 2012. “I thought it would be great to find ideas from their songs and play them as jazz songs.”

He took a similar approach with Midnight McCartney, which All Music.com describes as music that’s “designed for play in the smoky late-night hours, when everything turns sweet and mellow.”

Working on the project, which also featured such legendary artists as Eric Clapton, Stevie Wonder and Diana Krall, a great opportunity, said Pizzarelli, prior to his appearance in Grand Rapids in November 2012 at St. Cecilia Music Center’s Royce Auditorium as its 2012 Great Artist.

Naturally, McCartney came into the studio with ideas about how he would record a particular song. But Sir Paul was open to suggestions from the rest of the musicians, Pizzarelli said to MLive.

While recording More I Cannot Wish You with McCartney singing the song written by Frank Loesser, Pizzarelli tossed out his own ideas.

“I played these little harmonic notes. He’d sing, standing there, and I’d answer,” Pizzarelli recalled in 2012. “He’d point at me and say, ‘Yeah, look what you’re doing there!”

“If you did something he liked,” Pizzarelli said, “he’d really let you know.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 12:00 PM
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