THE BOOK SHELF: John Pizzarelli's "World On a String" and Michael Feinstein's "The Gershwins and Me"

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02 Dec 2012

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This month's column looks at two wonderfully rich memoirs, "World on a String" by jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli and "The Gershwins and Me" by Michael Feinstein.

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Back in the late 1980s, it occurred to me that an effective Broadway revue might be built around the songs of Johnny Mercer. Mercer rarely wrote his own music, of course. This would be an evening with music from diverse composers, the link being the lyrics; one of Mercer's many talents was his ability to bring out the best in his collaborators (or, perhaps, to cherry pick the better melodic ideas they came up with). When I investigated, I was told there was no way this could happen; Margaret Whiting, the pop singer who controlled the Mercer catalogue, was planning a revue of her own and for years had been turning down all requests.

In 1997, finally, came Whiting's Dream, which frustratingly saw fit to obscure Mercer's lyrics as much as possible by hiding them in a haze of ineffective choreography. The show was a quick failure, distinguished by reports of pitched backstage battles centering around star Lesley Ann Warren. I watched the show, mourning for Mercer. The only element that stood out was one of the ensemble members, an unknown-to-me singer named Molaskey. There were also a few interludes where the director, choreographer, designers and conceivers mercifully stopped creating and let a funny-looking thin guy with a guitar come out and just sing the songs. Otherwise, it was a severely depressing evening.

The next year, as I sat watching an intriguing but overloaded new musical called Parade at the Beaumont, there was a moment of hushed clarity as the mother of the murdered girl sang a song called "My Child Will Forgive Me." As soon as she finished singing — I wasn't about to take my attention away during the song — I glanced at the Playbill to find out that this was that Molaskey again.



By 2002, I was reviewing CDs for Playbill.com. Along came something called "Pentimento," a solo album by this same Jessica Molaskey. She was just as good, I was proud to discover, as she had been in the two shows. (Accompanying her, and singing a snappy duet as well, was John Pizzarelli, the guy with the guitar in Dream and by this point Molaskey's husband.) Later that year Molaskey appeared in yet another small role with another wonderful solo from the heart, in Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens' A Man of No Importance; in 2003 and 2004 she came forth with another pair of splendid CDs.

A while later I became a nightclub critic, so I eagerly went off to cover the debut of Pizzarelli & Molaskey at Cafe Carlyle in the spring of 2007. At which point I instantly fell under John Pizzarelli's spell as well. I have since seen him — with or without Jessica — on every possible occasion, as recently as the night the all clear sounded after the recent hurricane. He has never let me down. The man is a masterful musician, a distinctive and highly effective singer, and a raconteur beyond parallel. An evening with John & Jessica is like watching the princess and the court jester, mismatched but very much in love — and forever cautious (on the one hand) and wary (on the other).

But we are here not to talk of Pizzarelli on the stage, but Pizzarelli on the page. World on a String: A Musical Memoir is the title, Wiley is the publisher, and Pizzarelli himself is the author (along with Joseph Cosgriff). Here are 50-years-worth of talk; all about music, yes, but you don't need to be a jazz fan to dig.

Pizzarelli was born in a guitar case, more or less; his father was, and is, the legendary jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli. John, presumably, will never catch up to Bucky as guitarist; dad has a couple of decades start, and is still a dazzling player. At least he was when I last heard him in a magical set at the Carlyle in May, at the age of 86. But John doubles on banjo, and sings, and jokes too. While Bucky seems to have quite a load of personality, John brings it all with him into the act. And into "World on a String," too.

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