John Pizzarelli & Jessica Molaskey: Smooth Talkers

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John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey
By Nick Ruechel
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John Pizzarelli
By Nick Ruechel

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Imagine being invited to the set of a favorite show to observe from the sidelines, only to suddenly find yourself thrust into the middle of the action. Such was my unexpected but delightful experience one unseasonably sticky Manhattan morning this past April. The assignment: to watch quietly as second-generation jazz great John Pizzarelli and his actress/vocalist wife Jessica Molaskey taped an installment of Radio Deluxe, their weekly two-hour chatfest-cum-musical grab bag, now in its third season.

The setting: a half-block east of Carnegie Hall on West 57th Street at fabled Nola Studios, a dark, labyrinthine space where the faint echo of legendary jazz sessions still seems to linger. Some of Charlie Parker’s inspired work with strings was captured at Nola, as were the last tracks laid down by Lena Horne. Molaskey’s most recent album, Sitting in Limbo, was done here. So, too, was Pizzarelli’s forthcoming salute to Richard Rodgers, With a Song in My Heart, due Aug. 19 from Telarc.

Pizzarelli and Molaskey arrive a wee bit late for their 11:30 call, with daughter, Madeleine, out of school for spring break, in tow. Typical of their frantic schedules, time is tight. They’ve got to complete an entire two-hour episode (usually accomplished, technical or other glitches notwithstanding, in about 45 minutes since the music is added later, when Oregon-based producer Don McCulloch assembles the final show), and sit for a joint JazzTimes interview. Then Molaskey has to dash for a matinee performance of the critically acclaimed Broadway revival of Sunday in the Park with George, in which she’s co-starring; and John has to squeeze in a long-promised pizza lunch with Madeleine before finalizing preparations for a multi-city tour of Brazil. Yet thanks to the pair’s easygoing affability, the atmosphere is relaxed and fun.

Asked by the studio’s resident engineer what they’ve got planned for the show, Pizzarelli shrugs and suggests that, since she’s already onsite, Madeleine might as well be their first guest. Then, glancing around the studio, he spots me and I’m invited to join in too. As for the music they’ll feature, Pizzarelli has brought along a handful of CDs from his and Molaskey’s personal collection, but it’s anybody’s guess, including theirs, if any tracks from those discs will actually find their way on air. Ever since the show’s launch in December 2005, their shared goal has been to keep the proceedings as unstructured and impromptu as possible.

“It’s never, ‘Here are the top songs of the week,’” explains Pizzarelli. “We don’t have a playlist. The fun part is exploring what we want to play. We’ll think back to what [songs] we liked when we were 20 or 30, or what we were listening to last week; then, somebody else will come along and say, ‘I like these things, have you got any of them?’ or we’ll seek out listeners who like unusual stuff. We just go wherever we want to go. We might arrive with 10 records and never get to them. Jess will happen to mention Kate McGarry, so we’ll play something by her. Or I’ll remark that we were out at the theater, and she’ll say, ‘Let’s play the closing number from such-and-such Broadway show.’”

Adds Molaskey, “We have no desire to be DJs, [and] we don’t make a cent off this. We don’t earn a dime. But the beautiful thing about poverty is that you can do whatever you want and tell everybody to go jump in the lake.”

On this particular day, Pizzarelli happens to have a copy of the debut CD from the jazz vocal supergroup Moss—comprised of McGarry, Theo Bleckmann and Luciana Souza plus New York Voices mates Peter Eldridge and Lauren Kinhan—so a track from that makes the cut. Then Maddy informs her parents that she’s brought along a list of some favorite albums. Spotting Billy Joel among his daughter’s selections, he suggests they play his “Summer, Highland Falls” and follow it up with Molaskey’s version. My turn behind the mic arrives, and Molaskey digs into her purse for a printout of the 10 vocal albums (including her Limbo) I’d chosen as 2007’s best for the year-end JazzTimes critics’ poll.

A lively discussion ensues, bouncing from Kurt Elling and Roberta Gambarini to Tierney Sutton and Harry Connick Jr. Ever the generous hosts, they leave the song selections to me, though they heartily endorse my choice of both his rendition, with Elling, of “Well, Did You Evah” and her cover of Sting’s “Heavy Cloud, No Rain.” So cozy and comfortable is the atmosphere—genuinely akin to sitting with good pals in their living room and opening up about whatever comes to mind—that it seems only a handful of minutes have passed before Pizzarelli is cuing their exit music, Pat Metheny’s “Last Train Home.”

Afterward, Pizzarelli and Molaskey, who first met in 1997 when both were cast in the Broadway musical Dream, a revue of Johnny Mercer songs, settle into a quiet Nola corner to talk about the origins of Radio Deluxe. Turn the clock back eight years or so. Pizzarelli was gigging regularly with his trio at Feinstein’s at the Regency when the suggestion was raised to incorporate a girl singer into his stage show.

As Molaskey recalls, “They had Cybill Shepherd and various others brought in, and John said, ‘Well, if I’m going to sing with somebody, it’ll be my wife.’ I thought it was a horrible idea. I’d just had a baby. I was so sleep-deprived. And I was so petrified. I’d never been just myself in front of an audience, without a wig and costume and a character to play. Also, John’s act wasn’t broken. It was fantastic, so I figured I could only screw it up. But then I got out onstage and said ‘Hello,’ and he said ‘Hello,’ and people started laughing. We had no idea why they were laughing—we still don’t! We just started riffing. One night, someone came to a performance, liked what he heard and said he wanted to bottle it and put it on the air.”

From the outset, Pizzarelli had the idea of casting the two of them as hip New Yorkers, broadcasting from their elegant living room high atop Lexington Avenue, rather like mythical socialites Irene and Roger, the chic gadabouts who shared celebrity gossip and accounts of glittering Manhattan soirees with their listeners in Radio Days, Woody Allen’s 1987 pastiche about the medium’s glory years. Pizzarelli notes that Irene and Roger were likely based on a real-life couple, Barcelona-born model and actress Eugenia “Jinx” Falkenburg and her publicist husband John “Tex” McCrary, who became the toast of the city in the mid-1940s, and are widely credited as the creators of the talk-show format with their top-rated, spouses-about-town program Hi Jinx. Radio Deluxe is, says Pizzarelli, intended to recapture the frolic and wit of Tex and Jinx.

“New York can be a lonesome kind of place,” says Molaskey, “and when I first moved here I listened to the radio all the time. There’s something about real radio that is great company. It can be a special kind of relationship. There are a lot of lonely people out there, and you can make your way into their lives and bring them stories and music. Certainly John, more than I, has such a great wealth of information about so many things. We get letters from people all over the country saying it makes them happy that they’ve had an intimate New York experience for an hour or two. It’s the power of radio. My mother worked in radio back in the early days, when they created sound effects by going clip-clop with a pair of shoes and stuff like that. I always thought it was amazing, because your imagination can come up with such a better set than anything you’d ever see on TV or in a movie.”

To strengthen the image of their imaginary penthouse, Molaskey and Pizzarelli encourage guests to comment on their surroundings. “When Margaret Whiting was here, she said she loved the curtains,” says Pizzarelli. Molaskey picks up the thread, remembering that, “[New York Times columnist] Frank Rich talked about the shag carpeting and the bean bag chairs. Every guest has added a little more to the décor.”

Originally, says Pizzarelli, the plan was for Radio Deluxe to “be built mostly around live music performances, but it was too hard with the way our schedules work. For the first bunch of shows, we tried to get everyone we knew here. We had my trio in here and [his father, fellow jazz guitar virtuoso] Bucky was here for a bunch of appearances, and it was just a mess because we’d do everything we could possibly think of and then throw it out to Don in Oregon to splice it all together. I’m sure he spent the first six months tearing his hair out. He’d call and say, ‘Could you maybe just try and tip off the next song so I have some idea of what I’m doing here?’ Now at least we know how to work to the right time schedule and I remember to send him a music list at the end of each show.”

Molaskey dryly interjects, “It was on-the-job training.”

Though the show is built around music, the key to its success is the dazzling repartee that comes naturally to Pizzarelli and Molaskey and is so obviously derived from their deep affection for one another. “Well,” she says, “I’d rather be in a room with John than with anyone else. We get up at 6:45, having worked all night, and he brings in the coffee and we just sit and laugh. I’m very, very lucky to have him in my life. He is a great guy.”

Counters Pizzarelli, “It’s the same reason why I’m not going to sit on a stage with Lucie Arnaz, who was one of the names they threw out to me at Feinstein’s. No offense to Lucie Arnaz. Jess and I purposely didn’t want to work together, but then I said you have to do this because she makes me laugh.”

As with all good comic teams, Molaskey and Pizzarelli are blessed with impeccable timing and strike a perfect stylistic balance. Where she excels at witty observations worthy of Dorothy Parker, he is delighted to mug, adopt funny voices (a superb mimic, he can produce spot-on imitations of anyone and everyone, from Johnny Carson and gruff-voiced papa Bucky to the sour waitress at the corner coffee shop) and contribute the radio version of pratfalls. She is the Crosby to his Hope, the Martin to his Lewis, the Debra to his Ray Barone.

Ideally matched as Pizzarelli and Molaskey are, they’re equally engaging with the show’s wide spectrum of guests, drawn largely from their vast circle of friends, acquaintances and professional colleagues throughout the New York area. To date, the list extends from living legends Keely Smith, Margaret Whiting and Liza Minnelli to New York Times music critic Stephen Holden, Manhattan Transfer’s Janis Siegel (who delivered Christmas biscotti to the Deluxe Living Room), Steve Tyrell (thus far, the only two-time visitor), Kenny Rankin, and such contemporary jazz stars as Elling, Stacey Kent and Peter Cincotti.

“The guests need to know there’s no heavy lifting,” says Pizzarelli. “We had Regis Philbin on, and Regis called Steve Tyrell and said, ‘You’re going to love doing this,’ so Steve came in and said, ‘I hear this is really fun.’ Kurt Elling was great fun. He said, ‘You guys are like a cartoon show.’ We’ve since become friends, so I’d love to have him back. When we have someone like Kurt on, we start listening to more Andy Bey and Mark Murphy, and then think how great it would be to have those guys on the show. We’re learning so much along the way.”

Finishing his thought, Molaskey enthuses, “We’ve met so many people who have been so incredibly generous. Barbara Cook spent two hours with us. Liza came and was so fantastic, sharing these really deep and lovely stories about her mom. And then we have people come in and just sing extemporaneously. Liza kept saying she couldn’t sing, then broke into song after song.”

As for dream guests, Pizzarelli says, “Tony Bennett would be great. I want to have Pat Metheny on and Dianne Reeves, and I’d love to get Diana Krall, because she lives here in the city.”

Since the music on Radio Deluxe leans heavily toward vocalists and favors the co-hosts’ eclectic tastes, there has been some kickback from listeners and affiliates (Radio Deluxe is, as of press time, carried by 45 stations across North America, stretching from L.A. to Portland, Maine, and can also be accessed on the web via Pizzarelli’s official website, www.johnpizzarelli.com) about the paucity of hardcore jazz.

“There are a lot of stations that say, ‘Well, it’s not really our format.’ But we don’t care about format. If we have to worry about format then forget it,” says Molaskey.

“Yeah,” agrees Pizzarelli, “we occasionally get mail, but I say ‘just send us the positive stuff’ because we’re not going to change anything. There was some guy who posted a message that said, ‘You’re on jazz stations and you don’t play a lot of real jazz,’ like ‘real jazz’ was one word. So, once [when Molaskey was busy with rehearsals for Sunday in the Park with George and he hosted the show solo] I went crazy and played wacky big-band cuts and all sorts of wild jazz stuff.”

Apart from Radio Deluxe, Pizzarelli and Molaskey are very selective about the projects they pursue in tandem. He produced and has made guest appearances on all four of her albums, most recently joining her for an inventive twining of Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game” and Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Waters of March” on Sitting in Limbo. Regarding that particular duet, Molaskey remarks, “John is so dear, because I think like an actress. So, I said, ‘OK, at the end of the song it should sound like someone is dying in bed and she hears people whispering about all the aspects of her life that are flashing before her eyes.’ And he looks at me like, ‘What the hell is she talking about?’ But then he goes ahead and does it.”

For her part, she’s only once guested on an album of his, a sparkling treatment of Dave Frishberg’s “Quality Time” for 2005’s Knowing You. Though she can’t be heard on his forthcoming Richard Rodgers disc, her presence can certainly be felt. She was, Pizzarelli says, the one who suggested he include “Carefully Taught” from South Pacific and came up with “a James Taylor sorta treatment, a kinda folk idea, and for ‘I Have Dreamed’ we came up with this Jessica Molaskey turn on it, because it’s like her ‘Summer, Highland Falls’ in the minor key.”

Also, among the various Rodgers compositions cleverly interpolated into his version of “I Like to Recognize the Tune” is a tiny snippet from Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer’s “Skylark” which, recalling their Dream days when they performed the song together, he acknowledges is “my special little ‘hello’ to Jess.”

Once a year they share an extended gig at the Café Carlyle (a nine-week engagement begins Sept. 9 and continues through Nov. 1). Fans are, however, still hoping they’ll someday deliver an entire album of duets. “A lot of people have asked us about that,” says Molaskey.

Adds Pizzarelli with a laugh, “We did attempt to do an album of songs we wrote, but it was gunned down—literally! [Our appearances at] the Carlyle [have] got us thinking about it again. The hard thing is to come up with ideas like ‘Circle Game’ with ‘Waters of March.’ But we’ve gotten lucky with the Carlyle. Because of Jess, we’re able to map out the duets really well and actually find time to rehearse, which is amazing.”

“Hey,” says Molaskey, “maybe we should just do a Live From the Carlyle album.”

It’s a terrific idea, but for now it’s time for them to head off in different directions: she for an afternoon slice of Sondheim and he for a few slices of pizza with Maddy. As schedules and tour dates allow, they’ll soon be back inside the tiny Nola booth that doubles as their enormous, beautifully appointed Lexington Avenue drawing room for another freeform Radio Deluxe session that will follow whatever direction whim and happenstance take.

How much longer are they willing to make the sizeable commitment a weekly show demands? “Well,” muses Molaskey, “in an ideal world, we’d get a big, fat sponsor. Then we’d do it forever. Because we really do feel like we’re providing something special, and it really doesn’t take that much out of our hides to do it.”

Originally published in August 2008

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