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John Pizzarelli Trio: Live at Birdland

It’s been 20 years since singer-guitarist John Pizzarelli made his recording debut as a leader and 10 since he teamed with brother and bassist Martin and pianist Ray Kennedy to emulate Nat “King” Cole with his kickass drummerless trio. Celebrating the latter landmark and revisiting material that dates as far back as the first, Pizzarelli and partners landed in New York City last September for a three-day visit that netted the impressive double-disc keepsake Live at Birdland.

All the fan favorites are here, including such perennial Pizzarelli staples as “The Frim Fram Sauce,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon” and “Three Little Words.” Here, too, are several winningly familiar Pizzarelli yarns. Best among them is an oft-told story involving the Library of Congress, George Gershwin’s piano and Kennedy’s performance for an appreciative (if invisible) audience of one. The first gentleman of contemporary jazz-spend five minutes with Pizzarelli and you’ll fully appreciate his inimitable warmth, humor and munificence of spirit-also offers heartfelt salutes to his frequent touring and recording companion Rosemary Clooney and to his long-ago music partner Grover Kemble.

Never one to hog the attention, Pizzarelli twice pushes Kennedy into the spotlight and the pianist responds with a majestic treatment of his own “Gospel Truth” and an honorific reinterpretation of “Tea for Two” appropriately re-named “Tea for Tatum.” Elsewhere in this bountiful collection (the combined playing time of the two discs is a generous two hours and 12 minutes), Pizzarelli uses that gently fractured voice of his to full romantic advantage on cashmere-soft renditions of “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and “Isn’t It a Pity?” All told, the trio covers some two-dozen selections. None, though, can match the laugh-out-loud pleasure of the third-to-last track. As a self-confessed sucker for a good list song, I’ve always ranked Pizzarelli’s signature tune, “I Like Jersey Best,” right up there with Cole Porter’s “Let’s Not Talk About Love” and the Schwartz-Dietz delight “Rhode Island Is Famous for You” (also, as luck would have it, featured on Live at Birdland). Weighing in at a hefty eight-and-a-half minutes, the rendering of “Jersey” included here eclipses all predecessors. Gleefully heralded by Pizzarelli as “The Complete” version, it augments Joseph Cosgriff’s punny paean to the Garden State with brilliantly funny nods to Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, the Eagles, the Beach Boys, Billie Holiday, Sting, the Doobie Brothers, James Taylor, Lou Rawls and Lou Reed.

Here’s hoping that Pizzarelli (proud scion of Paterson, N.J.) will be singing it, playing it and adding new verses for many more decades to come.

Originally Published