An Overdue Ovation for John Pisano

A selfless guitar hero

John Pisano (left) and guest Anthony Wilson at Pisano's Guitar Night in 2013
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John Pisano at the Eastman Guitars booth, Winter NAMM 2015
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If you’ve never before attended the Los Angeles jazz institution known as “John Pisano’s Guitar Night,” you might be hard-pressed, upon entering the Viva Cantina restaurant in Burbank, Calif., to identify which man on the small stage is in fact guitarist John Pisano. Yes, there is a guitarist out in front. But that’s not Pisano. You’ll find him stage left, slightly back from the center. He does take solos, his tone cool and husky, his melodic notions compelling. But he spends much of the night laying down a subtly driving rhythmic base for his guest guitarist.

Pisano has worked just as hard out of the spotlight as he has in it. The result has been a career, now in its seventh decade, that has seen him forge creative relationships with drummer Chico Hamilton, vocalist Peggy Lee, trumpeter Herb Alpert and most notably fellow guitarist Joe Pass, with whom Pisano played on 11 classic albums, including the seminal 1964 release For Django.

Born on Staten Island in 1931, Pisano’s musical education was an informal one. He took one early lesson with guitarist Chuck Wayne, best known for his work with Woody Herman and George Shearing, but learned much of his trade studying recordings of the great guitarists of his youth. “My first influence would have been Django Reinhardt,” he says, speaking in the spacious office of his Studio City home. “I woodshedded a lot of his stuff, wore out a lot of his records.”

Following a four-year stretch in the Air Force, during which he played in military bands that afforded him his first recording and radio sessions, Pisano originally planned to attend the Manhattan School of Music. But no sooner had he paid his tuition than he received a call from Hamilton, asking him to come to California and join his quintet-the result of a recommendation from Hamilton’s saxophonist and flutist Paul Horn, a former military-band connection. Pisano played with Hamilton from 1956 through 1958; it is his guitar you hear, and his hands doubling for actor Martin Milner’s, in the classic 1957 film Sweet Smell of Success, which features music and onscreen appearances by Hamilton’s band.

When Pisano first came to the West Coast, he didn’t expect to still be living there 60 years later. But after a while, says the guitarist, “I had more contacts here than in New York, because I had literally played maybe two or three gigs in Manhattan. I was on Staten Island, playing Italian weddings!” Pisano’s ties to L.A. are temperamental, as well. “I’ve always been a more laidback kind of person,” he says. “The intensity of New York was too crazy for me. West Coast jazz was always a little more relaxed. I think it’s just the nature of the areas influencing the intensity of the music.” An early devotee of the undulating rhythms of Brazilian music, Pisano was among the artists who spearheaded the bossa-nova craze that swept jazz in the 1960s. Through his work with Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, he also became a member of the original lineup of pianist-composer Sergio Mendes’ wildly popular Brasil ’66.

It was shortly after his stint in the Hamilton band that Pisano began his long-running partnership with Joe Pass. The guitarists first met when Pass agreed to sub for Pisano at an L.A. club gig, so the latter could go out on tour with Peggy Lee. (Pisano calls the torch singer “one of my dearest buddies,” and she wrote lyrics for his composition “So What’s New?,” a standard that has been recorded by more than 50 artists.) Pisano says the chemistry between Pass and himself was there from the first time they played together, though he finds it difficult to put the uniqueness of their harmonic interplay into words. “I guess the thing I did for him is exactly what he needed,” he says. “I just had a great time playing with him, and I’m so proud of it. Without bragging, I feel very honored.”

Guitarists have long recognized the influence of the Pass-Pisano collaboration. Transcriptionist Wolf Marshall has fought with publishers to include Pisano lines in his detailed breakdowns of Pass’ work, and guitarist Anthony Wilson, who has played with Pisano on a number of occasions, says that when he initially encountered the Pass albums, his first thought was “What’s Joe Pass even doing playing with another guitar player? But then when I heard those records, and I heard what was happening with this other guy … I thought, man, that’s really amazing playing, you know?”

In both instrumental playing with Pass, Hamilton and others, and in his collaborations with vocalists like Lee, Diana Krall, Frank Sinatra, Julie London, Tony Bennett and Natalie Cole, Pisano has thought long and hard about what makes an effective accompanist. “The whole key to not only playing good music but really enjoying music, which is a rarity, is in listening,” he says. “There’s a thing that happens when you’re playing with the right combination. It’s like the minds seem to go together, and you know exactly what the other guy is going to do. And when you get that kind of strength and energy surrounding you, it’s just a magical high.”

Pisano has also thought deeply about the tone and sound of his instrument, considerations that have been invaluable in his ongoing collaboration with Eastman Guitars, for which he created the John Pisano Signature Model series. “My love for the sound of the guitar is the acoustic sound of the instrument,” Pisano says. “You can feel the vibration in your bones. That was my first intent-to have a real strong, good acoustic sound, one that was comfortable-playing, and not too large.” The first Pisano model was made of spruce and maple. “Then an idea came across about mahogany,” he explains, “because it’s less high-pitched, and I like the mellow sound. So we made a mahogany version of the Pisano model.”

Today, Pisano’s principal creative outlet is the Guitar Night series, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this September. The performance series, in which Pisano is joined by a new guest guitarist every week (past visitors include Wilson, Peter Bernstein and Kenny Burrell), rotated through several homes before finding its current residence at Viva Cantina, which has now presented the event every Tuesday for over two years. Pisano admits that when he started Guitar Night, he had no idea it would be a two-decades-and-counting staple of the L.A. jazz scene. But he plans to keep it going as long as he’s still able to play, and he values the current venue because its no-drink-minimum policy allows admittance to Pisano’s students from California State University, Northridge, where he has taught guitar for the last 12 years.

“I teach what I know and do well,” Pisano says, “and that’s chord progression and movement. So my job is to show them ‘Stella by Starlight’ and how Bill Evans treats it, how Stan Getz would treat it, on the same changes. ‘Cause, you know, jazz is like a train you’re on. When you’re playing a tune, you don’t stop the train and say, ‘Wait a minute, I had another note I wanted to play here.’ You’re looking at what you just played, you’re looking at now, and you’re looking at what you’re going to play after that phrase. And your mind has to be able to access whatever harmony you have in your head, and whatever scales you have in your head. There’s a lot of stuff to practice.”

John Pisano has practiced it all, and it’s served him well in a career any musician would envy. Wilson recognizes that what Pisano provides his collaborators is the quintessence of creative partnership. “For me, it’s just the richness of what he has in his playing, from so many different angles-as an accompanist, as a soloist, as a person who has huge ears for harmony and for rhythm,” he says. “The way I feel, as soon as I’m in the midst of that, is like I can be free to play however I want to play. There’s something in the way he plays that gives license to his partners to really go for it.”

Recommended Listening:

Joe Pass For Django (Pacific Jazz, 1964)

Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass What Now My Love

(A&M, 1966)

Pisano & Ruff Under the Blanket (A&M, 1970)

Joe Pass/John Pisano Duets (Pablo, 1991)
John Pisano’s Guitar Night (Mel Bay, 2007)

Home-page photo of John Pisano by Bob Barry/Jazzography.

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