CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

James Taylor & John Pizzarelli: Setting a Standard

Two great singers and guitarists—one of them also a songwriter of some note—collaborate on Taylor’s American Standard album

James Taylor
James Taylor (photo by Norman Seeff)

John Pizzarelli was not expecting a call from James Taylor. Sure, the jazz guitarist and singer had recorded with Taylor on his October Road and Christmas with James Taylor albums. But, even though he was a lifelong Taylor fan, Pizzarelli naturally assumed those sessions were a one-and-done (or two-and-done) situation. He didn’t know that Taylor was in the process of planning his latest project: a recording of standards from the Great American Songbook. The finished product, aptly named American Standard, was released on Feb. 28 on Fantasy Records—and co-produced by Pizzarelli.

One afternoon, Pizzarelli and his wife, the noted Broadway singer Jessica Molaskey, had turned off their phones and were on a walk in the woods. (Okay, it was actually in Riverside Park in New York, but the Sondheim reference was irresistible given Molaskey’s history with that composer.) The couple got home for dinner and Pizzarelli’s phone was lit up. He recalls: “James’ assistant had texted me that ‘James wants to get in touch with you and is this a good place?’” Er, well, yes. “James texted me and said, ‘It’s time for me to do an album of standards and you the man,’” Pizzarelli says. “I looked at it and started laughing. ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’ We spoke after dinner, and he said, ‘I wanna get together and look at songs and see how we can go about it and whenever you can come up, let’s make a plan.’”

Taylor’s plan was simple. “When I started work on this album I knew, whatever became of it, American Standard was going to start with my arrangements on the guitar of these standards, and I wanted to run them by a really good technical player to basically have an editor for my arrangements,” Taylor explained in an expansive email to JazzTimes. “Basically these songs, like all of my songs, the ones that I write and the ones that I cover, start with my guitar arrangement of the tune. Often I will show that to my band, starting with the keyboard player and the bass. Bass, drums, keyboard, and electric guitar—those are usually what form my basic tracks but, in this case, I wanted to really stick with it as a guitar album. That’s why I went to John Pizzarelli.”

John Pizzarelli
John Pizzarelli (photo: Perry Joseph)

However, the plan wasn’t as clear in Pizzarelli’s mind. “When I first got called about it, I didn’t know what he was thinking,” he says. “I thought there would be a rhythm section. Then I got there and it was just the two of us.” Pizzarelli went up to Taylor’s house in the Berkshires in Massachusetts, where the superstar singer/songwriter has built a barn with a recording studio. “One day we sat in the barn going through a bunch of tunes. He literally went page by page in a fake book and said, ‘This could be interesting.’ I think he had an idea of what songs he wanted to use. The very first day, he sang ‘Old Man River’ by himself. I sat in the [control] booth and every once in a while he’d ask about a chord, and I’d suggest something and he’d try it. I forget what the second tune was, but I started to play with him and then we settled into it. We’d get into the barn around 11 a.m., have a cup of coffee, tell some stories, and then he’d start to play a song he was interested in, and I’d say, ‘That sounds cool.’ We’d make our way into the studio area, play for three hours or so and work it out, and then for three hours we’d record it. We’d have dinner, and after 90 minutes or so he’d bring the guitar out and we’d play until midnight or whatever.” The two ended up spending many long days and nights together, and their two guitars would end up as the foundation for the sound of the album. With such an idyllic, pastoral scene as the backdrop, it’s no surprise that the album radiates tranquil simplicity.

Taylor offered his perspective on their creative process: “John and I put them down as demos essentially and then we liked them so much, they were so well balanced, and he filled them out so perfectly, basically completed what I was playing on the guitar … that it became the basic tracks for that album. I just remembered him as being the quintessential technical guitarist, the one to go to for knowledge about guitar arrangement, and it turned out to be exactly the case. Plus, he’s a great guy to work with and to hang with. We had a great time.”

Obviously, Taylor had chosen to work with Pizzarelli not just because of his swinging seven-string guitar style, but also because of his encyclopedic knowledge of the Great American Songbook. American Standard features an interesting and eclectic collection of songs, many from ’40s and ’50s musicals. As they worked through the songs, Pizzarelli offered more input: “After the first five days, there was a little time off and he said, ‘If you have any ideas, let me know.’ I played ‘Surrey With the Fringe on Top,’ ‘My Heart Stood Still,’ and ‘You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,’ which is the one I really wanted him to do. Instead of playing it in 3/4 as it was written, I came up with a 4/4 version of it. At one point, he said, ‘You really James Taylor-ized that thing.’ He ended up doing it in 3/4. I don’t know why, but he came up with a beautiful thing on it. ‘My Heart Stood Still’ was the same sort of thing. There were things that were attractive to him about the tunes.”

Taylor explained that the choice of material was not just a matter of taste. “Basically they were the songs that I felt I had good arrangements for,” he wrote. “I had about 20 songs that, over the years, I had taught myself and that I could play. I showed those to John and he made a couple of suggestions, like ‘You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught’ from South Pacific. The songs that are on the album are simply there because I can play them on the guitar, and that’s what narrowed down the incredible potential list.”

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Love of the classic songs Taylor grew up with is inextricably tied to the unique way he approaches the guitar. “What we do when we fall in love with an instrument and keep stealing off to quiet places to practice and to expand our knowledge on it, is we play whatever we know, we just try and play any song we can think of,” he wrote. “In the beginning I played popular songs, folk songs, hymns from the Protestant Hymnal at school, and these standards that I had heard in my home from the family record collection. We had numerous cast albums of the great Broadway musicals and we had albums by jazz singers like Nina Simone, and those songs which I knew and had sort of ingested, I then sat down and played on the guitar and I came up with arrangements of them. In the process I basically taught myself to play the guitar.”

This musical home schooling inadvertently led the self-taught Taylor to develop an unusual method of playing chords. “Anyone who you talk to about my fingerings of an A chord, a D chord, an E chord, will tell you that I play them backwards because nobody taught those chords to me, I just knew I needed a IV chord in the key of E and I just played through the guitar, putting my finger where I knew it needed to go to make the sound,” he explained. “I learned my A, my D, my E, my B7 that way, and those are the things that contribute to an individual’s style. For instance, I’m known for my hammering-off of those chords, particularly the A and the D, the G as well, and that’s because I play them backwards—my index finger is doing the off-hammering, which is why it happened. I can’t tell you exactly which songs from that great era of American Songbook writing …  informed which songs [of mine] and in what way. I only know that when I play a IV chord that’s a maj7 to a V chord that’s a 7sus4, I learned that from Aaron Copland. These are things that stick in your mind and then become part of your thing.”

Pizzarelli enjoyed having a front-row seat to Taylor’s creative process. “It’s amazing because you’re sitting there and you start to understand how he works, how he’s thinking on the guitar. He came up with fantastic intros and outros to the tunes,” the guitarist says. “He’s so full of ideas. It was fun to come up with contrasting guitar parts, having been a fan of him my whole life.”

Over that time, Pizzarelli came to a higher appreciation of his friend’s gifts: “His harmonic sense is what makes the whole thing happen. You hear all the James Taylor-izations of stuff. Those hammer-offs are part of the whole package he’s got. He seems to think like, ‘Well, I got a couple of things that I do,’ but when you put it all together, it’s a lot. He’s applied it to 16 pop songs or standards and he’s made it special. I joked with him when we did ‘Mean Old Man’ [on October Road]. He said to me, ‘You got to show me that thing you do with the rhythm guitar.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, sure, if you show me how to do that fingerpicking thing you do.’”  Apparently, in order to do so, Pizzarelli would have to unlearn the guitar and start over again, listening to his parents’ albums in their living room.

Cover of James Taylor’s American Standard album

Although the two had made what many of us would consider a finished (albeit stripped-down) album, Taylor wasn’t done. He and his longtime engineer and producer Dave O’Donnell took the tapes to Nashville, where they dubbed some tracks with three of the great Nashville cats—Jerry Douglas on dobro, Stuart Duncan on violin, and Viktor Krauss on bass—who give the album a touch of Americana. They also added percussion by Luis Conte and Steve Gadd, as well as backing vocals by Taylor’s longtime cohorts Arnold McCullers, Kate Markowitz, and Andrea Zonn. Keyboardist Larry Goldings, who first played with Taylor in that same October Road session as Pizzarelli and went on to become a vital part of Taylor’s working band, added a melodica solo on “Almost Like Being in Love” and keyboard flourishes on other tunes. Taylor’s wife Kim does a nice cameo singing the response verse in “Surrey with the Fringe on Top.” Even with all those additions, the two guitars form the real backbone of the album and nicely set up Taylor’s sui generis vocal style.

This was not Pizzarelli’s first time at the “pop star does jazz” rodeo; he was previously a part of Paul McCartney’s Kisses on the Bottom session, along with Diana Krall, John Clayton, and Jeff Hamilton. Although the two albums are quite different in sound, Pizzarelli saw a common thread in the leaders’ strong affinity for musicals and the Great American Songbook. “Paul McCartney would make all sorts of references to Johnny Mercer in his songs,” Pizzarelli explains. “Both Paul and James mentioned being around the house with the songbooks. They’re both cut from the same cloth in how they first heard music.” Interesting, too, that McCartney offered Taylor his first record deal back in 1968 with Apple. (No, not Steve Jobs’ Apple—the Beatles’ Apple.)

Perhaps the biggest revelation from American Standard is not how James Taylor sounds doing songs from musicals, but rather how songs from musicals informed his own songwriting from the beginning—from “Sweet Baby James” (see Oklahoma!) to “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” (see My Fair Lady). Lifelong fans of Taylor are well acquainted with how he was influenced by folk, blues, and soul, but they may not have been aware of just how much the songs from the golden era of American music were already in his musical DNA, going all the way back to his long-haired singer/songwriter days in the ’60s and ’70s.

Taylor acknowledged his deep affection not just for the Great American Songbook, but also for its interpreters—the great singers in American history. “I love Ella and I love Frank, I also love Nat King Cole and, whenever Ray Charles sings anything, I’m just a sucker for it, whatever it is,” he wrote. “But you know, the thing that strikes me about these songs is, when we listen to music today, the things that are popular are popular not primarily because of the song—that figures into it somewhat—but because of the singer. It’s the singer that we’re listening to, that particular voice, and that’s because it’s recorded and when we think of the song, we think of the performance of it. But these songs, generally speaking, were written before there was going to be a particular performance of it. They were written for musicals, they were written for movies, there was no telling who would be singing these songs. So that’s the interesting thing about these songs to me, they exist as songs for anyone to sing and that’s why they are so strong as songs … the craft of these songwriters is as high and evolved and sophisticated and interesting, as emotionally compelling as anything else in the history of popular American music. They are, to my mind, the high-water mark of popular music. There are other sources for great music, notably Brazilian music, and then the Celtic tradition, then the Afro-Cuban tradition—the African tradition; but these songs are really rare.”

In the making of American Standard, Pizzarelli saw how Taylor the songwriter helped Taylor the singer to interpret the works of other writers. “When he’s translating those songs into his style, there’s a songwriter who is listening to the lyric,” Pizzarelli says. “That was an interesting aspect of watching him listen to the songs because he’d talk about the lyrics and figure things out. He’s not just singing something on a page, he’s looking at it as a guy who’s written a lot of songs, going ‘What did this person mean by this?’ That’s why you hear those things in his interpretation.”

photo of John Pizzarelli for Jobim Sinatra project
John Pizzarelli (photo by Jacob Blickenstaff)

There’s clearly a deep and mutual affection and respect between these two artists, as evidenced when Taylor is asked what he thinks is unique about Pizzarelli. “It’s the depth and breadth of his ability,” Taylor wrote. “He’s one of those rare, very evolved and very accomplished musicians—a guitarist who can listen to anything in the American songbook and sit down and play it for you. He knows what the ingredients are, he knows five different ways to play all of them. When John takes something and interprets it he brings so much to the discussion, he brings such a wealth of knowledge and talent to the conversation that it’s just a delight. That’s what he is, he’s a musical mind, and it is a unique one. Without a question he’s a second-generation guitarist who’s devoured his father, Bucky Pizzarelli’s, knowledge, and has built on it. There are very few like him in the world today, he’s just uniquely talented.”

In Taylor’s eyes (and ears), Pizzarelli was the perfect accomplice to create a different sort of standards album.  “It was an idea in the beginning to see whether or not two guitars would suffice,” Taylor explained. “But as soon as we put them down as tracks I said, ‘Let’s see if we can make this a guitar album,’ and, in fact, it was a great idea.” Pizzarelli succinctly agrees: “It was the right idea, and he pulled it off beautifully.”

They both did.