Bucky Pizzarelli: Challis in Wonderland

This may be a more urbane offering than guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli’s recent Western swing forays, but it’s no less charming in its own way, with and without strings attached.

The CD’s title refers to renowned early jazz arranger Bill Challis, best known for his pioneering collaborations with cornet player Bix Beiderbecke. Pizzarelli’s admiration for Challis is perhaps second to one: Benny Carter, who championed his groundbreaking arrangements early on. It’s not hard to share their enthusiasm while listening to the five Beiderbecke-Challis collaborations gathered here, especially the harmonically sophisticated “In a Mist,” with its tricky intervals and fitful chordal motion, and “Davenport Blues,” one of four performances enhanced by Dick Lieb’s evocative string quartet arrangements. The album’s title track, on the other hand, is a Pizzarelli original, a lovely minor-key homage to a major league artist. It’s something of a family affair, too, with John Pizzarelli, celebrated offspring and fellow seven-stringer, turning in the first of four neatly tailored album appearances.

What remains are mostly tunes associated with Beiderbecke, starting with a strings-propelled take on “Sunday” that showcases violinist Aaron Weinstein’s swing prowess. At the other end of the tonal spectrum is cellist Jesse Lacy, who plays a key role on a resonating version of “I’m Coming Virginia,” appearing before and after Pizzarelli and Weinstein nimbly team up.

The ringer is “What’s New.” Its selection, apparently, was an afterthought, though you’d never suspect that while listening to the Pizzarellis’ elegantly woven, blues-tinted duet.

Mike Joyce

A former editor of JazzTimes, Mike Joyce has written extensively on jazz, blues, country, and pop music for The Washington Post, Maryland and Washington, D.C. public television stations, and other outlets.