On paper, John Pizzarelli’s gig at the Catalina Bar and Grill Wednesday night might have seemed like another attempt to unveil a slick young purveyor of old tunes in the manner of Harry What’s-His-Name. And there was nostalgia aplenty as Pizzarelli and his equally slick sidekicks charmingly re-created the ambience of the fabled King Cole Trio.
But Pizzarelli didn’t just burst out of nowhere. At 32, Pizzarelli, whose father is marvelous veteran guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, has several albums on the Stash label to his credit, years of session experience and chops to burn on his dad’s seven-string Benedetto guitar.
Right now, Pizzarelli’s new label RCA seems determined to present him in the unctuous Connick manner. His first RCA album, “All Of Me ” (Novus), finds him singing mostly old standards — not always in tune — backed by lavish big band and string charts.
Catch Pizzarelli in an intimate club setting, though, and the waves of hype subside. He is a far more ingratiating performer in a guitar-piano-bass setting, flanked by family (his brother Martin on bass) and near-family (Ken Levinsky, son of alto saxophonist Walt Levinsky, on piano).
Certainly Pizzarelli’s virtuosity on guitar is unquestionable. He rattles off single-string solos in soft-focused, loving emulation of Oscar Moore (Cole’s guitarist), and when he does rapid melodic chording, he sounds like a Xerox copy of his dad (especially on “Honeysuckle Rose”).
As a singer, Pizzarelli’s nasal, boyish tenor is much better suited for jivey novelty tunes than deeper ballads, yet he scats flawlessly in sync with his guitar.
The Pizzarellis and Levinsky have got the old King Cole Trio idiom down pat, with airtight unison passages, the four-on-the-floor pulse of the ’30s and ’40s, and carefree laconic wit.
Much of the first set was an outright homage to Nat Cole, with numbers from the Cole songbag like the humorous The Best Manor the ballad “This Will Make You Laugh.”
But there were also a few ringers from other eras like a convincing bossa-nova treatment of “‘S Wonderful” and an authentically mousey imitation of Dave Frishberg in the latter’s lyric to “Zoot Walked In.” Indeed, Pizzarelli may be too good and open-minded a musician to remain content in the retro-’40s bag for long.