Seventeen years ago, Penn Jillette and his friend Mike Post went out to dinner at The Eiffel Tower—a place that Mike Jones, the house pianist at the time, remembers not very fondly as a “shitty restaurant in Las Vegas.” Today, though, he’s grateful for that gig because that’s where he and the verbal half of the magician duo Penn & Teller first crossed paths and started hanging out together, talking music.
Jillette, who had just begun playing acoustic bass a year or so earlier, called Jones after a few weeks with a proposition. As Jillette remembered it: “I told him, ‘Jonesy, I’d like you to play before Teller and I do our show each night at The Rio. The downside is that I’m gonna play bass with you.’”
Jones recalled: “My response to that was, ‘Why the hell do you need jazz in a magic show? And you’ve only been playing bass for a year, so why get up there in front of 1,400 people and play it every night?’ And [Jillette’s] answer was, ‘Well, I’m not gonna get any better if I don’t do it.’”
To this day, an hour before each show, the duo plays a 45-minute set of standards, followed by a 15-minute solo piano performance as Jillette slips out to morph into his magician identity. The first few weeks were rocky, but thanks to his private lessons with Vegas bass stalwart Morrie Louden, serious woodshedding and hours in action with Jones, Jillette upped his game faster than even he thought he could.
This is clear throughout The Show Before The Show (Capri), their new duo album. Its 10 tracks were cut live at the Penn & Teller Theater within the Rio All-Suites Hotel & Casino. The two generate a driving sense of swing together, if not an overdose of subtlety.
“This is an over-the-top, in-your-face, every-note-I-can-play gig whose whole purpose is to get people excited about seeing a magic show,” Jones explained. “And I absolutely love doing it.”
Consistent with his personality, Jillette plays aggressively, with a big tone and punchy attack. “Jonesy has a very strong prejudice against guys who play soft, with a lot of amplification,” Jillette said. “He would always say, ‘Bass is all about a big man on a big instrument, moving a lot of air.’” DB