John Pizzarelli’s Ode to Pat Metheny

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John Pizzarelli hit the woodshed, literally, to develop material for his new recording Better Days Ahead: Solo Guitar Takes On Pat Metheny.

(Photo: Jessica Molaskey)

It was in his darkest hour, during the early stages of the 2020 lockdown, that guitarist-vocalist John Pizzarelli turned to the music of Pat Metheny for comfort. He and his wife, singer Jessica Molaskey, had escaped their Manhattan apartment on March 13 to sequester in their cozy lakeside cabin in upstate New York. On April 1, John lost his father, legendary guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, who succumbed to COVID-19 at age 94. One week later, and two days after his own 60th birthday, his mother, Ruth, also passed from the deadly virus. Ruth and Bucky had been married for 66 years.

Locked away in the solitude of the cabin, Pizzarelli began meticulously figuring out some of his favorite Metheny tunes on his trusty seven-string guitar, partly to keep his mind off of his misery and partly to challenge himself by tackling something new, just as his father had done years earlier.

“Watching Bucky learn classical guitar when I was a kid was something I kept relating back to while doing this project,” Pizzarelli said of Better Days Ahead: Solo Guitar Takes On Pat Metheny (Ghostlight Records). “I remember hearing my dad play all this Segovia stuff in this room where he practiced and seeing all the music spread out on this little table he had next to the music stand. He’d wake up every morning, go into that room and work on Segovia. He always tried making new discoveries.”

While Pizzarelli cites guitarists like George Van Eps, Oscar Moore and his own father as his primary guitar influences, he has also admired Metheny’s gift for the sublime melodicism and unrestrained lyricism conveyed on tunes like “Farmer’s Trust,” “If I Could,” “Last Train Home” and “James.” And when things turned darkest for him, he embraced those melodic gems as a lifeline. Molaskey regards her husband’s deep dive into Metheny’s music as a kind of therapy. “My wife talks about it more than really I do,” he said. “But she sees something spiritual about it because she understands all that was going on at the time.”

Pizzarelli explained his process at the cabin: “I would sit up here and play my guitar every day, and I had time to do it. The phone wasn’t ringing, nothing was happening. And I wasn’t sleeping so well, so I could get up at 6 in the morning and sit in this little porch up here by the lake and start to play these Pat Metheny tunes that I really liked. I had no plan, but it became a daily routine, learning new tunes and getting to spend six or seven hours a day figuring these things out. I started off playing ‘James’ and then one day I thought, ‘Well, what about “Better Days Ahead”? I might as well do that.’ And to have those hours and hours and hours every day to go over that stuff was quite remarkable. I actually got a little tendonitis in the pointer finger on my left hand from doing all the stretches in the bar chords I was playing. That was one of those things where I was thinking, ‘I actually may be playing the guitar too much,’ which I’ve never said before.”

While woodshedding Metheny’s music, Pizzarelli would recall the wise counsel of his father from earlier times. “I would hear Bucky say to me, in my head, ‘What are you rushing for? Take your time with this, it’s a beautiful melody. Let me hear what this melody is.’ So all those pieces of advice he gave me when I was a kid struggling with standards were still in my brain.”

Pizzarelli began posting videos of his solo guitar pieces on Instagram before his friend and co-producer Rick Haydon finally laid down the law. “He said, ‘No more posting! You’ve got to record all this stuff.’ He suggested ‘Antonia’ and then another buddy of mine said, ‘Are you going to do “Last Train Home”?’ And it just snowballed from there.”

The task was made easier by Metheny himself, who called to offer condolences for Bucky’s passing and ended up offering to send lead sheets of all the tunes when he found out what John was working on.

“He said, ‘These are the lead sheets I send to guys who are going to do the gig with me.’ So that was like getting the Holy Grail. It really helped make sure certain chords were right, that I had the right melodies and that kind of stuff. So, Pat really participated in this project, in a sense.”

Recorded in his cabin on an iPad with just one instrument (his Moll seven-string classical guitar), Better Days Ahead represents a couple of firsts for Pizzarelli.

“I’ve never done a solo guitar record, and I’ve never played an entire record of fingerpicking on a nylon-string like that,” he said. “I’ve played some fingerstyle when I accompanied Bucky on those records we did together. But I’d have the pick in my fingers, so I could it always pull it out and play single-note lines when he would accompany me. But an entire album of fingerstyle is something new for me.”

He also pointed out that it’s the first album that he’s made with no vocals, which gives its cover (a portrait of Pizzarelli wearing a mask, painted by Jessica) a double-edged meaning.

From the buoyant, uplifting title track (from 1989’s Letter From Home) and the melancholy ode to Bill Evans, “September Fifteenth” (from 1981’s As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls), to the darkly tinged “Antonia” (from 1992’s Secret Story), a hymn-like take on “Last Train Home” (from 1993’s The Road To You), a joyful “James” (Metheny’s most oft-covered tune from 1982’s Offramp) and a lullaby rendering of the orchestral title track from 2020’s From This Place. Pizzarelli lovingly carves out his own seven-string place on these artfully crafted compositions.

“Pat’s had such an amazing output,” said Pizzarelli, who had previously done tributes to Nat “King” Cole, Frank Sinatra, Antonio Carlos Jobim, the Beatles and Paul McCartney. “We’re talking about 40-plus years of material that he’s put out into the world. And it’s such great music. His literature is so melodic and so approachable. He’s made this modern-day repertoire for guitarists to play, and it’s fantastic.”

What Pizzarelli has lovingly crafted with Better Days Ahead may indeed have the same healing effect on listeners that Metheny’s music had on him. DB



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