“Two Truly Amazing Guitarists!” Larry Carlton and John Pizzarelli LIVE! at MayoPAC
It’s a gorgeous day in Morristown, NJ, as we stroll down South St. towards MayoPAC ready to experience a rare concert pairing by legendary jazz guitar giants Larry Carlton and John Pizzarelli!
Larry Carlton, 70, was born in Torrance, California, and began taking guitar lessons at the age of six. His interest in jazz came from hearing guitarist Joe Pass on the radio. He was also influenced by the jazz stylings of Barney Kessel and Wes Montgomery, in addition to the blues guitar playing of B.B. King. During the 1970s, he found steady work as a studio musician, appearing on hundreds of studio sessions with musicians such as Herb Alpert, The Fifth Dimension, Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell, Michael Jackson, and Steely Dan. His guitar work on “Kid Charlemagne” — from Steely Dan’s 1976 recording, The Royal Scam — led the album cut to be ranked one of the best guitar songs of all time by Rolling Stone magazine.
As a solo artist, Carlton produced a series of noteworthy albums including Alone/But Never Alone, Discovery, On Solid Ground, Deep Into It, and Fire Wire. He was also a member of two highly respected jazz groups: The Crusaders starring Joe Sample, Stix Hooper, and Wilton Felder, and Fourplay featuring Bob James, Nathan East, and Harvey Mason. Altogether, Carlton is a 19-time Grammy nominee and a four-time Grammy winner.
John Pizzarelli was born in Paterson, NJ. He, too, started guitar lessons when he was six, but he also played trumpet throughout his college years. As the son of jazz guitar great, Bucky Pizzarelli, while still a teenager, John had the experience of performing with the likes of Benny Goodman, Clark Terry, and Les Paul. With a trio he founded with his brother, Martin, Pizzarelli spent time in the 1990s as the opening act for Frank Sinatra.
Appearing on over 40 albums by such celebrated artists as Paul McCartney, James Taylor, The Manhattan Transfer, and more, Pizzarelli has recorded 20 solo recordings including Our Love is Here to Stay, Dear Mr. Sinatra, and Midnight McCartney, not to mention his latest effort, 2017’s Sinatra & Jobim @ 50.
As we enter MayoPAC’s gorgeous lobby, we come upon two long-time fans of John Pizzarelli and his music — Laura and Ralph from Parsippany.
Reveals Laura, “My husband introduced me to John Pizzarelli’s music — he’s an amazing guitarist and a fabulous entertainer. He’s down to earth and funny — I’d say as funny as Johnny Carson! We’ve seen him twice before here in New Jersey and I just love the way he talks to the audience,” before noting, “and I also read his book, World on a String: A Musical Memoir, and I highly recommend it!”
Acknowledges Ralph, “I’ve been a fan of John Pizzarelli since the early 1990s. I have every one of his albums. He’s a tremendous guitar player. I like that he plays a 7-string guitar, just like his dad, Bucky. He also comes across as a very friendly guy who’s really easy to like.”
Both Laura and Ralph indicate how much they enjoy seeing concerts at this particular venue when Laura comments, “We love coming here to MayoPAC for concerts. They bring such great acts in, and it’s such a beautiful venue,” before noting, “so if you compare seeing artists in New York City or here in New Jersey, it’s wonderful to get to see them right here in our home state!”
As we head inside MayoPAC’s beautiful auditorium, we chat with another pair of music lovers — Nancy and Anthony from Hillsboro.
States Nancy, “I’m a trombone player and an orchestra director and — as a musician — who doesn’t love Larry Carlton? I’ve been following his music for at least 20 years,” before concluding, “He’s a master.”
Remarks Anthony, “I’m a long time Larry Carlton fan — ever since I was a kid. I was in Los Angeles for awhile and Carlton was really big out there, playing in groups like The Crusaders and Fourplay.”
“I’m a guitar player,” discloses Anthony, “so I like that sweet style Larry Carlton plays! I saw him in a small club one time — he’s so tasteful,” before noting, “But we love John Pizzarelli, too — for me, these are my two favorite guys, so I’m really excited that they’ll be playing together here tonight!”
Soon, the lights dim and, together, Larry Carlton and John Pizzarelli make their way out onto the stage to enthusiastic applause.
Opening with an upbeat and jazzy rendition of The Beatles’ “I Feel Fine,” Carlton and Pizzarelli get the audience’s attention right away with their prodigious guitar talents, each wailing and playing off of one another.
Pizzarelli is also in excellent voice, handling the tune’s lead vocal. The tight backup band featuring Ted Baker on piano and synthesizer, Gary Haase on bass, and Clint de Ganon on drums, supports the two lead guitarists as they take the audience down a jazzy winding path. With multiple sets of feet tapping both on the stage and in the audience, the musicians end the song to avid cheers!
Pizzarelli takes a moment to welcome the excited crowd, confessing, “I get to be the envy of all guitarists because I get to play with Larry Carlton!”
Carlton addresses the audience as well, stating, “John and I had an opportunity to play together at a private party about a year ago — with no rehearsal. We had such a good time that when this opportunity came about, we decided to do it again.”
Explaining, “This is how we do it — we talk about what we’re gonna do, by setting the tempo and the feel — and then we play!” Carlton underscores the “high-wire” nature of tonight’s musical program, emphasizing the fact that their performance is largely spontaneous and unrehearsed.
The audience claps and cheers as soon as they recognize the opening strains of Carlton’s infectious “Smiles and Smiles to Go.” Their mutual respect is evident as the dynamic duo’s individual and collective musicianship permeates this happy tune while playing and improvising their way through the number.
Following cheers and applause, the legendary guitarists talk about their next song, Carlton’s notoriously difficult composition, “Don’t Give it Up,” before even attempting to play it.
Jokes Pizzarelli, “I get to play the melody on this and I’m worried!”
Comments Carlton, “I recorded it in my younger years, and I told John that I can’t play it like that anymore, and John just said, ‘I’ll play it!’”
Counting off this fast-paced rockin’ jam of a number, the melody flies by in a blur, the swirling background featuring fancy bass work by Haase, powerhouse drumming by de Ganon, and tasty solos from Baker on keys as Larry Carlton makes his Gibson 335 electric sing.
The knowing audience cheers for this elite performance!
Pizzarelli introduces the next number as one from his latest album, Sinatra & Jobim @ 50 — a Michael Franks tune entitled “Antonio’s Sound” which Franks created as an homage to Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim. Playing with a soft jazz guitar style on his classical guitar, Pizzarelli’s warm voice and instrumental accompaniment sound crystal clear in this sonically superior listening space. Carlton’s twangy electric guitar tone contrasts beautifully with the gentle bossa nova chordal accompaniment emanating from Pizzarelli’s acoustic as the tune flows and Pizzarelli sings, “from light into the rainbow.”
Moving on to another Michael Franks’ composition, the pair performs “Chain Reaction.” As Pizzarelli croons, “Once you break it, you can’t fake it/Once you wind it up, you can’t unwind it,” the music builds as Baker channels Chick Corea with his Fender Rhodes keyboard sound and Haase and de Ganon deftly support Carlton as he interpolates several of his own well-known melodies within his solo, his fingers dancing across his fingerboard.
Another number from the Sinatra & Jobim @50 recording follows — an original composition by Pizzarelli entitled “Canto Casual.” As Pizzarelli’s voice and guitar are featured on this lively bossa which resembles a Sérgio Mendes and Brasil ’66 production, Carlton sits back on his stool — his sneakers in the air — playing tasty chords.
The audience cheers, after which Carlton asks Pizzarelli, “Do you want to play something we’ve never done?” Announcing, “This comes from my first Warner Brothers record, Larry Carlton, which I recorded in 1978,” Pizzarelli smiles before confessing, “I’ve played along with that record so many times!”
After the backup musicians take leave of the stage, the pair launches into a gorgeous duet version of Carlton’s ballad, “(It Was) Only Yesterday.” Here, the jazz masters trade off on the beautiful melody and harmony — the sound from their hollow-bodied electric guitars caressing the entranced audience. Playing ever so delicately, Pizzarelli’s foot can be heard throughout the hall tapping as he plays a thoughtful chordal jazz solo. Communicating through occasional eye contact — but mostly through the glorious sounds they are creating — both guitar gods sport broad smiles on their faces as they bend their strings higher and higher near the song’s conclusion before ending with mutual laughter!
Carlton takes leave of the stage so that Pizzarelli can be featured. First, Pizzarelli tells a story about the special 7-string guitar he plays, joking, “It has an extra low ‘A’ string, so you don’t need a bass player.” Then, he tells a tale about getting an opportunity to perform with the great guitarist and musical innovator, Les Paul. As a tribute to Paul, Pizzarelli performs “How High the Moon,” playing up and down the neck of his guitar with a judicious use of harmonic overtones, his foot tapping as he plays with his thumb and fingers in triple rhythm.
Punctuating his melodic solo with harmonic blips to cheers and applause, Larry Carlton returns to the stage clapping for Pizzarelli on a job well done!
Dedicating their next number to Steely Dan’s Walter Becker — who passed away in September of 2017 — Carlton says “I hope he’s listening,” as he and Pizzarelli play a number from Steely Dan’s classic album, Aja. Opening with the piece’s iconic guitar chord introduction, Carlton, Pizzarelli, and company launch into an electrifying rendition of “Josie” with Carlton handling the famous melody on his 335.
As the band simmers and cooks, Baker plays two keyboards simultaneously while the audience rocks to the infectious groove of this incredible number.
After Pizzarelli asks Carlton about his work recording Steely Dan’s Aja, Carlton replies, “I wasn’t the arranger, but I was the musical liaison between Steely Dan members Donald Fagan and Walter Becker — who were in the recording booth — and all of the other musicians out in the studio.”
Pizzarelli then acknowledges, “I created the set list tonight and I decided that we were only going to play the guitar solo section from Steely Dan’s ‘Kid Charlemagne,’” to which Carlton reveals, “After I played the solo on that record, I never learned it, but — after talking to some friends — they convinced me I needed to learn it for a series of eight live shows I did with Steely Dan.”
Recreating musical history, Carlton, Pizzarelli, and the band perform one of the highlight numbers of the evening as they play a stunning rendition of the instrumental segment of Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne.” With Pizzarelli grinning from ear to ear, both he, his bandmates, and the audience are astounded as Carlton magnificently recreates his iconic solo to audience clapping, cheers, and screams!
After Carlton reveals, “I won a Grammy for this next song,” he and Pizzarelli perform Michael McDonald’s “Minute by Minute,” the audience applauding the moment they hear the song’s famous keyboard intro. Audience members can’t help but nod their heads in time to the soulful rhythm as Carlton deftly handles the lead before handing it over to Pizzarelli on the bridge.
Waiting for Carlton’s cue to end together, Pizzarelli gives an “I’m not worthy” bow to Carlton at the conclusion before announcing, “It’s such a special thing to be with a musician who has meant so much to guitarists and musicians everywhere.”
Closing out the evening’s show, Pizzarelli, Carlton, and friends perform “Ruby Baby,” a hit for Dion which Donald Fagin re-arranged for his Nightfly album. With Pizzarelli joyfully singing the lead, Carlton wails on the guitar before Pizzarelli takes over with chordal solo and the band rocks out.
As Pizzarelli announces, “It’s been a pleasure to play for you!” the crowd rises to its feet and won’t sit down!
The musicians take leave of the stage but soon return, at which point Carlton reveals, “I turned 70 this year. For our last song, here’s one I recorded with The Crusaders when I was 23!”
Launching into a soulful and funky rendition of “Put It Where You Want It,” Carlton and Pizzarelli play off one another as they roll through this feel good tune, indelibly putting it in the pocket. Holding his guitar pick in his mouth so he can play with his fingers, Carlton solos, and the band brings the volume down softer and softer to accentuate Carlton’s sparkling solo. By the end of the number, Carlton and Pizzarelli join forces and play the lead together in beautiful and dynamic harmony as these talented friends bring the crowd to its feet!
As happy audience members make their way out of the MayoPAC auditorium and into the lobby, we chat with several music lovers present who share their thoughts with us on tonight’s concert.
Says Debbie from Plainfield, “Larry Carlton and John Pizzarelli were phenomenal! To hear ‘Kid Charlemagne’ performed live was a highlight. It has such an iconic solo, and to hear Larry Carlton play it for us tonight was just unreal!”
Debbie’s husband, Jeff, agrees, calling tonight’s program, “Wonderful!” and adding, “Seeing the humility of John Pizzarelli playing with a true titan like Larry Carlton was heartening — he has no ego!”
Ann from Boonton exclaims, “I loved seeing John Pizzarelli and Larry Carlton together!” adding, “it was so worth coming here to see them tonight!”
John from Cassville, NY, agrees, noting, “For me, getting to hear them play their duet on “(It Was) Only Yesterday” was worth the price of a ticket!”
Kim from Morris Plains comments, “Song after song brought back great memories,” before acknowledging, “And I loved to hear the stories behind the songs, as well.”
Lastly, Kim’s husband, Chris, perhaps sums up the feelings of many here to experience this rare double bill by Larry Carlton and John Pizzarelli tonight when he concludes, “To see them playing together was incredible — they are two truly amazing guitarists.”
To learn more about Larry Carlton, please go to larrycarlton.com. For more information on John Pizzarelli, click on johnpizzarelli.com. For further info on upcoming concerts at MayoPAC — including David Crosby and Friends on June 17, Harry Connick, Jr. on June 18 & 19, and Sarah McLaughlin on June 30 — be sure to go to mayoarts.org.