ROCKPORT — Bucky Pizzarelli has probably earned the right to rest on his laurels. But on a recent weekday morning, the eminent jazz guitarist was up early and practicing.
Pizzarelli, who turns 88 in January, has a resume ranging from studio work with Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Ray Charles to extensive tours with Benny Goodman. But he says it’s not a snazzy technique that makes his work distinctive, but an ear for rhythm and his dedication to keep learning.
“It’s not the flash that’s selling anything. I’m thinking about what I’m going to play that day before I even get up. This morning I woke up said I have to go over this and I have to go over that, and that’s what I do. That way you keep your repertoire together,” he says.
Swing Xing! Three Generations of Swing Guitar with Bucky Pizzarelli, Frank Vignola and Vinny Raniola
On this particular morning, he had a conversation fresh in his mind from two nights earlier, when he’d played in Baltimore. Someone referenced Joaquín Rodrigo’s famous “Concierto de Aranjuez,” a 1939 work written for guitar and orchestra. So Pizzarelli woke up with the tune on his mind. He closed his eyes and let his fingers fly.
“I’ve performed it many times with different orchestras, but I just wanted to see if I could play it without any accompaniment or anything. I didn’t get halfway through it before the phone rang,” he says, bursting into the first of several hearty laughs during a phone interview. (For the record, his conversation with the Globe didn’t knock him too far off track — he let the call go to voice mail while he finished working through the piece.)
Pizzarelli is long established as a master of the swing guitar, but his versatility suits him to various musical environments. He was a staff musician for NBC in the mid-1950s, playing on Kate Smith’s afternoon variety show and later returning to the network as a member of the “Tonight” show band while the show was still based in New York.
Though the particulars of Pizzarelli’s early career peek back at a music business that’s changed profoundly in intervening years, he sees plenty of evidence that tasteful, tuneful jazz guitar is still alive and well. He’ll be standing alongside some of that evidence on Sunday at Rockport’s Shalin Liu Performance Center, when he’s joined by fellow guitarists Frank Vignola and Vinny Raniolo. They’ll alternate among trio numbers, Pizzarelli solos and duo pieces by Vignola and Raniolo.
Together, these players represent three different generations of stylistically nimble guitarists who excel in the world of upbeat jazz. Vignola, 48, says he grew up listening to Pizzarelli’s stuff, playing along to his records. Though they’ve recorded an album together and play several shows together each year, Vignola sounds like an excited fan when he talks about the elder statesman.
“If Bucky plays a solo we get to sit up close. We have the best seats in the house,” Vignola says of himself and Raniolo. “He’s really a pioneer of the music. For a guitar geek like me, that’s a really big deal.”
Vignola also logged time playing with guitar hero Les Paul, and booked session work with artists in the worlds of both jazz and pop like Donald Fagen, Queen Latifah, and Wynton Marsalis. He’s played as a duo with Raniolo, 29, for the past few years. Together their repertoire ranges from swing-era hits to Beethoven and Paul Simon.
Pizzarelli tends toward a six-string guitar for rhythm work, and a seven-stringed edition for solos. Though he’s impressed by players like Vignola and Raniolo—not to mention his son, John, a noted guitarist in his own right and cohost of the show “Radio Deluxe”— Pizzarelli does say that rhythm playing is becoming a lost art.
“Today a lot of guitarists don't realize that the most important thing is to know how to play rhythm guitar. That seems like the simplest thing to do, and it isn’t. It’s the hardest thing to do,” he says. “They’re all good lead players but a lot of them are not good rhythm players. It should be the opposite.”
His feel for rhythm added a subtle touch to Charles’s recording of “Georgia on My Mind.” Years later, when Pizzarelli was in the house band for Dick Cavett’s television show, Charles was a guest. Unaware of his history with the song, Charles’s music director approached Pizzarelli with a suggestion.
“He came up to me and said not to play on it,” he recalls, “because there's a certain kind of guitar there. He didn’t figure I knew how to do it. I said ‘OK.’ I never told him I made the record.”
Easygoing and generous with praise, he claims to have trouble keeping up with Vignola and Raniolo. While he once picked up tips on the road from bandleader Goodman — like opening a set with a mellow number so “you have somewhere to go” from there — he’s now in a position to impart wisdom to younger generations.
But he’s not standing pat. You have to get up early in the morning to catch up with Bucky Pizzarelli.
Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.