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Pizzarelli and Cole arm in arm 
Photo credit: Lisa Sakulensky, courtesy of The Royal Conservatory/Koerner Hall

With love in the air on Valentine’s Day, Koerner Hall paid homage to the unforgettable Nat “King” Cole on the occasion of his 100th birthday by featuring his youngest brother, pianist Freddy Cole, and the supremely talented guitarist/vocalist John Pizzarelli.  It was an evening of beautiful jazz music and a celebration of song that stands out as a highlight of Koerner Hall’s 10th Anniversary season, sponsored by BMO Financial and the Toronto Star, as well as series sponsors TD Jazz and JazzFM 91.  The fact that Cole and Pizzarelli could perform 23 songs over two and a half hours without playing such immortal standards as “Unforgettable”, “Mona Lisa”, “When I Fall in Love” or “Smile” is a testament to the breadth and timeless quality of the Nat “King” Cole” songbook and the enduring popularity of a man who did more in his short life to bridge the divide between jazz and popular music than any other musician of the 20th century.

​​The first set featured the 88-year-old Freddy Cole on piano, accompanied by drummer Quentin Baxtor, bassist Elias Bailey, guitarist Randy Napoleon, and a tenor sax player whose name I was not able to catch.

​​Review by  Jeff Mitchell
oronto ON  February 15th 2019

Pizzarelli expressed the view, I think shared by the audience, that he was grateful that he could be sitting there just singing songs with Freddy. It was a heartwarming moment and a fitting conclusion to a memorable concert. Nat would have been proud of them both.

Pizzarelli and Cole singing songs together
Photo credit: Lisa Sakulensky, courtesy of The Royal Conservatory/Koerner Hall

Pizzarelli joins the quintet
Photo credit: Lisa Sakulensky, courtesy of The Royal Conservatory/Koerner Hall

The concert continued in the second half with the John Pizzarelli Trio, featuring Konrad Paszkudzki on piano and Mike Karn on bass.  Pizzarelli talked about the huge influence that NKC’s music had on him when he was growing up, particularly Cole’s trio from the 50’s, and most of the set featured selections from Pizzarelli’s new album “For Centennial Reasons”, his third tribute album to his idol and one of Cole’s signature tunes, “For Sentimental Reasons”, which Pizzarelli later performed. 

Pizzarelli and Cole acknowledge audience
Photo credit: Lisa Sakulensky, courtesy of The Royal Conservatory/Koerner Hall

Pizzarelli opened with “It’s Only a Paper Moon”, which matched his and Paszkudzki’s soloing skills and also highlighted the versatility of Pizzarelli’s vocal style, which is reminiscent of Chet Baker but with a lot more vim and verve.  His singing is also much more engaging heard live than on his recordings, perhaps because watching Pizzarelli in concert leads one to ask – does anybody have more fun making music than he does? Not only is he flat out a great jazz guitarist, he is also a consummate professional, both as a musician and entertainer. These days, his concerts have taken on the feel of his wildly popular radio program, “Radio Deluxe” (which can be heard on Sunday mornings on JazzFM 91), in which he and his wife, Jessica Molaskey, tell stories about the music they are playing in a manner that is always fun, charming, witty and insightful. That format works well for the affable Pizzarelli on stage, and the audience loves it. 

His sense of humour was on full display in tunes like “The Frim Fram Sauce”, “Could ‘Ja”, “Save the Bones for Henry Jones” and “I’m such a Hungry Man”. As we found out in one of Pizzarelli’s educational repartees about songwriting and the A & R process back in the day, the latter tune was written by Bobby Troup, who also wrote “Route 66”.  Pizzarelli’s virtuosic scat skills were featured in “I Would Do Anything for You” and “I’m an Errand Boy for Rhythm”.  Truly, his ability to mimic with his voice what his fingers are doing on the guitar, at blinding speed and well into the falsetto range, is mind-boggling.  The be-bopish “Errand” was taken from Pizzarelli’s second tribute album to Cole, “P.S. Mr. Cole”, released 20 years ago. 

Pizzarelli is also so capable of shifting effortlessly from ballads to slow blues as in the medley “Gee Baby Ain’t I Good to You”/”Baby, Baby All the Time”. His renditions of the ballads “The Very Thought of You” and “Red Sails in the Sunset” were simply gorgeous. The latter tune was a solo turn in which his jazz guitar chops were on full display.  The trio finished up with a Pizzarelli original called “Nat King Cool”, based on the chord progressions of “Sweet Georgia Brown” and which highlighted his finger-picking prowess and pianist Paszkudski’s blazing improvisational skill.

 To close the concert, Pizzarelli invited Freddy Cole back to the stage for three beautiful songs:  “For Sentimental Reasons”, “If I Had You” and “Straighten Up and Fly Right”, with both John and Freddy seated together. 

Celebrating Nat “King” Cole’s 100th

The John Pizzarelli Trio
Photo credit: Lisa Sakulensky, courtesy of The Royal Conservatory/Koerner Hall

John Pizzarelli and Freddy Cole at Koerner Hall
Photo credit: Lisa Sakulensky, courtesy of The Royal Conservatory/Koerner Hall

Freddy Cole Quintet
Photo credit: Lisa Sakulensky, courtesy of The Royal Conservatory/Koerner Hall

Cole dug deep into his older brother’s songbook, with tunes like “Wild Is Love”, “You’re Bringing Out the Dreamer in Me”, “Sometimes I’m Happy”, “Lovely Way to Spend an Evening” and “For All We Know”.  Cole’s piano playing and vocals were spare and unadorned, but infused with sensitivity and honesty.  For him, it was all about the songs, and not a note was wasted. He spoke very little during the set, moving from one tune to the next sometimes before the applause had stopped from the previous tune. The quartet helped to create an easy swing groove, never overpowering Cole but reflecting the tasteful sophistication of his style.

 Befitting the occasion, most of the songs focused on the theme of love, but not always idealized romantic love, as with “A Blossom Fell”, which featured a hauntingly mournful solo from the tenor sax. There was also a bit of mischievousness in Cole’s choices, as when he sang “The Best Man” and altered the final verse with the refrain, “yes, I got a way with women, and someone got away with mine”. Pizzarelli joined Cole for the final number of the set, a rousing version of “Route 66”, with all soloists trading inventive 16-bar solos.  The result was a standing O for Cole from the sold out and appreciative audience as Pizzarelli accompanied Cole off stage.