Singer-Guitarist John Pizzarelli Plays ‘Midnight McCartney’

August 19, 2015 Updated: August 26, 2015

About a year ago, singer-guitarist John Pizzarelli received an offer he couldn’t refuse. A letter came in the mail from Sir Paul McCartney suggesting that Pizzarelli make an album of his post-Beatles songs, including some of his lesser known tunes, in a mellow jazz style. He even came up with the title—”Midnight McCartney.”

Sir Paul met Pizzarelli when they worked together on the 2012 album, “Kisses on the Bottom,” made up of songs from the 1930s and 1940s. Pizzarelli subsequently played guitar at some of McCartney’s high-profile appearances, such as the Grammy Awards. “Midnight McCartney” is now completed and Pizzarelli appeared at Birdland to celebrate the release.

With Pizzarelli, music is always a family affair. His brother Martin plays bass (both on the album and at the show) and his wife, Jessica Molaskey, sings background vocals and co-produced the album. Their daughter arranged one of the tracks and contributed vocals and guitar playing to one number at Birdland. Bucky Pizzarelli, John’s father and a jazz luminary, plays rhythm guitar on some songs.

Birdland managed to squeeze quite a few musicians onto the stage: The group included three background singers, a string quartet, and four horns along with the rhythm section.

Pizzarelli works with top jazz men. Some of the arrangements were worked out with keyboard player Larry Goldings, and Don Sebesky handled horn arrangements.

The opening piece, “Silly Love Songs,” is done with a bossa nova style, in which Pizzarelli always feels at home. The song expresses McCartney’s credo that there’s nothing wrong with love songs that have lyrics that are less than profound. This is logically followed by another 1970s’ hit, “My Love.” Pizzarelli’s light voice is engaging; he knows how to use his limited vocal resources effectively.

Pizzarelli’s guitar playing, on the other hand, is virtuosic. As is clear to anyone who has seen him live knows, he is also very funny.

“Heart of the Country” is a swinger in which Pizzarelli scats along with his guitar playing. The song, about the pleasures of bucolic life, sounds like a first cousin of Rodgers and Hart’s “Mountain Greenery.”

“Coming Up” is done in a soul arrangement; on the album, a duet with an impassioned Michael McDonald is spiced up by some impressive guitar licks by Pizzarelli.

“No More Lonely Nights” is perhaps the most affecting of the ballads on the album, with the singer promising permanent allegiance to his lover.

“Warm and Beautiful” was transcribed his Pizzarelli’s teenage daughter Madeline, who joined him for a duet at the show.

“Hi, Hi, Hi” is performed as a bluesy instrumental with horns. Pizzarelli plays in an uncharacteristic B.B. King style.

“Junk,” with lovely work by sax player Harry Allen, is an overlooked gem. The song has an attractive melody and an evocative lyric.

“My Valentine” is done in a samba version, while “Let ‘Em In” is a driving gospel-style piece with some wild singing and scatting by John Pizzarelli and strong playing by Goldings and Martin Pizzarelli.

“Some People Never Know” is another affirmation of the existence of love despite the deniers.

On “Maybe I’m Amazed,” Pizzarelli plays a Sondheimian figure.

“Wonderful Christmastime,” a bonus track, deserves to be a seasonal classic, and Pizzarelli even works in a Jobim quote at the end.

“Midnight McCartney” fits in with Pizzarelli’s other theme albums, his tributes to Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, and others. The CD achieves what McCartney had in mind, a presentation of his mellow post-Beatles’ work that demonstrates the value of even his lesser-known compositions.

Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.