By Daniel LeDuc
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 27, 2008
From New York's favorite and most deluxe living room, the announcer intones, it's another edition of "Radio Deluxe."
"From high atop Lexington Avenue, I'm John Pizzarelli."
"And I'm Jessica Molaskey."
Each weekly edition of the two-hour "Radio Deluxe" program begins just that way. But after that, it's anybody's guess what will be heard next. Terrific music from the Great American Songbook, for sure. Witty stories, certainly. But no consultant-approved playlist and definitely no script. The best jazz is improvised and so, it seems, is the best radio.
"We're here in the 'Deluxe' living room. . . . We're going through sheet music," Pizzarelli, a jazz singer and virtuoso guitarist, told listeners at the top of a recent show.
"We're trying to write our show for the Carlyle Hotel," chimed in his wife, Molaskey, an established Broadway performer and new sensation on New York's cabaret scene. There was the sound of pages rustling, and soon Pizzarelli was introducing an interview with his father, legendary jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, who described performing for the composer Richard Rodgers years ago at the Pierre Hotel. Molaskey told a story about performing a Stephen Sondheim song at a small party where the guests included, gulp, Sondheim. (He liked her version.)
"Can we get away with playing two tracks?" Molaskey said, as they announced a tune from the CD "A Classy Pair," by Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie. "It's our radio show, darling," Pizzarelli said.
Indeed it is. Sitting before microphones and dressed to the nines, Pizzarelli and Molaskey are inventing something new by going back to the tried and true: superb music and chatty meanderings about jazz and Broadway, interviews with such performers as Barbara Cook and Peter Cincotti interspersed with the occasional visit from 10-year-old daughter Madeleine, who recently came on to talk about a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Onstage and on the air, Pizzarelli and Molaskey, who are both 48, are in the vanguard of a group of 21st-century performers who are lovingly tending the Great American Songbook -- that canon of melodic, literate work assembled more than 50 years ago by George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Johnny Mercer and a few others who helped define an era.
While the songbook grew dusty with the rise of rock and the cultural upheaval that accompanied it, in recent years a new generation has rediscovered the songs of their parents' and grandparents' youth. Performers such as Diana Krall, Harry Connick Jr. and Michael Feinstein have built strong followings by rediscovering and reinterpreting the Greatest Generation's jukebox. Even Rod Stewart found fresh success by recording standards.
But few of the newest performers can match Pizzarelli and Molaskey in musical craftsmanship or in pure, old-fashioned showmanship. They're young, attractive and funny. And, perhaps most important, they are expanding the songbook to include such rock-era voices as Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, as well as ambitious new Broadway composers like Adam Guettel.
"The thing that's really fun now," Molaskey says, "is we're taking some of that material and trying to make it more like standards music."
* * *
Together Pizzarelli and Molaskey are more than the sum of their parts, like Tracy and Hepburn or, better yet, Nick and Nora Charles. "When you're sitting in the studio with those guys, it feels like you're sitting on a magic carpet ride," said cultural critic Terry Teachout, who has been a "Radio Deluxe" guest.
They have only one rule for their performances onstage or on the air: no ball-and-chain, insult-the-spouse jokes. Pizzarelli said he's even sworn off reruns of "The Honeymooners" because Ralph and Alice Kramden got too many laughs at each other's expense.
For Pizzarelli and Molaskey, "Radio Deluxe" is more hobby than work. They don't take a salary for the show, which is heard in more than 60 cities, including Washington. Instead, it's a chance for fun conversation, or for Pizzarelli to strum a tune on his seven-string guitar. They play their favorite recordings, promoting friends and young talent, as well music from their own CDs. The couple's affection for each other is contagious, and their knowledge of the history of music is nearly academic-level.
"I love them both personally and professionally," said Jonathan Schwartz, who as a host on New York's WNYC has become an important arbiter of taste when it comes to the Great American Songbook. (He gave them a piano that once belonged to his father, Arthur Schwartz, who composed such classics as "Dancing in the Dark.")
During a recent taping of the show, Pizzarelli was dressed to perform, even though the audience couldn't see him. Sharp navy blazer, French cuffs, a blazing orange tie. (He had watched Cary Grant in "To Catch a Thief" the night before and wanted to wear an ascot, but Molaskey had rolled her eyes at that.) Dressing well onstage is important to both, they said, a sign of respect for the audience. "They're paying $90 [a ticket] and they expect to see someone who knows that," said Molaskey, who was wearing an elegant black pantsuit.
Pizzarelli has been hanging around music since childhood. He now performs regularly with his father and his brother, Martin, who plays upright bass. With Molaskey joining the mix, they have been called the "von Trapps on martinis." Growing up, he envisioned being the next Billy Joel or James Taylor. On weekends, though, he played at many of his father's gigs, jamming on classic jazz and old standards.
"They had so much fun. If you wanted to be part of that group of guys, you had to know their language, and their language was those songs," Pizzarelli said. "My father told me, 'You're the only guy who plays jazz to support his rock-and-roll habit.' " After high school, Pizzarelli formed his own jazz trio and began to tour. By the mid-1990s he became a frequent performer at the old King of France Tavern in Annapolis, then a well-known club for guitarists. (Charlie Byrd lived nearby.) Now, onstage, Pizzarelli's comic timing matches his jazz rhythms, and his banter is as much a part of the show as the music.
"He is able to connect really well with an audience. You feel like you're hanging out with him rather than at a concert," said Andy Bienstock, program director and jazz aficionado at Baltimore's WYPR-FM.
Pizzarelli now tours with his trio 40 weeks a year throughout the country and in Europe, South America and Japan; they'll play two shows at the Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis today. He has released more than 20 CDs, the most recent just a few weeks ago: "With a Song in My Heart."
Pizzarelli and Molaskey met when both were in the Broadway show "Dream," a revue of Johnny Mercer's songs. The show didn't last but the relationship has; they celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary in August.
Molaskey is a veteran of such Broadway shows as "Les Misérables," "Crazy for You" and "Tommy." But she wasn't getting the roles she wanted and desired more time at home with Maddie, and John's son from his first marriage. She started what she now calls a "boutique" cabaret career. Her fifth CD, "A Kiss to Build a Dream On," came out in September.
They first played together at Feinstein's in New York. "We walked out onstage and I said hello to him and he said hello to me and the audience started laughing, and to this day I really don't know why," she said. "Once we got going, we had a little date every night. We had small children, and all of sudden it was a fun way to spend time with my husband and get paid for it. We never plan what our conversation is going to be, and most of the time it works."
Apparently so. The New York Times review of opening night of their latest run at the Carlyle, which ended earlier this month, called them the "wittiest, most musically savvy husband-and-wife team in pop-jazz."
Their hour and 10 minutes onstage blended songs with both serious and comedic touches. Molaskey began the show with "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," which segued into Pizzarelli's "Just in Time." She was Broadway, and he was vaudeville: In the middle of "Just in Time" they danced a little soft-shoe -- and he pretended to twist his knee.
"I married a man with 'pizza' in his name," she said, "which is why my name is still Jessica Molaskey."
* * *
Guests on "Radio Deluxe" are buzzed into the deluxe living room. On the air, they like to comment on the deluxe living room's decor. Times columnist Frank Rich joked that he loved the futons. But the show is actually taped in Nola Recording Studio, just steps from Carnegie Hall, where dozens of jazz luminaries have cut records over the years. The couple sit at a folding table amid the music stands, with Erroll Garner's old piano in the corner. The recording is e-mailed to a producer in Oregon who inserts the records that the hosts introduce. This way, the two-hour program can be wrapped up by the couple in 45 minutes.
After the show, Pizzarelli and Molaskey, with Maddie in tow, adjourn for dinner at a Midtown steakhouse, where they are greeted like theatrical royalty. Even among people who don't follow jazz, Pizzarelli is a familiar face; he has recorded the frequently aired commercials for Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut.
In the bar, Pizzarelli runs into his high school math teacher Kevin O'Shea. The two embrace, and Pizzarelli tells him about an upcoming free concert he is playing with his father in Manhattan's Carl Schurz Park. Pizzarelli settles at the table with Molaskey and Maddie, and the maitre d' brings over a bottle of cabernet, a gift from the owner.
Pizzarelli and his trio like the free concerts. They also have performed benefits for Maddie's school, P.S. 9. Tickets are expensive at the Carlyle, Molaskey notes, and the music shouldn't be limited to those who can afford it. That is one of the main reasons for "Radio Deluxe."
The original concept was a TV cooking show. "The idea was 'Playboy After Dark' meets 'Molto Mario,' " Pizzarelli said. Cocktails would be poured, pasta would steam on the stove, and "you'd buzz in the George Shearing Quintet."
"It was the most expensive concept for a cooking show in the history of the world," Molaskey said.
"Radio Deluxe" has grown steadily over the past few years, picking up a national sponsor and, on its Web site, inspiring its own social network of like-minded fans.
Still, the Great American Songbook, once the country's most popular music, is only on the edge of the mainstream anymore. Pizzarelli and Molaskey are working hard to bring it back with their own recordings, stage performances and for two hours each week on the airwaves.
"It's a quintessential American art form, and it's almost like it's not as appreciated in this country as it is in other countries like Germany and Japan and Brazil, because it's ours," Molaskey said. "I think the more we have this distance from it, we say, 'Wow, this is the fabric of what America is, the sound of Americans.' It's thrilling, really."