Review: Ramsey Lewis and John Pizzarelli: ‘Straighten Up and Fly Right-The Nat King Cole Tribute’ at the Merriam Theater

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There are few artists who have honored the legacy of Nat King Cole into the modern era the way singer/guitarist John Pizzarelli has. Early in his career he recorded two Cole tribute albums, Dear Mr. Cole (1994) and P.S. Mr. Cole (1999). And before and since, Pizzarelli has carried on Cole’s tradition of soft crooning, impeccable musicianship and a love of swing.

John Pizzarelli. Photo courtesy of The Kimmel Center.
John Pizzarelli. Photo courtesy of The Kimmel Center.

On Friday night at the Merriam Theater, as part of the series ‘Jazz at the Kimmel,’ Pizzarelli did a set that included several songs from those two albums, performed in collaboration with Ramsey Lewis, the veteran pianist who, at age 80, is a link between Pizzarelli’s generation and Cole’s.

Ramsey Lewis. Photo courtesy of his website.
Ramsey Lewis. Photo courtesy of his website.

The two men have very different styles of performing. Pizzarelli is a gregarious showman, wearing a sharp pinstripe suit, cracking jokes and telling long, digressive anecdotes (some about Cole’s career, some about his own), and scat singing through his guitar solos.

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Meanwhile, Lewis sits calmly at the piano, wearing a dark, muted suit, and on rare occasions rising from his piano bench to walk to a microphone and say a few genial words. If Pizzarelli brings Cole’s wilder side to life, Lewis represents the dignified statesman that is more associated with Cole’s image.

But musically, the two men connect. Throughout the night they played solos that complemented, rather than competed with, each other. And while they drew on Cole’s songbook, there was a lot of stylistic variation throughout the show. “Unforgettable” was given a samba beat. A lovely, gentle instrumental version of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” started with Lewis playing a slow descending pattern in free time before the rest of the band joined in, with Pizzarelli contributing a single-string solo and bassist Charlie Ramos soloing in his instrument’s upper register.

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That song was followed by an impromptu solo spot for Pizzarelli doing a funny version of one of Cole’s obscure early novelty songs, “The Best Man.” A driving “Hit That Jive, Jack” featured an extended solo with blocky piano chords from Lewis, followed by some lively back-and-forth interplay with Pizzarelli and a solo for drummer Charles Heath. (Heath, like Ramos, has been part of Lewis’ live band for over five years).

The show also paid tribute to Cole’s lush romanticism, with a medley that started with Pizzarelli singing and playing alone on an early Cole track, Irene Higginbotham’s “This Will Make You Laugh,” then led into a full band version of “For Sentimental Reasons,” featuring a lyrical Lewis solo.

The concert’s highlight was the upbeat “Welcome to the In Club,” a version of the Cole/Count Basie number “Welcome to the Club” that interpolated chord progressions and solos from Lewis’ 1960’s hit “The In Crowd.” For a few playful minutes, this tribute to one great artist turned around and paid tribute to another.

It was fun to see, and it was great to see these two great artists from different generations so delighted to play with each other.

Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.

Song List:

“Route 66”

“Smile”

“The Best Man”

“Hit That Jive, Jack”

“This Will Make You Laugh”/”For Sentimental Reasons”

“Nature Boy”

“Welcome to the In Club” (“Welcome to the Club” / “The In Crowd”)

“Sweet Lorraine”

“Portrait of Jenny”/ “For All We Know”

“Straighten Up and Fly Right”

“Unforgettable”

“It’s Only a Paper Moon”

Encore:

“Walking My Baby Back Home”

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Ramsey Lewis and John Pizzarelli: “Straighten Up and Fly Right- The Nat King Cole Tribute played one night, on Friday, February 26, 2016, at the Merriam Theater – 250 South Broad Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For future ‘Jazz at the Kimmel’ concerts, click here.