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John Pizzarelli & Jessica Molaskey: Grownup Songs

Autumn at Café Carlyle means 70 minutes of musical bliss with John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey.

John Pizzarelli, Jessica Molaskey, and their band take the stage at Café Carlyle for a one-month residence.
(© Michael Wilhoite)

John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey are giving each other serious side-eye in Grownup Songs, their new show at Café Carlyle. It's as if they're not entirely sure they're "grown up" enough for such a definitive title. The husband-and-wife act (and cohosts of Radio Deluxe on Jonathan Schwartz's The Jonathan Channel) lead off with Stephen Sondheim's "The Little Things You Do Together," a song of sagging marital bliss. This being their eighth annual residency at the Carlyle, the relationship is already well past the seven-year itch. Yet the musical duo (and their band of very talented musicians) still finds ways to surprise and delight.

They begin by hitting us with a rapid succession of three songs: the aforementioned ditty from Company, a beautiful Pizzarelli-Molaskey original titled "The Forecast Is Love," and the swinging Sammy Cahn-Jimmie Lunceford number "Rhythm Is Our Business," which proves to be a clever way to introduce the three tuxedoed gentlemen behind them.

Konrad Paszkudzki tickles the ivories with nuance and grace, gently underscoring much of the program with difficult riffs and complicated chords. Martin Pizzarelli (brother of John) displays an incredible dexterity on the bass. Drummer Kevin Kanner exists in the percussionist's sweet spot: He's never overpowering, nor is the beat ever lost. He sports a vintage mustache and haircut that seems to transport us back to a time when jazz was ubiquitous. Everyone onstage exhibits truly excellent musicianship.

For his part, Pizzarelli not only sings, but plays the seven-string guitar throughout most of the show. He has a shiny new Goldtop modeled after the one played by Les Paul. Pizzarelli's fingers fly across the fingerboard as he plucks out Bud Powell's "Parisian Thorofare," an instrumental piece originally written for trumpet that captures the frenetic energy of a busy street scene. His precision is absolutely breathtaking.

Pizzarelli and Molaskey excel in pairing unlikely songs in revealing medleys. "This is a conversation Adam Guettel might have with Billy Joel," Molaskey tells us before training her gorgeous and expressive voice on the former composer's "Dividing Day" from The Light in the Piazza. Pizzarelli answers with a sweet and sad version of Joel's "Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)." Other unexpected unions include Stephen Sondheim/Paul McCartney and James Taylor/Joe Henderson (with added lyrics by Molaskey).

Not only are Pizzarelli and Molaskey talented interpreters of other people's songs, they also perform a few of their own. Their "Dry Martini" is a real highlight, with a chorus employing the immortal words of Mae West: "Get out of those wet clothes and into a dry martini." Or was it Robert Benchley who first turned that phrase? Like all witticisms of a certain age, the origins are uncertain, sparking a debate in the dining room.

It's a testament to the affable manner of Pizzarelli and Molaskey that patrons enter the Carlyle as strangers, but leave feeling like friends at an intimate dinner party, the kind at which you can argue about the origins of a classic movie quote. That kind of freedom and merriment in a cabaret show comes with an absolute command of one's craft, a security in knowing you can have fun with some of the most musically difficult selections from the world of jazz and the Great American Songbook.

Naturally, the room calls for more. Walking off before an encore is becoming distinctly unfashionable at Café Carlyle. Pizzarelli and Molaskey remain onstage to send us out with a bang: a mash-up of Irving Berlin's "Count Your Blessings" (from White Christmas) and an uncommonly mellow rendition of Jonathan Larson's "Seasons of Love" from Rent. If their expansive repertoire wasn't already apparent, it is undeniable by now: Music is their business.

If you're looking for the essential Café Carlyle experience, you can do no better than John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey. The level of their skill is undoubtedly "grown up," but a youthful sense of play remains. Let's hope they keep returning for years to come.

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