John Pizzarelli talks new album Better Days Ahead, inspired by Pat Metheny

John Pizzarelli has just released a new album called Better Days Ahead, a solo guitar recording that strips down the music of Pat Metheny.

Having loved the recordings of the Pat Metheny Group since his teenage years, Pizzarelli was eager to dive deep into Metheny’s catalogue and deconstruct the group arrangements on his seven-string guitar. The result is Pizzarelli’s first solo guitar album in his 40-year career, brought on by challenging circumstances and the inspiration that helped him through it.

In a great year so far, Pizzarelli also recently won a Grammy Award as the co-producer of James Taylor’s latest album American Standard. 

Pizzarelli joined us to talk about his latest projects.

How are you, John?

I have to be honest with you: It’s the first time I’ve heard someone call me a recent Grammy winner, so that sort of got me.

Tell me about that experience.

From the beginning, James [Taylor] had texted me one night and said, “I’m thinking about making this record of standards,” and actually he wrote, “and you da man.” That was in 2017. It was as wonderful and calm a time as you could have in a recording studio. It’s a barn that’s a stone’s throw from his house. It would be these six-hour time frames on each tune. It was wonderfully relaxed. I didn’t really realize I had a Grammy nomination, that I was part of the whole thing. I knew I was a co-producer, but I didn’t really believe it until they said congratulations.

Did you have a relationship with James before you got that message?

I had done Mean Old Man, which was one track on his October Road record. He always liked my rhythm guitar playing, so I ended up on his Christmas record. We were sort of a mutual admiration society. When we had off times in the studio, he’d start playing My Blue Heaven or something, and I’d chunk along with him, and we had sort of a little musical relationship. So, I was thrilled when he texted me out of the blue.

I think of James Taylor as playing guitar in a very specific way, and you do, as well. What was it like helping to translate the way he would approach the Great American Songbook?

There was this James Taylor-ization of these tunes. That’s what made the record unique and made it sound like James Taylor was a co-writer of those songs. Having grown up trying to copy the way James Taylor plays the guitar, it was fun to try to figure out my little part inside of his parts. There were a lot of fun things to do. And it was really guitar-centric. Like I said, having grown up listening to him and trying to emulate him, that was part of the fun of the whole project.

As someone who’s on the road all the time, what has the last year been like for you?

My wife and I say we’ve seen each other more in a year than we have in 25. We’ve been sitting in this cabin now for a year. I think it was the thing that also led to being able to make a record up here. I had more time than I’ve ever had in so long — in pretty much my whole career. I was able to sit and spend day after day dealing with everything that was going on personally and in the world, and I was able to enmesh myself in this music. That was my way of trying to deal with what was happening. It really became what came out on the record.

I’ve talked to a lot of musicians. Some people have felt less inspired, some people have been drawn into music. It sounds like your guitar became a real life-saver.

That’s a great way to put it. It was also an extension of what I had watched my father do when I was a young kid. My father was teaching himself classical guitar, and I would watch him with his music on the coffee table, going over these pieces that were foreign to him, but he wanted to conquer this aspect of the guitar. That was a morning ritual for him. For me, it was eventually getting lead sheets from Pat Metheny himself, and every morning getting a cup of coffee — even if it was 6 a.m., because I wasn’t sleeping — and I would sit down and go, “OK, September Fifteenth looks like a good little song. What can I do on that?” I’d be trying to figure the ins and outs. It kept my head level, and it was a life-saver.

Tell me about your relationship with Pat and his music.

I met him in 1988 at a concert, and then I met him at the Montreal Jazz Festival in 1991 or 1992. We’ve sort of circled each other for a long time. When my father was ill the first time in 2015, [Metheny] wrote a lovely note to me. And then through emails and talking, he had asked me some interesting questions about rhythm guitar, and we realized we lived close to each other in New York, and we said as soon as we had a chance we’d get together. We never did because we were so busy. We’re on the verge of actually seeing each other in the same room, after all this time.

Compositionally, what were you drawn to with Pat’s music?

From the beginning, there was always this melodic quality to his music. It’s sort of like saying they were singles. There were certain tunes where you’d say, “That’s the single.” There were songs that were so approachable. I just felt like they were guitar pieces, even if they weren’t written for guitar. I thought, what would it be like if I broke them down to where they started? You know, how he’d have presented it to Lyle [Mays] and the guys. This was the backstory I had in my head.

Did you have to adjust the way you approach guitar to fit into the Metheny compositions?

After I sent him a few videos of me playing them, he sent me like 65 lead sheets. It gave me the ability to look at them and [figure out] which are the better ones to break down. I thought maybe Lone Jack might work, but then there are lots of ingredients in there that would be too fast. The way I would make any record, you keep looking at songs and eventually you end up with 12 or 14 songs that would make a record.

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This will always be a memory of these times, because you’re wearing a mask on the album cover. I guess you’re just saying, “Better days ahead, but this is where we are now.”

Jessica [Molaskey] painted the cover, and she had done my daughter with the mask on, and she was doing a series of all us with our masks on. She did mine, and when we decided to make [it] the cover, I said there were two things about it: For one, it sort of marks this part of history, but also, with the mask on it’s a subtle indication that I’m not singing on this record.

Between you and Pat, have you had any conversations that once this is all over, there could potentially be a show where the two of you would perform together? Am I being crazy?

I think that would be terrific. I’m game. Even when I sent him one or two of the songs, he would say, “That’s one of the songs we’ve got to play together!” That’s been one of the big things on my bucket list, to sit in a room and play guitar with him. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that maybe that’ll happen.

This interview has been edited and condensed.