You need to be in a certain mood to appreciate the light after-hours jazz of John Pizzarelli and the pop-styled jazz fusion of the Manhattan Transfer. But it's one worth getting into.
Pizzarelli, a self-styled "21st Century version" of Nat King Cole, opened a Saturday night show at Clowes with the Transfer, singing and comping guitar at the head of a tight rhythm quartet. His jazz was as light as it was light-hearted. Based on his soloing technique (technically simple and full of repeated phrases) and his hollow-body guitar tone, Pizzarelli reminded me of Chuck Berry - and like Berry, he won over the audience with his too-cool personality. The crowd's appreciation grew the more gimmicky he got, and they exploded the first time he accompanied his own guitar solo with an identical line of scat vocals.
With Pizzarelli's group mainly playing standards, some songs seemed inappropriate. "Solitude" was played too casually, considering that Duke had intended it for the anguished voice of Lady Day. But on the whole, Pizzarelli's signature light style served as a perfect hors d'oeuvre to the Manhattan Transfer.
The sound of the Transfer, a four-part a cappella act backed by rock instruments, can be best described as jazz-pop fusion. They opened with an R&B-infused version of Chick Corea's "Spain" for which they had just written lyrics in the Vocalese style. The song was all the more fun for those who were familiar with the original, instrumental track, with the Transfer transforming an innocent Corea piano line into "The sound of our hearts beat like castanets." In the same vein, they closed with their Grammy-winning version of Weather Report's "Birdland," in which all instrumental parts —harmonic and melodic — were put to words.
The set wasn't purely jazz fusion. The high point was when each of the four performed a solo number to promote their own newly released 'tribute' records. Particularly strong was Cheryl Bentyne's tribute to Gershwin.
The night opened light and finished heavy, yet there was nothing jarring about the pairing of John Pizzarelli and the Manhattan Transfer. Both proved there could be nothing cooler than singing jazz.