John Pisano has been formally recognized as one of the nation's finest guitarists. He has an extremely diverse background, having emerged on the jazz scene in the mid-50's, first recording in 1958 and 1959 with the legendary Billy Bean and a two-year stint with drummer Chico Hamilton (which at one time featured the innovative reedist Eric Dolphy). Even if his name doesn't immediately ring a bell, odds are that you've heard his guitar work. Although John has occasionally stepped forward to lead his own group, for years his "comfort zone" was the background and John became an active member of the Los Angeles studio scene, adding his special touch to groups let by Buddy DeFranco, Red Norvo, Bud Shank and Benny Goodman. Additionally, John has accompanied in concert or recording some of music's biggest names, including Peggy Lee, Tony Bennett, Burt Bacharach, Frank Sinatra, Michael Franks, Clare Fischer, Julie London, Bobby Troup, Natalie Cole, Joe Pass Barbra Streisand and Diana Krall. John is a founding member of Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass and obtained some solid Brazilian experience working with Sergio Mendes
In the last several years, however, Pisano has assumed the leader's role, releasing a series of Pablo CD's remarkable for their beauty and musical camaraderie. "Among Friends" was the first, featuring him in duet settings with six of the instrument's most talented players: Lee Ritenour, Phil Upchurch, Ron Affif, Dori Caymmi, Ted Greene, and the late Joe Pass, with whom John had worked extensively for three decades and released more than a dozen albums together (Pass died on May 23, 1994). Pass was also heard on "Duets", which focused on empathic guitar conversations recorded at a 1991 Pisano/Pass session.
His subsequent album, the Pablo release, "Conversation Pieces", includes wonderfully varied material from 1994 and '95 recordings with, once again, Lee Ritenour, Phil Upchurch, Ted Greene, and Dori Caymmi, as well as Joe Diorio and Gene Bertoncini. Eric Miller, who was Pass's producer in the guitarist's final years, has also produced all of Pisano's dates for the label. Most recently, John was featured on Natalie Cole's album, entitled "Ask A Women Who Knows" and Diana Krall's platinum recording "The Look Of Love" and the Grammy winning "Live In Paris" available both as a CD and a DVD.
John hosts (and performs at)"John Pisano's Guitar Night" held Tuesdays at the Sherman Oaks, California club Spazio. This weekly series, which will celebrate its 6th anniversary on September 23, 2003, features a wide range of guitarists and attracts the elite of the L.A. jazz scene. Additionally, John has worked several times at the popular Zinc Bar in lower Manhattan and will be performing this October (2003) at Birdland.
John joined 'The Great Guitarists' series with the likes of Gene Bertoncini, Philip Catherine, Herb Ellis and Mundell Lowe on tours of Germany and Italy where they performed to sell-out crowds.
John is the current spokesman and chief endorser for the new line of Eastman Guitars and is currently developing the "John Pisano" Signature Model for Eastman.
For nearly 40 years, John Pisano's playing has provided a model for improvisational creativity, technical excellence, and a seamless blend of jazz and latin elements. Today, John and his lovely vocalist wife, Jeanne perform together regularly, and are known as "The Flying Pisanos". Both together and individually, John continues to perform throughout the nation and around the world with today's biggest musical luminaries.
When I think of the handful of really fine rhythm guitarists over the years one name is always on the list - John Pisano. While John has made a name for himself over the years as rhythm guitarist for Joe Pass, one of Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass, accompanist to Peggy Lee, Burt Bacharach, Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand, one should not forget that John is also a fine jazz player. He has also been associated with Chico Hamilton, Buddy DeFranco, guitarist Billy Bean (see Adrian Ingram's column Classic Jazz Recordings in this issue), and Sergio Mendes. He's one of the few guitarists that appears comfortable being in the background functioning as a superb accompanist. He continues doing dates both in the studios and accompanying his wife Jeanne in their group known as The Flying Pisano's.
Born in Staten Island, New York in 1931, John originally studied the piano but switched to the guitar at the age of fourteen. It wasn't until he was in the Air Force band in 1951-1955 that John decided to make music his career. After almost forty years as a professional guitarist, John debuted as a leader on his recording AMONG FRIENDS on the Pablo label. I caught up with John when he returned from a tour in Hawaii.
EB... What got you out to California from New York?
JP... Well actually I never worked much around New York except around Staten Island, like Italian Weddings. I went into the Airforce for 4 years spending most of my time in Washington D.C. from 1951-56 with the group called the Crew Chiefs. Interestingly enough, in the Airforce the guitar is not a standard marching instrument, but I managed to audition in Washington for the only authorized guitar chair in the entire Airforce. It was kind of nice. After I got out of the service in October of 1955, I enrolled in the Manhattan School of Music. At the time, the guitar was still not accepted as a major instrument and I was going to have to minor in piano or something like that, so I was prepared to do that. I paid tuition and before I could start I got a call from Chico Hamilton to take Jim Hall's place with the quintet out there. So I came out to California for an audition in 1956. I got the gig and stayed with him until the later part of 1958.
EB... How did Chico even know about you?
JP... Well actually through Paul Horn, the Sax player. Paul was in the army band and I was in the Air Force band and that was our connection. We would see each other and play occasionally and somehow they needed somebody and Paul recommended me, so I got the gig. Paul had taken Buddy Collette's place with Chico.
EB... What was it like playing in the Ailforce band?
JP... The band in the Airforce was a small group. It was a sextet. It was great because we lived off the base and played officer's clubs, and did a lot of radio spots. I got most of my professional training there because we did all of these fifteen minute radio spots for recruiting. Anyway, the leader of the band was John Osecki and he later took over the large Airforce dance band. We were a little separate group and just spent a lot of time rehearsing. The group musically was very tight.
EB... Were you playing strictly rhythm guitar at that time?
JP... No, this was a very intricate type of music. We had a lot of material and transcribed a great deal of big band arrangements for that instrumentation. John played accordion and the group consisted of a clarinet player, guitar and, of course, bass, drums and keyboard. We did a lot of very involved arrangements. The guitar had many single lines that were a very important part of the voicings.
EB... I know you placed second to Charlie Byrd in the Down Beat poll in 1958. Was that a turning point in your career? Did it turn more people onto John Pisano?
JP... Well in those days it's not like it is today where you have a guitar player on every block. In those days there were just a handful of jazz guitarists and Chico's (Hamilton) group was very popular at the time. We were traveling and getting a lot of exposure. That was the reason aside from the fact that there were just a few jazz guitar players that were known about.
EB... Did it open a lot of doors to you, being mentioned in that poll?
JP... Well it did as far as my name being exposed. When I left Chico's band I stayed in California because I had more contacts here. Fred Katz who was the cellist in the band, was working as an A and R (artists & repertoire) man for Decca and had a project they called the Mood Jazz series. He had heard Billy Bean and myself playing one afternoon and that is how the DUET albums came about, through Freddie. Also there were other albums on that series. I think Toots Tieleman did his first album on that same series in 1958. As a result of my association with Fred, who was also doing some movies, I got to know some of the music contractors and made a little niche as there was a lot of studio work here. I went to City College here to study composition and got what I needed for a degree while doing a lot of freelancing.
EB... How has your association with musicians like Chico Hamilton and Joe Pass affected your approach to music and playing the guitar?
JP... Well if you take all the different people that I have worked with through my life like Sergio Mendes, Benny Goodman and Peggy Lee, there is an affect because when you work with different people you have a different job. Each person you work with expects your playing to complement them. In doing studio work you have to be up on all the styles and be able to perform them in a convincing manner. J did a lot of work with Sergio Mendes and I feel I play Brazilian rhythms well. I've also worked with Benny Goodman and even Sergio Franchi. I did an Italian album with him-something I'm not really good at. I even did some Beach Boys sessions. I was called in to do a track by a contractor and sometimes you didn't even know who it was for. Those are the things that you are faced with that you have to look at as a challenge. Then working with Herb Alpert was another learning process because I told him initially that I was not sure whether I could fit in with that kind of music. I was more serious about music than to play what I thought was tongue in cheek stuff.
EB... Tell us about the early Herb Alpert dates.
JP... The first three albums of Herb's were done with studio guys and the albums were so successful that they had to put together a performing outfit quickly. That's when we started touring and we had a built in audience already. I told Herb I would maybe do the first tour. We were in Seattle at the Edgewater Hotel and I thought it would be fun. I had a couple of friends in the band such as Nick Ceroli the drummer and Bob Edmondson the trombone player and I thought I'11 go up for a few weeks. I was a little amazed about what a treat playing in the group was. Herb needed another tune for his album and he said, "the little tune you're playing, write a middle part to it, we'll record it tomorrow and it will be on the next album." The rest is history. I guess I made a decision when I went to the mailbox and found a big check.
EB... Was that the tune 'So What's New'?
JP... No, that was a few albums later. I started to play on Herb's third album. The first tune I did for Herb was FELICIA, named after Herb's maid. The tune was on an album that sold over a million copies. I then began to take the music business more seriously as the checks came in. As a matter of fact I still receive royalties from these tunes and it affords me the opportunity to play jazz and good music.
EB... Who played guitar on the early TJB albums?
JP... Tommy Tedesco probably did the first few albums. There was a guy by the name of Bud Coleman who wrote Tijuana Taxi. He was a wonderful guitar player and musician. There was another guitarist who worked prior to me, Nick Bonny. For some reason he was not available for the performing group or Herb liked my playing better. The rhythm that I played was a driving force. It was the momentum of the beat of the brass and Herb really appreciated it.
EB... Did you do any solo work with the brass?
JP... Yes, there were a couple of solos. One thing that I had to play was ZORBA THE GREEK on a 12 string. It was the last tune in the show. It was pretty fast and technically difficult. One time we were playing at an indoor-outdoor concert arena like a shell and the lights went down and there was a tympani roll and the spotlight hits me and Nick would kick it off with about 8 bars at a ridiculous tempo. I think each night he tried to play it faster! This particular night something drops from above me. A bird did his thing right on the fingerboard of my 12 string! I didn't know what to do and had nothing to wipe it off with.
EB... What guitar were you using on those dates?
JP... I was using several instruments, but the primary guitar that I used was the Fender electric 12. Interestingly enough I used the Fender 12 on a lot of Sergio's (Mendes) albums too, asthe Brazilians have a double string instrument with a similar characteristic. I also used my L5 for rhythm as well as a nylon string. I also played some mandolin.
EB... How did you get involved with Joe Pass?
JP... I was working with a small band out here, the Page Cavanaugh Seven, and I had a tour coming up with Peggy Lee and I needed a sub so I called Joe since he was in town. He did thejob although he was still at Synanon. I would go down to Synanon and we jammed down there and then we became really good friends.
EB... How long did you end up playing with him?
JP... The first album that I did with Joe was FOR DJANGO in 1964. We also played some duo things at Donte's here in Los Angeles before Joe teamed up with Herb Ellis. Around that time I did three or four albums with Joe. We did a 12 string album titled MOVIE THEMES, then we did an album based on Rolling Stones tunes. I played on and off with him for many years. We got together for a reunion album - the same musicians that were on the FOR DJANGO album - Colin Bailey, Jim Hughart, myself and Joe. The album was such a classic that I suggested that we do another album with the same guys while we're all still alive. Shortly afterward he said OK and I put together some tunes from a Django book and sketched them out and then we did SUMMER NIGHTS, APPASIONATO, LIVE AT YOSHI'S and DUETS. I played with Joe till the end.
EB... When you played with Joe using just two guitars or with a rhythm section when you traveled, did you guys wing it or did you always know what he was going to play? Was there a structure to the set?
JP... I don't think Joe ever planned what he was going to play. There were certain tunes that we had down because of the album's arrangements, but Joe used to surprise us often. He would get bored and to stop himself getting bored in the middle of his solo set you would hear him change key and put himself on the spot. But he never seemed to have any problems. Jim Hughart was the bass player and if I can hear the bass I can jump in, regardless of the tune. Sometimes Joe would turn around and say 'A7', but playing with him was always fun. Sometimes Joe picked a tune we never played before! It was always a challenge and fun playing with him.
Just Jazz Guitar magazine November '97