Shake Bucky Pizzarelli's hand and you can tell immediately he was meant to play guitar.
Pizzarelli is now 84 (an age his appearance and his playing strongly belie) and his right hand doesn't quite open up fully to grasp yours when you greet him. Instead, his pinky and ring fingers remain slightly curled into his palm, with thumb, forefinger and middle finger almost permanently frozen into holding a guitar pick. Shaking that hand and seeing the gleam in his eye, you can tell this is a man who has earned and means every note he plays.
Pizzarelli and his musical mates John Cutrone and Jerry Bruno lit up the Wilton Playshop on Saturday night in front of about 100 patrons, playing jazz standards and a number of tunes from their recently recorded and released record, "fourxfour." It was a bittersweet evening, as the trio played without Carmen Leggio, one of their friends and the saxophonist on the album, who passed away only four days after they finished recording it last April.
Yet, all three men admitted Leggio was certainly on their minds and behind their notes as they set the nearly capacity crowd to head-bopping and foot-tapping, backlit by a giant reproduction of their harlequin-colored album cover, and while filling the intimate Wilton Playshop venue to the brim with their smooth sound.
Bruno played a bass that had a good foot in height on him but on which he walked his bass lines with ease, complementing Cutrone's understated and polished drums, at times almost metronomic in their precision. Pizzarelli carried most of the lead melodies on his crisp, unfettered seven string guitar, including those played previously by Leggio on saxophone on their recordings, his left leg methodically tapping out the time no matter how intense the solo.
Some of the highlights included a mellow, soothing version of "Tangerine," to which a few audience members hummed and sang along at Pizzarelli's encouragement, and "Sing Sing Sing," a tune made famous by Benny Goodman (who Leggio used to play with) and perhaps the high point of an otherwise lofty evening, with Cutrone uncorking a tight yet cacophonous drum solo followed quickly by loud applause.
After about an hour of music, the trio took time to thank the audience for coming and to again nod to their departed partner, Leggio, who Cutrone said they were all thankful for getting to play with for as long as they did. They then took questions from an inquisitive audience.
The queries ranged from what type of guitar Pizzarelli played to what some of their musical influences were.
"I had two uncles that used to come over to our house and play," Pizzarelli said of his inspiration to learn guitar. "I wanted to join in on the fun and so they taught me three chords...and I played those same three chords for the next three years."
And just as they hit most or every note in the songs beforehand, Bruno (who has a few years on Pizzarelli) didn't miss a beat when Zelie Pforzheimer, who helped the three field questions, asked him if he'd like a chair to sit down.
"No way," Bruno said. "I'm 25 years old, I don't need a chair." The audience roared with laughter.
Bruno may have been kidding, but the trio's tight set, good humor and permanent smiles might lead you to believe he was entirely serious. And one thing's for certain: if Leggio was watching, he must have been proud to be one of the four by four.