John Pizzarelli and Catherine Russell team up for “Nat King Cole and the Ladies of Song” at Kutztown University

Russell and Pizzarelli photos side by side.

By Susan L. Peña

KUTZTOWN, Pa. – When guitarist/vocalist John Pizzarelli and vocalist Catherine Russell perform at Kutztown University, 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, March 29, Schaeffer Auditorium, as part of the KU Presents! series, they will celebrate the Great American Songbook in their acclaimed “Nat King Cole and the Ladies of Song.” The show is being presented during, and in partnership with, Boscov’s Berks Jazz Fest (March 24 to April 2).

Pizzarelli, in a recent phone interview, said the show was developed in coordination with the 2019 release of his album, “For Centennial Reasons: 100 Year Salute to Nat King Cole,” and half of it will feature songs from the album, with Pizzarelli on guitar and vocals. The other half will feature songs associated with women who appeared on Cole’s 1956-57 television program, or were performing during that period, such as Dinah Washington and Margaret Whiting.

The two soloists will be backed by the rest of Pizzarelli’s trio: Isaiah J. Thompson on piano and Mike Karn on bass.

Pizzarelli said he first met Russell when she appeared on his radio show, “Radio Deluxe,” which he hosts with his wife, Broadway actor/singer Jessica Molaskey. “When she (Russell) started making albums, they were right up our alley,” he said. “We played them on the show and then had her on a live show. We also share the same booking agent.”

With the encouragement of the agent, they created their first collaborative show, based on Pizzarelli’s 2017 album, “Sinatra and Jobim.” They called it “Billie and Blue Eyes,” with Sinatra songs sung by Pizzarelli and Billie Holiday songs by Russell (they performed this show during the 2018 Berks Jazz Fest).

“We share the same sensibility, rhythmically, and she loves the trio – her group is similar to ours. It is a nice fit for all of us,” he said. “We love working with Catherine. It’s a perfect fit.”

Pizzarelli, born in 1962 in Paterson, N.J., is the son of the late world-renowned swing guitarist, Bucky Pizzarelli. As a teen, John was already playing guitar with jazz greats like Benny Goodman, Les Paul and Clark Terry, along with his father, during performances at the New York’s historic Pierre Hotel.

He discovered Nat King Cole when he was about 20, having developed an interest in singing. “I was always looking for material to sing with my father,” Pizzarelli said. Bucky pointed him toward the Nat King Cole trio albums, which had just been re-released in 1980. He also suggested trying some of Cole’s vocal repertoire, which would fit his developing voice better than the Sinatra or Bennett repertoire.

So when John released his debut album, “I’m Hip (Please Don’t Tell my Father) (1983),” most of it was Cole material. Cole has remained a foundational influence on him ever since.

Pizzarelli has released 29 albums over a career that has taken him all over the world. He is about to release his 30th, “Stage and Screen,” April 21, (with the same trio as the upcoming concert). The album features songs from Broadway, beginning with the 1925 musical “No, No, Nanette,” up to Jason Robert Brown’s 2015 show, “Honeymoon in Vegas.” There are also songs from films like “Casablanca” (1942), “It Happened in Brooklyn” (1947) and “Royal Wedding” (1951).

He put together his current trio in 2019, he said, but they only worked together for about four months before the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down. Pizzarelli created a Facebook concert for essential workers in New York as part of an effort organized by the musicians’ union; then he started his own Facebook concert series on Thursday nights. The trio reunited about a year later and are busy touring.

In April of 2020, he lost both his parents, then in their 90s, to COVID-19.

Catherine Russell was born in New York City to pianist/composer/bandleader Luis Russell (Louis Armstrong’s music director for years) and vocalist/guitarist/bassist Carline Ray, who performed with the famous International Sweethearts of Rhythm, pianist Mary Lou Williams, and trumpeter Sy Oliver.

After graduating from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Russell honed her vocals skills as a backup singer for celebrated bands like Steely Dan, David Bowie, Cyndi Lauper, Paul Simon and many more.

Her debut album, “Cat,” in 2006, was followed by seven more acclaimed albums, including “Strictly Romancin’” (2012), which won the Prix du Jazz Vocal from the French Jazz Academy, the Grand Prix du Hot Club de France and a Bistro Award for Outstanding Recording.

Her 2016 “Harlem on My Mind” and 2019 “Alone Together” were both nominated for Grammys for Best Jazz Vocal Album. Russell won a Grammy Award in 2012 as a featured artist on the soundtrack album for HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.”

Russell’s most recent album is “Send for Me” (2022). She has performed on four continents, at venues including the Kennedy Center, Jazz at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall and at jazz fests including Monterey, Newport, Montreal, Bern and Panama.

Tickets for “Nat King Cole & the Ladies of “Song” with John Pizzarelli and Catherine Russell are $46; $39 for students and seniors and can be purchased by calling the KU Presents! Box Office 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday, at 610-683-4092. Established to be the center of cultural life at Kutztown University, KU Presents! serves the campus and community by bringing world-class live arts that entertain, educate and enrich.