Guitarist John Pisano’s life in jazz has ambled, in a mellow tone, through an extraordinary series of artistic alliances. His career’s gentle flow mirrors Pisano's understated style — always subtle, never overplayed, imparting a wealth of color and warmth, reserved yet deeply expressive. This individualistic, profoundly ensemble-simpatico approach led him to an influential, sustained partnership with Joe Pass, an epochal late-1950s stint with the Chico Hamilton Quintet and close associations with the likes of Peggy Lee, Burt Bacharach and Sergio Mendes.
Known as the Godfather of Jazz Guitar, Pisano’s 20-year-plus weekly Guitar Night showcase has just settled into a new home in Pasadena, and the 86-year-old guitarist eagerly anticipates the many nights of swinging six-string pyrotechnics ahead.
Born in New York on Feb. 6, 1931, Pisano grew up on Staten Island, a self-taught player who honed his teenage chops trying to keep up with avowed idol Django Reinhardt’s 78s and played every chance he got (“a lot of Italian weddings”). His early-'50s stint in the service afforded more experience: “I was the only official guitar player in the U.S. Air Force,” Pisano says. “We had a great band — everyone had joined the Air Force to avoid the fighting in whatever war we were involved in, We played everywhere, toured with Bob Hope — it was a great experience. That’s how I became a professional musician.”
One of his USAF bandmates was woodwind guru Paul Horn, whose subsequent recommendation proved key to Pisano’s musical and personal life. “I was just about to enroll in the Manhattan Music School when I got a call from Chico Hamilton,” Pisano says. “So I took Jim Hall’s place in the quintet and kept that gig for a few years. Chico’s music was almost classical, and with Fred Katz’s cello, it could sound symphonic, like chamber music, very unusual for the time. I toured with them all over the country — we’d do three weeks in Chicago, two weeks in Detroit, we went into Birdland. That was a great part of my life.
“I already had moved out here and started to do a lot of studio work,” Pisano says. “I mean, in the old days, a contractor would call, you’d go in an empty studio, over-dub a rhythm part and leave. You didn’t know you’d played on a hit record until weeks later!”
Having already left a glorious mark on modern jazz with the Hamilton Quintet, Pisano next fell into a long, fruitful partnership with one of jazz guitar’s all-time greatest titans.
“I met Joe Pass and we became very close. I did at least a dozen albums with him,” Pisano says with a large dose of his characteristic understatement. Starting with 1964’s For Django, where Pisano’s lustrous, subtle counterpoint rhythm work glimmered just under Pass’ coolly swinging, clarion leads, the Pass-Pisano partnership epitomized the vanguard of modern, straight-ahead jazz guitar. Their high-impact collaborations charted new territory and influenced generations of guitarists, climaxing with 1991’s Duets, a tandem masterpiece of impossibly delicate intimacy and unsurpassed communicative creativity, released shortly before Pass’ untimely death and further celebrated, albeit posthumously, with 1993’s Joe Pass & Co. Live at Yoshi's.
Along the way, Pisano enjoyed an equally significant run through the lush 1960s pop landscape. “I worked a great deal with Peggy Lee — she was very dear to me,” Pisano says. “Did a lot of work with Burt Bacharach, and Sergio Mendes, when he first started his Brazil 66 band. In 1968, Herb Alpert called, I joined Tijuana Brass, and that lasted a good while.”
Pisano’s low-lit, simmering bop beatitude and lulling, irresistible sense of rhythm rates him as the ultimate stealth sideman. Whether considering his decades of session work (with everyone from Sinatra, Sam Cooke, Julie London and Tony Bennett to Michael Bublé and Diana Krall) or supporting his wide-ranging bandstand roster of Guitar Night guests, Pisano is one of the great instrumental voices in jazz.
“I never thought Guitar Night would run for 20 years,” Pisano says. “And I’ve been very lucky, we’ve had so many wonderful experiences, with some of the greatest musicians from all over the world. We also have a very loyal following — we have a lot of the same faces who’ve been coming for 20 years.”
With a markedly catholic booking policy, Guitar Night has featured everyone from venerable studio legend Bob Bain (who co-founded the original iteration with Harold Roberts at Dante’s years earlier) to bop provocateur Bruce Forman to Andy Summers and Laurence Juber, all of whom Pisano uniformly provides with perfect support. With Guitar Night’s Jan. 9 inaugural date at new home Mixx (featuring Pisano, guitarist Pat Kelley, bassist John Leftwich, drummer Steve Hass), the long-running free weekly showcase is clearly rolling on in high, well chilled style.
“It’s not strictly jazz,” Pisano says. “I’ve had rock players, nylon string players, Brazilian, all kinds. I am not an ‘out front’ guy — I give the guests their choice of a rhythm section they prefer and I accompany them, and of course I stretch out also.
“The guitar has always been an instrument that brings players together,” Pisano says. “We have the one instrument that can play as a rhythm section or solo — sax players hang out together, but they need rhythm behind them. We don’t.
“There’s hardly any jazz clubs in L.A. now,” he says. “I teach at Cal State and always tell my students, ‘If you want to play jazz, you have to have a good time — it’s necessary.’ I’m still enjoying it. Otherwise, why be there?”
John Pisano’s Guitar Night at the Mixx Restaurant, 443 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena; every Tuesday, 7:30 p.m.; free. (626) 500-0021, themixxpasadena.com.