Birth of the Blu’u – jazz endures in Tahoe |

Birth of the Blu’u – jazz endures in Tahoe

Tim Parsons

Jonah M. Kessel / Lake Tahoe Action / Young Jacks: Tristan Selzler and Tony Cataldo learned to play a lot of instruments and to love jazz at an early age.

People hear it in the hallway as they enter the casino from a parking garage. Some hear it as they are walking from the gym back to their room.

Look inside. It’s jazz. Live jazz. And it’s good.

There’s a bass player with crazy socks, wild hair and long goatee. The drummer’s head bobs side to side as he keeps the beat. The guitarist looks to be in another place, his eyes closed, fingers stretched across the frets. The saxophone player’s eyebrows are raised as he smiles in appreciation while watching a man less than half his age solo on the trumpet. The pianist is in the back, playing behind a beret and beard. A closer look reveals he’s a young cat too.

“Every head turns,” guitar player Mick Valentino said. “Nobody just walks by. They might not walk in but they definitely take notice because it’s different from everything else that’s going on.”

Jazz clubs these days are a rarity. Saxophonist Rocky Tatarelli said 90 percent of the clubs from the days of his youth are gone.

“It doesn’t hold a priority anymore,” he said. “Going out and having a date and listening to great music. It’s kind of disappeared, unfortunately.”

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Its appearance at MontBleu Resort Casino is a rare treat for jazz aficionados. The band is comprised of longtime players and a couple of multi-instrumentalists just out of college. When Tatarelli, a 68-year-old tenor sax man, joined, the Blu’u Prophets began emerging as something special. Call it the Birth of the Blu’u.

Art gallery with jazz

Galerie Noir is an art gallery with a jazz motif. Art director and band leader Steve “Vasco” Vasconcellos provides music on Friday and Saturday nights. Area and visiting performers are welcome to drop in.

Vasco has a penchant for recruiting high-caliber players. His Los Angeles band Prophets of Time and Space features Jerry Goodman, Leon “Ndugu” Chancler, Armaro Ruiz and Munyungo Jackson playing what he calls “leading edge, contemporary jazz.”

After Valentino joined Vasco’s Tahoe band, more talent began walking through the gallery doors. The reason?

“I believe it is the composition,” he said. “It’s challenging musically and responsive audience wise. It’s complex enough to challenge the musicians but also receivable by the listener to be engaged by the music.

“The other part of the formula is you get one or two key players in place then other players go, ‘Wow, I want to be involved in that.’ ”

Enter Mr. Tatarelli.

A singular sound

Tatarelli had to grow up fast. He had three children by the time he was 20. Sadly his wife died when he was 31. His looks belied his age and he began performing in bars when he was 17. During the day, he worked construction.

“Detroit was a Mecca for jazz artists and I had a lot of mentors at and early age,” Tatarelli said. “Louis Hayes was my neighbor, and of course he’s probably been on a thousand albums. At 15 I went up to my dad and told him I wanted a saxophone. He was an old jazz musician himself so he went right down to the pawn shop and got one.”

As a single parent, Tatarelli had to turn down offers to go on the road with some top-level bands. But his hometown had plenty of action, and Tatarelli was a rare white face in the black clubs and neighborhoods.

He recalls seeing the world’s best-known trumpet player walking down a street trying not to be noticed. “I said, ‘Miles Davis, what are you doing here?’ and he goes, ‘What do you mean what am I doing here? What are you doing here?'”

One band leader told Tatarelli he hated white people and the only factor that allowed him in the band was his great music. Tatarelli said he felt terribly disrespected but was grateful he didn’t quit because one week later Dizzy Gillespie sat in with the band.

“Dizzy is full of wit and is very charming and of course a very, very, very great player,” Tatarelli recalled, as other band members listened.

Tatarelli is treated with reverence by the others, and not just for his experiences and easy-going personality. The man can play.

“The first thing any musician is going to notice about his sound is how big and wide and resonate it is,” said trombone and keyboardist Tristan Selzler. “It’s pretty distinguished. You listen to John Coltrane and after two seconds you say, ‘That’s John Coltrane.’ You can recognize it, and Rock’s the same way. That’s his sound and he owns it.”

The Coltrane reference makes the 68-year-old blush. But the observation is dead on. Tatarelli’s embouchure (the way he holds his mouth around the mouth piece) was inspired by Coltrane. Tatarelli considers himself a post-Coltrane hard bopper with some straight-ahead fusion.

“I kept trying to attain Coltrane’s sound when I was in my 20s,” Tatarelli said. “I bought a mouthpiece similar to Coltrane’s. It took a year to learn how to play that thing. Then finally I started graduating to larger tip openings and started experimenting with building up the baffle with clay, which I still do.”

Tatarelli, who recently married and relocated from the Bay Area to Reno, sat in one night at Galerie Noir and decided to stay.

“Rocky inspired me to take this band to the next level,” Vasco said. “A musician is made up of his life experiences integrated with his musical instrument. You could truly call Rock ‘Rocky Road.’ He did construction by day and music at night. That’s tough. The soul of the man is deep and strong.”

Young Jacks

They like to wear old-school jazz threads, but there no denying the youth of Selzler, 23, and Tony Cataldo, 27. And it seems the could pick up and play any ax; they are lumberjacks of all trades.

Cataldo and Selzler met at music school at the University of Nevada, Reno. They’ve played together in various jazz combinations and in a blues trio in which Cataldo plays bass and Selzler is on electric guitar and vocals.

“They’re geniuses,” Tatarelli said, drawing laughter from the Young Jacks. “I’m not exaggerating one bit. I’ve been around musicians my entire life and these guys are unbelievable. They’ve inspired me so much. I’m 68 years old and they’ve kicked me in the butt. I started looking at my music a lot more seriously all over again and it’s because of these guys. Now I’m trying to catch up to them.”

Cataldo, who began playing music when he was 10, met Selzler in his final semester at UNR.

“I was coaching a combo that he was in and the first thing I remembered is that he is very capable with a bunch of different instruments,” Cataldo said. “We ended up using him on certain tunes on piano – which went on to be his main thing – on trombone and also guitar. So we had the multi-instrumentalist thing going right away. I’d like to think of us as two of the more versatile guys in the area.”

Selzler grew up in a musical family. His dad taught him trombone and grandmother the piano.

“I didn’t play jazz until I got to college,” Selzler said. “I thought it was stupid. But in my senior year of high school we went to the Reno Jazz Festival and I fell in love with it. Then I was recruited to come here.”

Selzler and Cataldo are jazz students with an appreciation for history.

Cataldo was first influenced by Freddie Hubbard and the early works of Louis Armstrong. Then after hearing Miles Davis’ “Birth of the Cool,” he was hooked on jazz.

“What I like about it is the communication,” he said. “You have to be a virtuoso on your instrument to be able to communicate effectively. You have to have a connection between your ear, your brain directly into your instrument in milliseconds. It requires a higher degree of mastery than it does to do a lot of other styles. It’s enabled me to learn other instruments and apply what I know into other styles and to pick up the learning curve a lot faster.”

Solid vets

A year ago drummer Gary Claude moved to Carson City, where he and his wife plan to open a gourmet grocery story. Like Tatarelli, he had been playing regularly in the Bay Area, but he was schooled in Louisville where he earned a performance degree in percussion.

He also plays in a quintet with Cataldo and Selzler twice a week at the Carson Nugget.

“It’s nice to play Steve’s original tunes on Friday and Saturday nights,” he said. “It’s more straight-ahead jazz. I’m surprised it’s up here.”

Selzler enjoys Claude’s style.

“He’s just bad as hell,” he said. “He has a real smooth flowing style but you wouldn’t know that from the energy he brings to the band. He’s Elvin Jones meets Jack Dejohnette.”

While the volume of the room is set to Seltzer’s acoustic grand piano, Valentino sets the tone, writing a lot of the arrangements.

“Mick is a natural leader,” Tatarelli said. “I’m pretty sure the band has recognized that by now.”

Valentino also is working on another project with Tower of Power keyboardist Roger Smith. The target date for the album’s release is November or December.

“Jazz is American music,” Valentino said. “It’s the fabric of our country. We enjoy keeping the continuum of it and educating people as to just what America is about.”

Valentino is a master of many musical style and very much a jazz historian.

“I studied privately to learn how to read and then the rock ‘n’ roll era comes around and Jimi Hendrix comes in and he just changed my life,” Valentino said. “From the time I was 14 to 16 I saw him three times. The day he passed away I immediately got into Wes Montgomery and Pat Martino and John Coltrane. I grew up across the street from an alto player and I learned the nuances of songs. I heard a lot of great artists that I wasn’t aware of.”

‘Master Vibration’

The ultimate goal will be a new album, “Master Vibration” which will be recorded in August at Atlantic Studios in Los Angeles by the Blu’u Prophets and some members of the original Prophets, including Goodman, Vasco said.

In contrast to Vasco’s previous albums, the sounds won’t be improvised in the studio. The band is refining the sounds beforehand. All members agree they are getting better each week.

“Having a regular gig is the key to that,” Cataldo said. “A weekly rehearsal and a couple of regular gigs during the week, that changes everything. A rehearsed band is a totally different story.”

Vasco is happy with the direction.

“We want to build a project and the chemistry,” he said. “If your are going to book the time you want to have a symbiotic relationship and the band is quickly going to the next level.”