Playing it strat
Mickey Valentino has played with jazz and R&B groups from all over and now helps keep the Reno jazz scene swinging
On a rainy evening in 2003, Mickey Valentino, a tall gent carrying a Stratocaster, quietly took the stage in the Siena Casino’s Enoteca Jazz Lounge. A minute to tune up, then a flood of technically perfect jazz swept from the speakers.
“I took my first lesson when I was 7,” Valentino later said, “but by 14 I was already playing in bands and teaching.”
Valentino grew up in Sacramento, Calif., listening to rhythm and blues and learning guitar licks from the likes of Sons of Champlin, James Brown, Jeff Beck, blues artist Paul Butterfield and especially Jimi Hendrix.
“In 1971, my friend took me to see John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra,” Valentino said. “I was blown away by McLaughlin’s artistry, and I felt like [Jimi’s] torch had been passed.”
While the teenaged Valentino studied his craft, a neighbor about the same age, Gary Myose, who played alto sax, began to feed his interest in jazz. Artists like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and guitar players like Kenny Burrell, Barney Castle and Wes Montgomery filled out Valentino’s collection of LPs. He and his neighbor played modern jazz and be-bop and developed an interest in classical music. Valentino’s broad musical interest flavored his performances, but R&B and soul music were his bread and butter.
At 15, the budding virtuoso formed a band with several friends. Uncle Sam featured a horn section and performed pieces akin to those of Chicago, Tower of Power and Blood, Sweat and Tears. Valentino co-wrote with the band’s trumpet player, and they built a repertoire of all-original tunes.
By 1971, Valentino found his way to Chicago. He joined up with Aura, a band with a Mercury Records contract.
“I thought I’d made it big,” Valentino said, “but I hadn’t nearly paid my share of the dues.”
In 1973, Sacramento still rode a swell of musical talent and styles that had begun in the mid-1960s in San Francisco. Roger Smith, today the keyboardist for Tower of Power, with his own albums, Just Enough and Rosco’s Place, befriended Valentino and asked him to join gigs in Austin, Texas. Smith and Valentino returned to Sacramento in 1974 and played top-40 music in clubs.
“My ‘jazz college’ was a little bar in downtown Sacramento,” said Valentino, “playing with the likes of Roger Smith, Jimmy Robinson on drums and Al Bent, a great Latin jazz trombonist, who went on to play with Pete Escovedo.”
Soul Train Records signed Valentino with a new band, Sun Bear, in 1977. The R&B group featured Roger Smith and a talented drummer, Ahaguna G. Sun. Valentino began a lasting friendship with Sun, who now heads the popular R&B/nu-funk group Big Advice. The group’s first album, Love Shines, ranked on Billboard’s R&B album chart and features Valentino on lead guitar. Valentino, Sun and Smith continued working on various projects for producers Don Cornelius and Dick Griffe in Los Angeles.
One of Valentino’s Southern California connections got him playing covers of 1960s pop and underground material with Santa Esmeralda. The band already had produced five albums and enjoyed a solid following in Europe and Asia. Valentino got his first taste of touring internationally and played with the band at Radio City Music Hall, opening for Barry White.
“When Barry stepped up on the riser with us during our performance, I thought I had become a real rock star,” Valentino quipped.
The band toured Japan, Canada and France and was the second American rock act allowed to tour in Saudi Arabia. (James Brown had been the first.) Six months later the Iranian hostage crisis occurred, and the Near East temporarily closed its doors to Western pop culture.
Valentino, who’d become a prominent guitarist after two years with Santa Esmeralda, joined the popular Sacramento R&B band Mac Nasty. He played bass with the group from 1981 until 1989. Mac Nasty often played five nights per week, and Valentino always sought out jazz venues where he could play guitar on off nights.
At a gig in Reno with Mac Nasty in 1985, Valentino met regional legend Tommy Bell. Bell hired Valentino soon after, and that gig lasted over 15 years.
Valentino said he believes Bell is among the top five male vocalists in the world.
During his tenure with Bell, Valentino chanced to meet one of his guitar idols at Fitzgerald’s Casino. British virtuoso Jeff Beck was filming a music video for Chicago blues guitarist Buddy Guy. Valentino approached Beck, and they chatted about Guy’s influence on their work.
“Jeff said, ‘Did you know you were sitting right behind Buddy during the filming?’ I looked, and there sat Buddy, wearing sunglasses, a Hawaiian print shirt, and hanging [on] to a bucket of nickels.”
Since leaving Tommy Bell’s group to freelance, Valentino has worked with some of the finest musicians in Nevada and California. He often appears with local favorites such as pianist Grant Levin, jazz vocalist Debbie DeFazio, keyboardist Kevin Tokars and drummer Brian Jenkins. Valentino also takes pleasure in doing solo guitar gigs, teaching about jazz, its history, its effect on American culture and its masters. Valentino plays at venues from EJ’s Jazz Café to the Siena’s Enoteca Jazz Lounge, and he still does session work and plays live gigs in Northern California.
“I’ve been working in the studio with Roger Smith on the next Jazz Rosco CD,” Valentino said, “and recording with Big Advice on their second album.”
Billy Slais, talented recording artist and booking agent for the Siena and many local jazz artists, has high regard for Valentino and his expressive guitar style.
“I love working with Mick,” said Slais, former saxophonist with groups such as Elvin Bishop and Cold Blood, “because he’s intuitive. Mickey doesn’t copy other guitar styles; he perfects them.”
Slais added that Valentino virtually never needs to practice before a gig; he simply displays such musicianship that he complements any professional with whom he works. Valentino’s guest performance with the Reno Jazz Orchestra featuring vocalist Elaine Lucia last summer at Wingfield Park was a perfect example.
Valentino did session work with Roger Smith on his Jazz Rosco CD series and will be featured with Big Advice when the band makes its Northern Nevada debut at Mount Rose Ski Resort April 3.
“I’m very grateful to places like Siena, EJ’s Jazz Café, and the Sapphire Lounge at Harrah’s, because they’re keeping fans who enjoy real music in the house,” Valentino said, “but more than that, they’re keeping jazz alive, which can stem the tide of cultural extinction our country is experiencing.”