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Gaetano Letizia: Precision and soul in six-string increments


Gaetano Letizia & The Underground Blues Band

Tom Letizia Records

Gaetano “Tom” Letizia plays guitar with a combination of precision (learned, no doubt, from studying B.B. King, taking private lessons with George Benson and Pat Martino and studying classical and jazz guitar with gifted teachers, to cite a smidgen of his influences and scholarly pursuits) and soul (from listening widely and intently to a range of six-string stylists); his compositional artistry is second to none—for two years he studied music composition on scholarship at Baldwin Wallace Conservatory of Music and he’s currently studying with Richie Hart of Berklee College of Music and also happens to be a Certified Berklee PULSE system teacher; and he’s had a lengthy career as a recording artist and band leader having cut his first album in 1981 and being in the business some 40 years all told. And, as his original songs on Voodoo Doll & Other Blues Lessons indicate, he’s no slouch at lyrics either.

Which brings us to the one fly in the ointment that keeps a good, even inspired album from rising to the ranks of something truly special. Simply put, Letizia’s easygoing, cool, conversational vocal style doesn’t communicate all the heat his lyrics could convey. In the funky “The Devil Is a Nice Guy,” he takes a well-earned shot at rapacious politicians (“…you are the best, stealin’ us blind and making a mess…”), and there’s a fleeting moment when the melody echoes that of The Undisputed Truth’s classic scorching of backstabbers, “Smiling Faces Sometimes,” from 1971. But Letizia stays at a remote distance from the righteous anger implicit in his words and begging to explode from the track. Similarly, the jittery pulse of “Sold My Soul” is an interesting backdrop for a song about a guy trying to figure out why so much has gone wrong for him but the vocal kind of skims the surface of the deeper feelings it could plumb here, and that’s due mostly to the singer not possessing vocal gifts comparable to his mastery as an instrumentalist. The tools to be something more than a serviceable vocalist don’t seem to be there.

Gaetano Letizia & The Underworld Blues Band, ‘Voodoo Doll,’ from Voodoo Doll & Other Blues Lessons

Which is not in and of itself a reason to disregard this album. Letizia and his band are quite something, and play together with great empathy and a heightened sense of each song’s drama. In the abovementioned “Sold My Soul” guitarist Letizia and keyboardist Jake Tijerina get into a spirited dialogue while the rhythm section of bassist Larry Keller and drummer Steve Renko work like mad to keep it all rock-solid on the bottom. On “Blow the Blues Away” Letizia’s frolicking upper neck workout drives an ebullient track advancing the positive message to “make someone happy, do it today/make someone happen, blow the blues away.” At other moments, when, for instance, Tijerina takes the spotlight on the B3—the opening instrumental juggernaut, “Big Foot,” for instance—the proceedings take on a Ramsey Lewis Trio feel with the value-added component being Letizia’s tasty guitar work.

Gaetano Letizia & The Underworld Blues Band on WKYC’s (Cleveland) Live On Lakeside Show, March 2014, performing ‘The Devil Is a Nice Guy,’ from the album Voodoo Doll & Other Blues Lessons

As a souvenir of a live performance, Voodoo Doll & Other Blues Lessons would be a smart investment. All that’s standing between it and a recording that could truly grip your soul is a vocalist versatile enough to bring home the bacon on the spirited and topical numbers and soulful enough to add more nuance and personality to the most introspective or wounded of Letizia’s lyrics. Stay tuned; there’s more to come and it’s worth waiting for

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