Rotella Takes Different Routes : Approaches Vary for Versatile Guitarist; He Wants an Album 'That's Me '

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Lester Young, the swing era sax giant, was riding along in a car in Manhattan in the mid-'50s, so the oft-told story goes. A selection came on the radio by Zoot Sims, one of many tenor saxophonists whose style closely resembled Young's own.

As Young listened to the track, he brightened. "That's me," he exclaimed to a companion.

Then, as he continued to listen and realized the performer was someone else, his face fell and he said sadly: "Oh, that's not me."

Guitarist Thom Rotella feels similarly about his three albums on the DMP label: They're not him.

"I can't say those albums are representative of where I am musically," Rotella, 40, said during a recent interview at his home in Venice. "A lot of people come and hear my band and say: 'Gee, you don't sound like your records at all.' "

Rotella's albums find him in the manner of, say, Earl Klugh, playing acoustic guitar and delivering medium-tempo originals that place the spotlight on melody. When he plays live with his band, his approach, even to those same tunes, is radically different.

"My show is real upbeat, full of energy," said Rotella, who plays with the Luther Hughes Trio tonight and Saturdayat El Matador in Huntington Beach. "The band is burnin' and we open things up, solo-wise and with faster tempos, too."

A native of Niagara Falls, N.Y., Rotella signed with DMP in 1986 when he was living in New York City and doing a lot of studio session work. He said producer/DMP owner Tom Jung had a concept of how he wanted Rotella to play. "I had to tailor my style to his," Rotella said, "and that was a little limiting, but I felt it was the best way to function on the label."

Still, though the albums sold well, each in the 50,000-unit range, and received considerable airplay, Rotella chose not to renew his contract with DMP when it expired last summer.

"I wasn't growing artistically there. I want to do more electric albums, and I don't think Tom's into that." Rotella said he's currently looking for a deal with a larger, perhaps major, label.

At El Matador, he'll reveal yet another side of his musical personality: that of a guy who just likes to hang out and play a variety of tunes in a hey-what's-next jam session-type atmosphere.

"We just wing it, playing everything from Wayne Shorter's 'Footprints' to sambas to my originals," said Rotella, who will be making his sixth appearance with Hughes at the Huntington Beach nightspot.

Sometimes, Rotella said, he'll get the players to just make up a tune on the spot. "Maybe we'll start with a chord, with everybody feeling his way through, and we usually come up with something."

Spontaneity and versatility helped Rotella become a regular on the studio session scene, both here in Southern California and on the East Coast, in Boston as well as New York. In Los Angeles during the late '70s, he sometimes was making four three-hour sessions a day. Now, he said, things are slower, but he still gets his share of calls.

Rotella began playing guitar at age 10. His first hero was jazz great Wes Montgomery. Initially exposed to music theory at 15, he studied writing and arranging with Steve Brown at Ithaca College in New York in 1969 and with Bill Leavitt at the Berklee College of Music in Boston from 1970 to 1972.

"I've always been fascinated with the work of writing, that sort of mathematical aspect of actually drawing the notes on paper," he said. Currently, he writes everything from his own tunes to pieces for such TV shows as "China Beach" and the daytime drama "Santa Barbara."

The tunes take two different routes, he said. "Some have melodies that seem accessible without trying to be so, and others are more orchestrated kinds of pieces, sort of through-composed, many with no solos at all." Rotella would like to break into film writing.

"I'd like to be hired to write my kind of music, in a certain style that comes from my albums," he said. "A strong solo career might open those doors. Getting an album out that I like, that's me, sounds to me like the next step."

Thom Rotella and the Luther Hughes Trio play jazz tonight and Saturday at 9 and 10:45 at El Matador, 16903 Algonquin St., Huntington Beach. Admission: free. Information: (714) 846-5337.

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