Yes, it would be a mistake to assume that the biography of philosopher John Cali, who claims to be able to channel the spirit of an ancient Indian chief, would be more entertaining than that of the musician John Cali, even if the latter fellow did play various stringed instruments on more than 300 recording sessions between 1920 and 1962. Music buffs who are familiar with the careers of mundane sessionmen might actually take this last bit of information as proof that Cali was boring. Nothing could be further from the truth. No need of transmitting someone else's thoughts when one's own are so interesting. Judging from his career, Cali must have had quite some mind. He was a virtuoso on both banjo and guitar, and also recorded on mandolin and lute. On each instrument, he made his way across musical boundaries as if he was a Viking out to explore the ocean.
On banjo, he was one of the few string players from the '20s era to have a hand in the creation of both jazz and country music. On guitar, he is considered a pioneer of jazz guitar styles, which explains why he and duo partner Tony Guttoso have a pair of tracks on the brilliant Pioneers of the Jazz Guitar compilation released by Yazoo. "Hittin' on All Six" is what midwesterners would call a "jaw dropper", while "Satan Takes a Holiday" is right up there with Judas Priest and Mozart for exploiting satanic references musically. On lute? Cali has used this instrument to create a type of fusion music that makes even the wildest blend seem tame. For the album Mazel Tov, Mis Amigos!, he strummed his lute in front of a Latin rhythm section with some of the greatest players in this genre: pianist Charlie Palmieri, timbales player Willie Rodriguez, and Ray Barretto on congas and bongos. The artist credited in this case with turning "Beltz, Mein Shtele Beltz" into a pachanga and "Papirossen" into a mambo was Juan Calle & His Latin Lantzmen.
The goofy name and the presence of genius collaborators are two constants in the career of Cali, who quite simply is an important part of American music history, no matter in which direction the listener turns the dial. He began recording music at the age of 14, and the A&R man in this case was none other than Thomas Edison. Cali performed the tune "Ja Da" on one of the first cylinder recordings. Years later, Cali would take part in the legendary final recordings of the great Jimmie Rodgers. Along with steel guitarist Tony Colicchio, Cali plays guitar on a series of tracks that some of Rodgers' fans feel are the man's absolute bests. This is certainly music that wrenches at one's heart, simply because Rodgers is near death, cutting a record to support his family, and managing to do a wonderful job despite everything.
A random grab at the endless list of groups that Cali played with results in what seems like the contents of a treasure chest, superb players and superb groups in every case. The Arkansas Trio was a collaboration with Vernon Dalhart, a famous early recording artist who helped pioneer the entire cowboy song genre, and country & western music in the process. The Windy City Jazzers, on the other hand, is only "probably" a group with Dalhart, according to the scholars, who also can't agree on who is playing banjo. Could be Cali, could be Harry Reser. Since Reser was considered one of the greatest banjoists in history, able to play any piece of music on the banjo no matter now complicated, the confusion reflects well on Cali's own abilities. Lanin's Southern Serenaders put Cali alongside a young Jimmy Durante and Miff Mole in 1921. Mole and Cali also played together in the Tennessee Tooters, plus trumpeter Red Nichols. Speaking of trumpeters and Cali, it should not be overlooked that none other than Clark Terry and Doc Cheatham guested on the previously mentioned Yiddish Latin fusion album.
Rising above all of these projects in sheer musical fascination would be the ocarina solos of Bernie Ladd, with back-up guitar from Cali, a record that sounds like it would make a good lunch: "Potato Salad" with "Sweet Not Sour" on the B-side. "A Study in Brown," another of the fabulous guitar duos with Guttoso, must be a favorite of Texan Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers, who for many years harbored the ambition of creating a double-record "Brown Album" set. In his later years, Cali served as both mandolinist and guitarist on call with the Metropolitan Opera Company and the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra.