Harmonica player finds success in quartet

Philip Caltabellotta plays a chromatic harmonica along with a classic Duke Ellington song in his home in the Village of Briar Meadow.

Philip Caltabellotta remembers being a kid in West New York, N.J., and looking at harmonicas through the pawn shop window next to the produce store where his mother shopped.

Although it’s been a few decades since then, Caltabellotta’s love of the harmonica hasn’t faded.

“I started playing harmonica when I was very young,” said Caltabellotta, of the Village of Briar Meadow. “Back then, the harmonica was more popular than it is today.”

Seeing different harmonica musicians make appearances on talk shows in the ’60s inspired Caltabellotta to one day pick up the instrument for himself. Since learning to play as a child, he has played various gigs around The Villages — both by himself and with his harmonica quartet, Panache — and he created the Harmonica Happiness club a few years ago.

“I’ve been playing harmonica all my life,” Caltabellotta said. “Harmonica was a large part of my life.”

Caltabellotta said he plays for crowds on his own often.

“I do my own stuff and play with a lot of jazz musicians,” he said. “I play pretty much everywhere.”

His ensemble, Panache — which includes club members Peter Bronzi, Bob Ernst and Caltabellotta’s wife, Valerie — tends to rehearse together and “do a few gigs here and there.” The ensemble has released its own CD recording of harmonica songs.

“We play for our own pleasure,” Caltabellotta said. “You don’t really have harmonica ensembles anymore. It’s a lost art. It was very famous at one time, but it pretty much went away in America.”

Caltabellotta and his ensemble members play different types of harmonics together, including chord, chromatic and bass.

“(Phil) always wanted to start a Harmonica trio,” said Bronzi, of the Village Santiago. “He wanted to form that, and out of the bunch of us, he’s the only one who knows how to play the chord harmonica so that gave me a chance to play a melody harmonica, which he is the virtuoso on, but he plays a mean chord also.”

Bronzi said he met Caltabellotta at the harmonica club, and they have been playing together for about two years now.

“I started playing when I was 8 years old,” Bronzi said. “I won a little plastic harmonica at a park recreation department in my town, and I learned to play from the little sheet they give you. I put it away in my 20s, but when I came down here, all of the sudden there’s 20 other people who like playing the harmonica. It definitely restarted everything for me.”

Bronzi said Caltabellotta is like a coach to him now.

Caltabellotta’s biggest hope in the coming months is that he can get back to his harmonica club — which has been on hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic and the summer months — in September.

“I have a lifelong love affair with the harmonica,” he said. “The rest is pretty much history.”

Staff writer Alexandria Mansfield can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5401, or alexandria.mansfield@thevillagesmedia.com.