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Gene Bertoncini: Architect of the Guitar

By Published: April 7, 2008
AAJ: In discussing your music, people often speculate about how your architect training informs your playing. There's another great musician who was also into architecture, and that was Jobim.

GB: Really?

AAJ: Apparently he was always good at drawing, so when he got married and needed to make some reliable money, he took the entrance exams for architecture school. But he only studied a year before going back to music.

GB: Wow, that's wonderful! I didn't know that. I owe you for this. We met backstage once. Did he ever talk about being influenced by architecture?

Gene Bertoncini

AAJ: Not that I know of, but Goethe once said that architecture was "frozen music." What's your take on the connection?

GB: In architecture, you're analyzing a couple of things: artistic balance, balance in design and what constitutes good design, and the needs of people. When designing a structure of any kind you have to be concerned about what's going to be happening inside the structure, and how it's going to make life better for the people in it, whether in a residential or commercial situation. And that opens up all kinds of sensitivities in you. This awareness can easily translate into your music: it becomes a combination of satisfying yourself and being concerned with the needs of the listener.

I'm always thinking about how my music will affect people—I can't wait to play this for somebody, because I think it's going to make them feel good. Then there's the idea of making a presentation, because an architect always has to present a completed concept for a client. The whole concept is there on paper. I believe very much that this has influenced my sense of arranging: I present a concept for each tune I play, pretty much, that I've thought about. There's a beginning and ending and a middle; there's balance, you know, in a harmonic sense, and in a linear sense, like looking at the elevation of a building.

That's one of the reasons why I work out a lot of things on the guitar. It's not just learning the notes, or how to improvise, it's working out arrangements to improvise from. There are things I just play off the top of my head, but for the most part, I want to have a really great concept for each thing I play.

AAJ: You can hear that, especially in your solo albums [Quiet Now and Body and Soul (Ambient, 1999)]. Then there's another aspect of the architect analogy: you wouldn't build a contemporary house with a lot of froufrou on it.

GB: No.

AAJ: Well, there's no froufrou in your music, either, no gratuitous ornamentation—everything is part of the whole, organic to the whole. I think that applies to Jobim as well.

Gene Bertoncini

GB: Very few of his things are improvised, too, because he's so sure of everything he's playing. When he goes out and does a concert, you feel that everything is worked out, with complete lines—he's an arranger, from start to finish. And maybe to a flaw... but I wouldn't say that about him, since all you have to do is play his songs, and he's way ahead of the game.

AAJ: They always sound through-composed.

GB: They really are. What's so great about the guitar... it's got that potential of being a vehicle for both composition and arranging, because the whole thing is there in your hands. I feel that my guitar is my own little orchestra.

AAJ: I was trying to characterize your music and came up with the word "Brajazzical," for Brazilian and jazz and classical. Does that work for you?

GB: I don't feel like I'm that much of a Brazilian specialist. I feel like if you look at a sonogram of a pregnant Brazilian woman, there's a baby and a guitar. Those guys—there are so many great players: Romero [Lubambo], Paul Meyers...

AAJ: Baden Powell...

GB: Oscar Castro-Neves...

AAJ: Marco Pereira, Rafael Rabello...

GB: [Paul] Bellinati. I really love the music, and I try my best to play it. I'm always working on it. I've heard Brazilian players say that they love the way I play it, and I recorded with Luis Bonfa [Non-stop to Brazil (Chesky, 1989)]. Joao Gilberto used to borrow my guitar—I learned how to play bossa nova right from him.

AAJ: Wow, that's right from the source, since Gilberto was one of the founders of bossa nova.

GB: He was really the guy who brought Jobim's music to life, to the world. When he sings and plays the guitar, the clarity is so...amazing. He's just the best player there is.

AAJ: And his time...nobody has quite the same phrasing as he does. He's always floating ahead or behind.

GB: That's the nature of that music; it's so clear when he does it. He's so fussy about the sound; a few times I came down when he was working, and he wanted me to make sure that certain things were happening. He would say, too much bass, too much bass—he was extremely sensitive.

AAJ: He's an interesting guy, for sure. Monica Getz once told me that Joao came for dinner one night, and stayed for two years.

GB: Joao was doing a solo concert at Carnegie Hall. And we were all waiting for Joao, you know, and no Joao, no Joao. Finally George Wein comes out and says Joao's caught in traffic. But the guy sitting next to me—a big music producer—said, "He's next door at the Parker Meridian. Something's wrong. I have to go over and get him out." So meantime, George tells the audience to take a break. We all had coffee, the guy went to get him, and Joao finally makes his appearance on stage. He was at least an hour late—at Carnegie Hall!—but then he played an hour and a half straight. It was absolutely beautiful.

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