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Gene Bertoncini: Architect of the Guitar

By Published: April 7, 2008
AAJ: What were your biggest influences?

GB: When we were kids, my brother and I used to look forward to the live broadcasts of Benny Goodman. My folks are from Italy—there's no reason we should be listening to jazz. I don't know how it happened, but I consider it a great gift to both of us. So that was probably the earliest influence: hearing that swing, getting the beat. Later on, it was the George Shearing Quintet, and Chuck Wayne, who became my teacher. My first guitar teacher was Johnny Smith; his recordings were a tremendous inspiration to me. A little later on, it was Tal Farlow—I wore out Tal's records—and Barney Kessel, his album with Shelly Manne. I also loved the piano guys in those days, like Andre Previn. They swung so hard—Shelly Manne and LeRoy Vinnegar or Ray Brown. Oscar Peterson: I loved that trio, saw them in person at the London House in Chicago. There's that Barney Kessel album with Julie London [Julie is Her Name (EMI America, 1955)].

I loved the way the guitar was used in the Les Brown band, how it was voiced with the horns. My older brother also influenced me with the tunes he played on the accordion—jazz accordion—he knew all the tunes. I listened to Bill Evans a bit, and vocal albums, like the Hi-Los.

AAJ: All those moving internal lines—that's kind of what you do. How did you get started on the classical side of things?

Gene Bertoncini

GB: Chuck Wayne told me to listen to the recording of Julian Bream, and the "Pavane" by Ravel changed my life altogether. The Art of Julian Bream [RCA, 1959] is a particularly great record. It's got the "Pavane" on it, and the [Lennox] Berkeley sonatina—I was so taken with that. I started practicing classical guitar just about the time when the bossa nova hit. Joao was borrowing my guitar, I was playing the classical repertoire, and all these things kind of came together.

I was doing studio work at the time, and I got a call to play on a big album by Ahmad Jamal; they wanted somebody to play a bossa nova kind of thing. I just listened to Joao's Corcovado record over and over, and went to Rudy Van Gelder's studio. There was an orchestra—Richard Evans was the conductor and arranger—and Ahmad Jamal was the soloist. It was his album. I had a lot of courage in those days.

AAJ: Do you remember the name of it?

GB: Macanudo (Argo Records, 1962). When you come up in the music business, you start getting calls for studio things. There was Sebesky, and all of a sudden I'm doing an album with Hubert Laws, and then a second one. I walk into another studio and there's Ron Carter, Grady Tate and Hank Jones and Nancy Wilson. That was a great album, which we did in two days. And then it's another studio, and you're doing a film, Peggy Sue Gets Married (1986). Or you're doing all of Burt Bacharach's recordings.

AAJ: You were on those?

GB: Most of them, yeah. I did the recordings after "[Do You Know the Way to] San Jose." I was playing rhythm stuff, nylon string. There were three guitar players: Jay Berliner, Art Ryerson, and me. And I did all of Tony Bennett's records in the 70s. I was getting a lot of calls as a good all-around player...Columbia Studios, with a big orchestra; Johnny Mandel conducted a lot of dates. There were all those soloists in the orchestra too: George Duvivier, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Phil Woods. So many great players.

AAJ: You've done television too, yes?

GB: That Was the Week That Was [the American version of the BBC satire, which ran from January 1964 to May 1965]. The Tonight Show for two years. The [Merv] Griffin show before that.

AAJ: You were even in the Buddy Rich band at one time.

GB: Yeah, I was in Buddy's Quintet. Just like Marine Corps training.

Gene Bertoncini

AAJ: I bet. "Do this, Bertoncini!!"

GB: It was more like, "Why did you that?" After every set, there was a meeting, with criticisms. But he treated me good. Mike Manieri was the vibraphonist. I just saw him the other day.

AAJ: What's been the biggest frustration in your career?

GB: I'd like to be a better jazz player as a soloist, playing alone. I think the pressure of playing alone doesn't allow me the freedom to improvise more, and it's frustrating not to be able to do it as well as I'd like to. I'm trying to get better at doing all of it at the same time. If there's a rhythm section playing, you can take your time... you should be able to do that, even though you're doing solo.

AAJ: That sounds like the opposite of carefully crafting an arrangement.

GB: It is, but I'd like to do that part of it better. You know, the arrangements do stand on their own, and I'm proud of them, but I'm still frustrated with the fact that I'm too careful, and I think it's partly psychological. Actually, I'm going to a clinic, giving myself a birthday present: there's this guy who runs a workshop in Wisconsin. I met him on one of my tours. He does a thing called "Getting in the Zone." Sometimes you've got the energy flowing, and some person will come in, and you feel a need to impress that person, and there goes your whole groove.

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