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Gene Bertoncini: Architect of the Guitar

By Published: April 7, 2008
AAJ: It's hard to stay in the zone; it's not a constant state anyway, by definition.

GB: Yeah, but there are some guys who play no matter what. When you ask about frustration, that's part of what I'm talking about: the inability to stay in the zone.

AAJ: I'd be curious to know if there's a magic way to stay there.

GB: It's all about the emotions. One of the first things I did early in life was take singing lessons, and the first thing the teacher put in front of me was a Puccini aria. I was singing those arias, and I went to my first opera ever, at the old Met. "La Boheme." So I'm there in the balcony, and I'm beginning to be so moved by this that I had to get up and find a place where I could openly weep. It was so powerful. I felt it was great to be moved like that, and thought, if you can get in touch with that singer inside of you, and then translate that feeling onto the instrument... Sometimes we learn things on the instrument where we don't sing—we learn technically, or analytically—but to be able to really sing when you play...

AAJ: Not just in the vocal sense, but to be that expressive?

Gene Bertoncini

GB: Yes. But sometimes you do that vocal thing too. I tell my students to sing a little something, and then try to play exactly what they sang. The closer it gets, the more likely you are to be in touch with the notes you play, and when you're in touch with the notes you play, they're gonna be in the right spot.

AAJ: And people are going to react to them. I wanted to ask about your happiest career memories. You've had such wonderful times with such a variety of great players.

GB: That's true. It's such a joy to play music in all aspects of it. I feel very lucky about that. And some of the experiences, like being in the Tony Bennett special, doing those recordings, playing into a microphone and hearing it placed somewhere inside the orchestra...being a part of film and record dates and jingles, even—those are fun, too. It was a busy time in the studios. It's totally dead now, in New York.

AAJ: Why is that?

GB: I think a lot of them are being done at home, with synthesizers. Stuff like that. But recently I got a lot of joy performing for Marilyn and Alan Bergman. The greatest lyrics ever written, and the nicest people.

AAJ: I'd love to meet them someday. Whenever there's a lyric that makes me sit up, it's either theirs or Johnny Mercer's.

GB: "How do you lose yourself to someone/and never lose your way?"

AAJ: "How do you keep the music playing?" is a very good question. It's wisdom, not just poetry, and it sits on the music so beautifully.

GB: "The Summer Knows": "She takes her summer time/and twists the moon around her little finger"—aah.

AAJ: I hear you have a new CD coming out, with a string quartet.

GB: Yes, Concerti. They're supposed to be manufacturing it right now.

AAJ: Do tell.

GB: I'm really happy with it. One of the best parts is that I'm playing some great jazz on it, with Dave [Finck] really kicking me in the butt. It's just me and Dave and a string quartet. I picked Dave because he's so strong and creative and he's on a lot of Brazilian dates, and there's no drummer...

AAJ: So you needed a really good pulse. How did that work, doing jazz with a string quartet?

Gene Bertoncini

GB: A lot of my arrangements are for solo guitar, and the arrangers wrote around that stuff. Some of it is written, like "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To," where I play a solo thing in front of that. A guy named Dave Rivello wrote "Every Time We Say Goodbye"—it's a beautiful thing he wrote for me up in Eastman [School of Music], originally for a chamber music ensemble. Mike Paterson did backgrounds for "East of the Sun," and an arrangement of the Rodrigo slow movement [aka "Concierto de Aranjuez"]. I used to do that with (bassist) Mike Moore, just guitar and bass. And I did the Chopin again, the one that goes into "Insensatez" [Prelude in E minor], in kind of a Claus Ogerman setting. "Invitation" is on there too, as a bossa nova. Great song.

AAJ: So many jazz players dream about playing with strings; there's something about it that's the ultimate legitimizer. And aren't you playing with an orchestra soon?

GB: Yeah: April 26 [2008] with the Rochester, Minnesota Symphony Orchestra. I'm playing the Rodrigo, "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To," "Every Time We Say Goodbye," and the Chopin. All of those, I think.

AAJ: One more question. I like to leave the last one for free space: anything you want like to say, any pet peeve or philosophy. Whatever you like.

GB: Let me see... I love the fact that the guitar is a warm instrument, and I would hope that the beauty that comes out of the guitar would in some way beautify the world... and that people would take the time to listen. There aren't a lot of people who put much time into listening these days—in general, they're looking at music a lot more than they're listening to it. They don't know how to be contemplative anymore, or meditative...after all, you have to check your e-mail, your cell phone, your telephone...

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