Gene Bertoncini: Architect of the Guitar

Dr. Judith Schlesinger By

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I believe [architecture] has influenced my sense of arranging...there's balance in a harmonic sense, and in a linear sense, like looking at the elevation of a building.
Gene BertonciniWhenever people write about Gene Bertoncini's music, the same words tend to appear: elegant, graceful, versatile. Lyrical. Master. Virtuoso. Writer Gene Lees called him "the Segovia of jazz," the perfect term for one who creates such poetry with the acoustic, nylon-stringed guitar. Still a busy performer, teacher, and clinician, Bertoncini has played in many styles and settings in his five-decade career, and swings in all of them. Following the 2004 release of Quiet Now (Ambient), he has become increasingly admired for the crystalline beauty of his solo work. Bertoncini is an unusually modest musician, known for his gentle nature and open heart; this could explain the remarkable purity of his playing.

Bertoncini was kind enough to travel to my home for a recent interview, where we shared some laughs and lunch and a happy interlude in which he played my own classical guitar. We talked about his multifaceted career and the connections he draws between his music and his degree in architecture.

All About Jazz: All of your bios say pretty much the same thing: you were born in the Bronx, showed talent very early, performed on TV at 16, spent time in the service, and have played virtually everything with just about everybody. But I was curious about a comment you made: that you turned to architecture because you were a "baseball-and-apple-pie kid." Could you expand on that?

Gene Bertoncini: When I was playing as a kid, I noticed that the jazz musicians were smoking funny cigarettes, and doing funny things with women; it didn't seem right. I played in a club where there were fights because someone would hit on somebody else's girlfriend, and the chef would come out of the kitchen with a meat cleaver...

AAJ: Really?

GB: In the Bronx, you know. So it seemed like possibly a dangerous thing to get into, not really a spiritually great field to be in. Being raised in a Catholic school, that kind of stuff turned me off.

AAJ: Makes sense.

GB: In high school, I spoke to my adviser about what to do with my life. We had taken some kind of geometrical exams, and he said, well, you're really great at this. I used to copy the plans in the Real Estate section of the New York Times 'cause I loved the drafting, tools, tracing paper, T square—the whole thing was very appealing to me. I thought I'd like to be a draftsman or somewhere in construction, since I used to work around the house with my dad, and we built so many things. I wanted to do a little better than a bricklayer, but I liked the area, and I got 100 on those tests analyzing forms. The adviser put all those things together, and said, "Why not study architecture at Notre Dame?" So, OK. In those days, a great letter of recommendation could get you into that school. Today you have to be the president of your high school class, a football hero...

AAJ: ...or run an Internet company from your garage.

Gene Bertoncini

GB: So I was accepted, and my folks really struggled, but my dad always wanted to see me get a college education. It was a big Italian thing. They got me through; they didn't have a lot of money at all, but somehow they did it. Of course the tuition was maybe 5000 a year; now, nobody can put a kid through college. That was the continuation of my apple pie: going to college and studying architecture. But I got right into music there: I began as the guitar soloist with the Notre Dame Concert band. I played clarinet in the marching band and played at all the dances—first with the band that was there, then with my own band.

AAJ: I didn't know you played the clarinet.

GB: Yeah, since high school. Anyway, when I first went to Notre Dame I noticed all these big guys walking around and thought, Jeez, I'm gonna look like that when I get out of here? Wow, this is great! They must do things to you... But it was just the football team.

AAJ: Speaking of big guys, another thing that intrigued me in your biography is that you were a Marine. Somehow I can't picture you as a leatherneck.

GB: What the f*** do you mean??

AAJ: [laughter] Well, OK, now I can see it better.

GB: In those days, we had the draft. I knew I had to do something; I didn't want to be drafted for two years. My first choice was the Air Force Reserves, but those spots were all taken, so I thought I'd try the Marine Corps Reserves, and they accepted me. My tour of duty was six months' active duty at Parris Island and subsequent training, then five years of going one weekend every month. But I had to go through basic Marine Corps training. I feel proud enough of that to say I was a Marine, although I didn't see any active duty.

AAJ: Semper fi!

GB: Yeah. All that stuff. You never know you can do those kinds of things—climb a ladder, then climb down a rope over water. I also knew for the first time what it meant to really be indoctrinated, to follow orders. After a couple of weeks with the drill instructor, boy, you just did it. You just jumped. I can see how that could be necessary during combat: "Bertoncini, go over there!" "No, no, no—get somebody else!"

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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