Gene Bertoncini: Architect of the Guitar

Dr. Judith Schlesinger By

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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.

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

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