Gene Bertoncini: Architect of the Guitar

Dr. Judith Schlesinger By

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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.

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...

AAJ: We're afraid to be out of touch for a nanosecond. And if you're in a car with children, they must have a video, because they can't be allowed to daydream...

GB: ...or look out the window...

AAJ: ...or notice the seasons...

GB: So I hope that the music we do will enhance life.

AAJ: The way you do it, Gene, it certainly does. So keep it coming, will ya?


On May 3, 2008, the Classical Guitar Society of New York held a tribute concert to Gene Bertoncini, featuring performances by maestros Jorge Morel, Frederic Hand, and Dennis Koster, and several duets, including one between Gene and Paul Myers on "Chega de Saudade." The evening was like an extended family gathering, relaxed and warm and filled with laughter, with Gene telling one of his famous jokes. The guitarists explained why they admired and were influenced by Gene's harmonic vision and his ability to bridge the gap between classical, jazz, and Brazilian musical styles. "His voicings are a thing of wonderment," said the evening's host, conductor Scott Jackson Wiley. Basking in the affection pouring from both the stage and the audience, Gene said, "I'm a lucky guy."

Selected Discography

Gene Bertoncini, Quiet Now (Ambient Records, 2004)
Gene Bertoncini/Frank Vignola, Meeting of the Grooves(Azica, 2002)
Gene Bertoncini, Body and Soul (Ambient Records, 1999)

Gene Bertoncini, Gene Bertoncini with Bill Charlap and Sean Smith (Chiaroscuro, 1998)

Gene Bertoncini, Jobim: Someone To Light Up My Life, (Chiaroscuro, 1995)

Gene Bertoncini/Michael Moore, Two in Time (Chiaroscuro, 1989)

Photo Credit
Top Two Photos: Michael G. Stewart
Bottom Photo: Dr. Judith Schlesinger

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