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Gene Bertoncini: The Jazz-Bossa-Classical Connection

Profile of veteran jazz guitarist

Gene Bertoncini

When Gene Bertoncini is reminded that some websites mistakenly refer to his seminal work with Carmen McRae-the guitarist vaguely recalls opening for the legendary singer early on-he can’t stifle a laugh. “Oh, I let that be,” he says, speaking from his home on Manhattan’s East Side. “It sounded so good.”

Yeah, right, like the soft-spoken, quick-witted virtuoso needs to pad his résumé. “The Segovia of Jazz Guitar,” as the late jazz critic and historian Gene Lees dubbed him, could get hoarse ticking off the highlights of his past half-century in music. At 74, Bertoncini belongs on the short list of guitarists who are equally unique and versatile. Comfortable in jazz, pop, classical and Brazilian settings, Bertoncini is a superb stylist on both nylon-string acoustic guitar and amplified archtop. An exemplary solo performer, he has also collaborated with the likes of Buddy Rich, Wayne Shorter and Burt Bacharach-to say nothing of his landmark recordings with bassist Michael Moore or his widely acclaimed duo sessions with fellow pickers Jack Wilkins, Kenny Poole, Frank Vignola and, most recently, Roni Ben-Hur.

But as long as we’re on the subject of singers-and, more specifically, Bertoncini’s oft-overlooked associations with them-he’s happy to drop a few prominent names: Tony Bennett, Lena Horne and Nancy Wilson, for starters. Playing alongside Horne was a treat, Bertoncini says, “because she loved the guitar. We’d do a couple of numbers, just voice and guitar-something special. And Tony, of course, was always an inspiration. But I think my favorite album was the one I did with Nancy called But Beautiful. She never sounded better, I don’t think. And working with Hank Jones, Ron Carter and Grady Tate-that was the quartet. Not bad.”

No, not bad at all, though Bertoncini seems genetically disinclined to point out his own contributions. You get the feeling that he’s been humbly deflecting praise for as long as he’s been playing guitar. When he speaks of his “gifts,” it’s obvious he’s counting his blessings yet again, grateful for his good fortune and somewhat mystified by it.

First, there’s the gift of being nurtured by a musical family in the Bronx. His dad, an Italian immigrant, occasionally played guitar, while his older brother took up the accordion. Then there’s the gift of youthful encounters with two jazz guitar legends, Johnny Smith and Chuck Wayne, both of whom served as early mentors. Finally there’s the gift, leaping decades forward, of playing and recording with bassist Moore in a remarkably compatible and compelling pairing-in the words of fellow guitarist Vignola, “one of the most inspiring duos of all time.”

NBC Studios was the equivalent of Cinema Paradiso for Bertoncini when he was growing up in the ’50s. It’s where he first met Smith, then playing live cues for television and radio broadcasts. The Bertoncini brothers were featured on a show called The Children’s Hour, and Gene soon discovered that Smith was happy to teach the precocious, guitar-toting teenager roaming the corridors a few licks and chords whenever possible.

Likewise, the friendship with Wayne, a player well known for the streamlined yet sophisticated touch he brought to the George Shearing Quintet, had a profound impact on Bertoncini’s artistic growth. “When I met Chuck I was just amazed at his ability with all those harmonies,” Bertoncini recalls. “He told me about Julian Bream and his album The Art of Julian Bream. I listened to ‘Pavane for a Dead Princess’ by Ravel that he had transcribed, and I couldn’t stop playing it.”

So Bertoncini started studying classical guitar, learning to switch hit, so to speak. “I was playing electric, too,” he says. “I became familiar with NBC Studios so well that I’d just walk in and try to find Johnny, or I’d go into a storage room or someplace and study. Just being in those studios was inspiring. I couldn’t put the classical guitar down.”

As it turned out, NBC Studios would eventually provide a nice livelihood for Bertoncini. In the mid-’60s he was a member of the Tonight Show orchestra, playing mostly rhythm on a Gibson L5 and occasionally giving guitar lessons to his boss, Johnny Carson. One of his fondest Tonight Show memories is performing “Here’s That Rainy Day,” which would become known as Carson’s favorite song, with vocalist Ethel Ennis. “It was so beautifully worked out-you could hear a pin drop-and Johnny went crazy for that tune,” he says. And if Bertoncini’s parents had any misgivings about their son taking up the musician’s life, especially since he had graduated from Notre Dame with a degree in architecture, seeing him on a morning TV show hosted by Merv Griffin offered some comfort.

In the early ’60s, Bertoncini was enchanted by the emerging sound of bossa nova, especially the recordings of João Gilberto, and he has since become known as an American master of the genre-but don’t bother telling him that. “I learned by hanging out with João,” says Bertoncini, shifting the focus off himself. “He used to borrow my guitar, and what a tremendous inspiration he was. He played so beautifully and with such clarity, and still does.” To this day, when he listens to Gilberto, Bertoncini hears “just the right amount of notes and perfect harmonies. I always say that if you look at the sonogram of a pregnant Brazilian woman, there’s a baby holding a guitar. You don’t stand a chance playing with those guys; they come out of the womb playing.”

So where exactly does Bertoncini fit into that tradition? A good question, given how his name often ranks high on music polls in Brazil. Vibraphonist Chuck Redd, who knows a thing or two about Brazilian sounds, having worked closely with guitarist Charlie Byrd and other exponents, offers perspective. “Playing with Gene opened up my ears melodically and harmonically,” says Redd. “Charlie played Brazilian music filtered through his blues and swing approach, which presented it in a unique way. Gene has studied indigenous rhythms and approaches bossa nova and samba more like a Brazilian.”

As it happens, the first tune Bertoncini performed with bassist Moore in the mid-’70s, kicking off two decades of collaboration, was Luiz Bonfá’s “Manhã de Carnaval.” There was no mistaking the instant rapport the guitarist shared with Moore, who is now a member of the Dave Brubeck Quartet. “I think one of the reasons why we stayed together is that we feel the same way about music. It’s not about playing a lot of notes or playing a lot of choruses,” says Bertoncini. “Sometimes guitar players get chops and the guitar ends up playing them. Mike never played a meaningless note.”

Proof of the pair’s simpatico hookup can be heard on out-of-print ’70s and ’80s dates like Bridges and O Grande Amor. For further documentation of Bertoncini’s own exquisite touch and stylistic reach, check out recent recordings like Quiet Now, Concerti, Body and Soul and 2008’s Jazz Therapy, Vol. 1: Smile with Roni Ben-Hur, a fundraising effort for the Jazz Foundation of America. Whether in the studio or gigging around the New York area, Bertoncini invariably has something going on. “I really feel at a loss if I don’t have something on the drawing board,” he says.

New York has always been home to Bertoncini, in more ways than one. From 1990 until its closing in 2008, the Hell’s Kitchen bistro Le Madeleine featured the guitarist on Sunday and Monday nights. “Whenever I played there, the boss told me it was my restaurant,” Bertoncini says. “It had developed into a wonderful home for me, where musicians from all over would show up to hang in the relaxed atmosphere. I was loving the role of soloist, and a kind of host. … The food was great, too.

“My last New Year’s Eve there,” he continues, “I had Bucky Pizzarelli and Frank Vignola play with me. Bucky wanted to leave his amp for the following year.”

Off the bandstand, Bertoncini has taught countless guitarists over the years at several schools and institutions, including William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J., where he is a faculty member.

His influence reaches far beyond the classroom, however. Indeed, peers and collaborators are among his most attentive listeners. Just ask Vignola, who occasionally performs with Bertoncini, and asked the guitarist to be godfather to one of his sons. “When I was teaching at Arizona State University, he conducted a clinic and blew me away with his approach to the guitar,” Vignola recalls. “He taught me to look at the fingerboard in a horizontal way instead of the traditional vertical approach. I remember we sat down to play a song, ‘Night and Day,’ in my office. We had so much fun playing together, and the music was so freeing, that it lasted 20 minutes. The students started gathering around, and by the time we were finished there were probably 50 students in the hallway wondering what this magical moment was all about.”

Recommended Listening:

O Grande Amor: A Bossa Nova Collection (with Michael Moore; Stash, 1986)
Meeting of the Grooves (with Frank Vignola; Azica, 2002)
Concerti (Ambient, 2008)
Jazz Therapy, Vol. 1: Smile (with Roni Ben-Hur; Motéma, 2008)

Originally Published