Even though the guitar had been at the heart and soul of his existence since age seven, the future great jazz guitarist Gene Bertoncini went to the prestigious University of Notre Dame in the mid-1950s to study architecture.
It was, so it seemed, the beginning of a promising, upscale career path for the bright, young man, a giant step towards attaining a much respected profession. It was a stroke of good fortune absolutely delighting his proud, loving, hard-working parents, quite literally the fulfillment of the American dream for Bertoncini’s father, an Italian immigrant.
After Bertoncini earned his degree, the guitar-struck architect returned to his hometown of New York City and worked for a while at his new profession at a firm run by a protégé of the legendary American architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
Although Bertoncini had an architectural degree from a marquee university, and loved all things dealing with construction and drafting, he was realizing, that music, specifically jazz guitar, was his one true calling in life. Soon Bertoncini renounced his faltering faith in the architectural world, and totally embraced jazz, a love he had sustained though his undergraduate days by playing dance gigs on and off campus and solo guitar in The Notre Dame Concert Band.
Thanks to his formal training at Notre Dame, the erstwhile architect brought with him to the jazz world his appreciation of form, content, design, sweeping lines, and harmonious structures, buttressed with his solid sense of aesthetics and invention.
His lyrical playing on nylon string acoustic guitar, whether in dazzling duo formats with the world-renowned double bass virtuoso Michael Moore or as an empathetic accompanist for Tony Bennett and Lena Horne, earned him the title of “the Segovia of jazz.” It was a genuine accolade awarded to him by Gene Lees, one of America’s most literate and discerning music writers and critics.
As an improviser who can think and invent in the moment much as an architect can in quiet seclusion, he celebrates the beauty and truth in everything from George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” to Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Olha Maria,” to Giacomo Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” from the opera “Turandot.”
Mixing American Songbook classics with Brazilian and jazz standards, Bertoncini returns to Connecticut with his trio at 6:00 pm on Sunday, July 27, at Pizzeria Lauretano at 291 Greenwood Avenue in Bethel. He’s joined by two top musicians, double bassist Rick Petrone, of Greenwich, and drummer Joe Corsello, of Stamford. Petrone has played with such luminaries as Buddy Rich and Chet Baker, and is a groundbreaking Connecticut jazz deejay (WPKN-FM, 89.5). Corsello has played with the Glenn Miller Orchestra and toured with Benny Goodman, Marian McPartland and Peggy Lee.
Before Bertoncini got his big break on “The Merv Griffin Show” (a prelude to a later stint with “The Tonight Show” Orchestra), he was concerned about how his parents, who had worked so hard to finance his Notre Dame years, really felt about his giving up a secure, esteemed profession like architecture for jazz. A risky business at best, jazz is often a shaky, sometimes even fatal foundation for career-building.
Any angst young Bertoncini was experiencing about how his parents felt was totally resolved, he recalls, one night when was playing in a club in the Bronx, ensconced atop the bar grooving with a trio when his father walked in and sat down at the noisy, smoke-filled venue, looking up at his son, the recent Notre Dame grad. “My dad was looking at me, and I was wondering what he was thinking,” he said. “I come down from the bar after the set is over, and sit next to him wondering what he’s going to say to me. He says, ‘Son, whatever you want to do, I’m behind you 100 percent.’ My mom went along with that too. So I was really lucky there.”
Getting the patriarchal seal of approval that night was, in fact, one of those imprimaturs of a lifetime, especially since Bertoncini’s very first inspiration for guitar music came from none other than his music-loving father. “I think my love for the guitar started with my dad,” he said. “He came over from Italy when he was 17. I think he always had a guitar, and used to play Italian songs when I was growing up. The sound of the guitar was always in our house. On Christmas our house was where the music was, so everybody in the family came over. It was a typical Italian kind of a deal where I played guitar and my brother, who was a gifted musician, played accordion and entertained everybody.”
As a guitar-addicted teen, Bertoncini began playing gigs with his older brother, who had become a jazz accordionist. Most notably, the Bertoncini brothers accompanied a variety of showbiz acts -- little tykes singing and dancing -- on a radio show of that era called “The Children’s Hour.”
The radio job, which sometimes required him, oddly enough, to wear a cowboy outfit, provided open access to crack studio musicians of the day. Most importantly, it led to his hooking up with one of his most significant early mentors, Johnny Smith. A superb guitarist, Smith is perhaps best remembered for his collaboration with Stan Getz on the luminous hit, “Moonlight in Vermont.” Bertoncini remembered wandering around the radio station, running into Smith, and introducing himself to his idol while decked out, a bit sheepishly, in his radio show cowboy costume.
Later on, Bertoncini’s karma-blessed path led the jazz-hungry youth to invaluable tutelage with yet another great guitarist, Chuck Wayne, famed for his work with The George Shearing Quintet.
Bertoncini knew he was lucky to have the opportunity to learn from such master mentor/teachers on an informal basis. Naturally, he hung on to their inspired words like holy writ. Wayne, in one piece of sage advice that forever enriched Bertoncini’s music, opened the whole word of classical guitar when he suggested that his protégé listen to recordings by the great English classical guitarist and lutenist Julian Bream, particularly The Art of Julian Bream. Bertoncini, the young apostle/apprentice, immediately immersed himself in the world of Bream’s and was never the same again. “I listened to Bream and my life was totally changed. I fell in love with classical guitar techniques, began taking classical lessons and learning some of the repertoire,” he said of his ear-opening epiphany.
About the same time, he became fascinated by the then emerging genre of bossa nova, closely studying the music of and even later befriending Joao Gilberto, the legendary Brazilian singer/guitarist. While totally absorbing Brazilian music, he was also focusing increasingly on the nylon string acoustic guitar.
It paid off. Bertoncini’s reputation as a master of bossa nova and samba has created a loyal fan base for him in Brazil. His popularity in polls there attests to the World Cup quality of his approach to the indigenous rhythms, spirit and essence of the music of a country that he’s never visited, except through his passionate embrace of its music.
“I began studying the guitar pianistically as opposed to just memorizing scale patterns,” Bertoncini said. Among his style’s signature elements are his inner voicings, contrapuntal lines, and textured chords. His pristine lines resonate with clarity and emotion. A constant factor is his will to create the well-wrought form. It’s an aesthetic principle he absorbed through his architectural studies. It was part of his artistic persona long before he studied classical music concepts or became a versatile sideman for such diverse figures as Benny Goodman, Clark Terry, Wayne Shorter, Paul Desmond, Lalo Schifrin, Burt Bacharach and Michel Legrand.
Part of the secret to Bertoncini's hallmark lyrical playing is telling a story or painting a portrait when he improvises. He does this, he said, by making each note sing with a vocal-like quality that emulates the emotional range of the human voice while recounting life’s experiences through his stringed instrument. “If it’s coming right through your heart and you’re playing the notes that you hear and feel, it’s got to work,” he said. Admission: $15.00. Information: pizzerialauretano.com and (203) 792-1500.
Mantilla Unveils Beauty
Ray Mantilla, the venerable Latin jazz percussionist/bandleader, displays the electrifying energies and expressiveness of congas and timbales as he leads his ensemble at 7:30 pm on Monday, July 28, at The Hartford Jazz Society’s Monday Night Jazz in Bushnell Park.
Latin jazz reigns throughout this latest free, outdoor concert in the downtown park as Espada Jazz Ensemble, a terribly sharp, swift sword of a band, kicks-off the evening’s festivities at 6:00 pm as the opening act for the 80-year-old, South Bronx-born percussionist/prestidigitator.
Mantilla, who was a member of Max Roach’s famous experimental percussion ensemble M’Boom, has served his cookin’ brand of Latin percussion for a Who’s Who of jazz greats, including Herbie Mann, Art Blakey, Charles Mingus, Buddy Rich, Freddie Hubbard and Dizzy Gillespie. His voluminous resume includes not only his role as the leader of his own bands, but also his work for musical figures as disparate as Xavier Cugat, a colorful celebrity/bandleader who helped popularize Latin music in the States decades ago, and the fabled Eartha Kitt, the superstar singer, actress, dancer and cabaret performer.
On his website, mantillamusic.com, the maestro declares his goal “is to keep playing good music, have people come to see us, and to preserve the tradition,” words that he’ll set to music in Bushnell Park. If it rains, Mantilla will make his artistic credo swing in the bad weather sanctuary at Asylum Hill Congregational Church, Hartford.
Not far from the park, Jazz Mondays presents the noted trombonist Steve Davis at 8:00 pm on Monday, July 28, at Black-eyed Sally’s. Information: blackeyedsallys.com.
NOLA Comes to Noho
Northampton’s Iron Horse continues its ongoing celebration of the music and culture of New Orleans at 7:00 pm on Friday, July 25, with blues and funk pianist/singer/songwriter Jon Cleary. A native of England, Cleary transformed himself into a bona fide Big Easy citizen and devout practitioner of Crescent City sounds. The British transplant, who’s been the pianist of choice for Taj Mahal and Bonnie Raitt, has been compared to such Crescent City kings as Professor Longhair and Dr. John. Tickets: $15.00 advance; $20.00 at the door. Information: iheg.com and (413) 586-8686.
Eric The Conquerer
Hard-swinging saxophonist Eric Wyatt will justifiably have even more of a swagger in his robust playing as he celebrates the release of his new CD, Borough of Kings, with his quartet at 8:30 pm on Saturday, July 26, at The Side Door Jazz Club in Old Lyme.
Born and raised in the borough of Brooklyn, the shock-and-awe saxophonist has conquered Big Apple bastions from The Blue Note to The Village Vanguard, and excited fans from Paris to Shanghai. His father and first teacher was saxophonist Charles Wyatt, who once grooved with titans like Monk and Bird, Miles and Trane. Eric’s godlike godfather is Sonny Rollins.
So, how could he miss? Well, quite obviously, he didn’t, as you’ll see when his riptide solos make the shoreline’s Side Door swing, maybe even off its hinges. Information: (860) 434-0886.
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