Over the course of his five-decade career, guitarist Gene Bertoncini has worked with innumerable musical greats spanning many different styles, from jazz—his specialty—to pop to Brazilian. He’s played with legends like Benny Goodman, Wayne Shorter, Carmen McRae, Buddy Rich, and Lena Horne. He worked as a sideman on recordings by Tony Bennett, Chet Baker, Nancy Wilson, Bette Midler, Paul Winter, Paul Desmond, and Astrud Gilberto. He shared a stage with Luciano Pavarotti, and on television was a member of the band on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and The Merv Griffin Show. He’s also made close to 20 albums under his own name. Even at the age of 83, he remains in high demand, playing gigs around New York City and still traveling around the country for others.
I first met Bertoncini about five years ago at the “jazz church”—Saint Peter’s Church in Manhattan, where he often performs. He’ll introduce every musician he mentions as “great,” just to remind you of the praise his friends deserve, and anyone who knows him knows how much his friends are his family. During a solo set at New York’s Bar Next Door in early April of 2019, he said hello to most of the audience in the packed room during his set. At that show and others, I saw him working through his arrangement of Marilyn and Alan Bergman’s “Love Like Ours.”
From that inspiration, Bertoncini recorded a new album, Love Like Ours: Duets with Gene Bertoncini and Friends, with a release date not yet announced at press time. I connected with him over FaceTime last spring, and he answered questions while playing his new Aaron Green classical guitar.
How have you been doing?
I’ve been stuck inside, but I’ve been trying to learn some new tunes. I’ve been working on an arrangement of “April in Paris.”
Tell me about the new album.
It’s called Love Like Ours: Duets with Gene Bertoncini and Friends. There are five duets, and maybe a couple of solo takes. One with Jeff Hamilton, just drums and guitar; then Bill Charlap, piano and guitar; Sara Caswell, she’s a wonderful violinist; Terell Stafford, a great trumpet player; Mike Mainieri, great vibraphone player; and a great singer, Alan Bergman. He’s singing a song that I like, “Love Like Ours.” I really feel so good about that song and that Alan Bergman’s actually going to be singing it with me accompanying him. I was singing it every day in my car falling in love with the lyrics. There’s a nice amount of interplay that happens with all these musicians; improvisation, but conversations. All these guys are my favorite people and musicians. It’s going to be a great album, a marvelous album.
Do you remember when you first fell in love with the guitar?
Yes, I do. My dad played guitar in our house in the Bronx, and he used to sing and play Italian songs. Music was in my house all my life, and I could never play enough music for my father. He loved it so much. It was a wonderful thing to have a father like that, who really believed in me and really loved what I did. It was all very supportive, and he came down to hear me play a number of times.
I think the desire to work at something is such a great gift. I used to go out, even when I was an early teenager, like 14, 15; I’d go to clubs just to hear players like Johnny Smith, who was my first teacher. He was a great guitarist. And Chuck Wayne later on… he was also a great guitarist. I was very lucky to get the encouragement from people like that.
You went to college for architecture. Did that influence your music at all?
The thing about studying architecture is it awakens your mind to the needs of other people. When you prepare a design for a client, whether it’s a house, a store, or a school, the design is determined by the needs of the people—plus the site that it’s on, the orientation of the sun, and your knowledge of materials and stuff like that. You’re thinking of the needs of people when you’re designing. I always felt that way about the guitar. You’re balancing your program, your composition. There’s a design to every jazz solo, too. I’ve heard some great jazz solos, they’re all kind of balanced out. I like the idea of preparing something for an audience rather than just getting up there and showing off.
When was it that you realized you could actually make a career out of music?
I played and got gigs because I was pretty good, so there was always money coming in just from that. And after I graduated I got a job with an architecture firm, with a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright. At the same time, I was playing with a big band on the weekend. And that night at the dance when I was playing, I messed up the guitar part. Nobody heard it, but I knew. I said, “I gotta practice. I can’t do this.” So the next day I quit the architecture office. It was an eye-opener. I realized that the guitar was what I wanted to do.
When were you first introduced to classical guitar?
[My teacher] Chuck Wayne taught me to listen to the music of Julian Bream. That just changed my life. There was a particular recording, The Art of Julian Bream, and one piece by [Maurice] Ravel on there [“Pavane pour une infante défunte”] was really amazing. So I started taking classical guitar lessons. So many musicians in New York were doing the same thing at the time. And just about that time came the bossa nova—João Gilberto and his wife, Astrud Gilberto, “Corcovado,” “The Girl from Ipanema,” all those recordings. He became a friend of mine. He used to borrow my guitar every time he came to New York from Brazil.
João Gilberto used to borrow your guitar?
Yeah. No one played the bossa like him. The clarity of his chords… I was very fortunate.
Can you tell me about the guitar you play now?
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The guitar I used on most of my recordings, was made by a guy named John Buscarino about 20 years ago. I have found it to be a beautifully-easy-to-play, warm-sounding acoustic guitar. And over the years I’ve dropped it, cracked it, repaired it. It’s a veteran guitar and people think that because I’ve dropped it, it sounds better; I don’t know. I bought a new guitar by a guy named Aaron Green, a new classical guitar. It’s almost like you have a built-in amplifier, because it has such a wonderful, strong sound, and I love playing it because of that quality particularly. I just played a couple of notes and it sounded good, right?
You’ve taught at Eastman School of Music, NYU, and still teach at William Paterson University. Is there anything you particularly enjoy about teaching?
When I first started teaching at Eastman, I never even knew I could teach, but I had learned a lot about the machinations of the guitar and my sense of harmony. I had an idea about learning about the fingerboard that was quite different. Instead of playing scales, which I always did in position, I started playing scales on each string, like horizontally on the guitar almost like a piano, so you could see the intervals. Then I play scales on two strings at a time in seconds and thirds. And I taught that way, too. You have to get my book—it’s called Approaching the Guitar.
Can you talk more about your approach to arranging?
With the study of all the scales, intervals, really learning about the fingerboard, you can create special chord voicings, and you get a sense of respect for each of the strings. I started designing chords—some of them with open strings in the middle. You take a thing like the G string and see it as the function of all the bass notes. Let’s take a B string for instance. B is the fifth of E, right? It’s the sharp 11th of F, it’s the 11th of F#, it’s the third of G, it’s the ninth of A, it’s the flat nine of Bb. It’s got all these functions as an open string. Then you put two strings together in seconds; you take a C scale and you hit the D and the E together on the B and the E string, and then play E and F together, little seconds and thirds. And then three strings together and thirds and fourths. Really learning about the instrument and the sounds the intervals themselves create, both melodically and harmonically.
What’s one of your favorite arrangements that you’ve done?
On my arrangement of “Body and Soul” on my album of the same name, the melody is at some points inside the chord, on top of the chord, and at the bottom of the chord. If anything, it’s kind of an overplayed tune in jazz; I wanted to do something a little different with it. And on my “Giant Steps” arrangement, every chord has an open string in it. So that’s an interesting arrangement, too.
I like the idea of preparing—that’s why I always try to come up with an arrangement for any song I have a concept for, so I can present it as something special. But I also may not feel that secure with the arrangement, so I go for something that really feels secure. Or there’s somebody in the audience that I think would like this kind of thing, or sometimes there’s somebody that scares me, so I don’t play some things, you know? He or she’s not going to think this is very hip, so I leave it out. Also, somebody’s interviewing me for Acoustic Guitar magazine. That’s a big a thing. I must be doing something right.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.