Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, June 22, 2001

"The guitar itself is a complete orchestra, with great
improvisatory qualities," says Gene Bertoncini.

His jazz waxes

Guitarist Bertoncini
returns to the isles

By Gary C.W. Chun

Veteran jazz writer Gene Lees gave Gene Bertoncini the daunting sobriquet "Segovia of jazz," and it's one that Bertoncini is honored to have.

"There are only a few of us playing jazz on classical acoustic guitar," Bertoncini said by phone from his New York home. "In fact, I just recently taught a class at the Royal Academy of Music in London. There aren't too many guys like me playing this kind of music. I actually don't mind the description at all. In fact, I love that I'm held in such regard."

This coming from a quiet, self-effacing man whose reputation grew back in 1977, as a result of his association with virtuoso jazz bassist Michael Moore. The duo's quiet but intense acoustic sound was even dubbed "chamber jazz."

Bertoncini is making his fifth visit to the islands to perform for Hawai'i Guitar Festival 2001. He always looks forward to his Hawaii visits, if only to play with his good friend, bassist and music instructor Byron Yasui, and get in a round of golf or two with him as well.

"Byron is fun to play with because the audiences love him," said Bertoncini. "Both Michael and Byron have a great 'swing' feel, and both have the chops to play with the bow as well. They're a joy to play with."

More often than not nowadays, Bertoncini is performing as a soloist, having just completed a jazz festival gig onboard the QE2 and a tour of the United Kingdom.

"The guitar itself is a complete orchestra, with great improvisatory qualities, although the bass provides additional rhythmic support. Playing alone can be tough sometimes, so the musical conversation is better with two people; there's an interplay as both rhythmically and harmonically (they) accompany each other," he said.

"All I need is a bottom and the beat. It's a 'less is more' approach, as the clarity of the music comes forth much better in a duo setting."

Even though Bertoncini starting playing at age 7 and later left behind a budding career in architecture to follow his muse, he's still discovering his instrument. "Now I'm 64, though I feel 62," he joked. "I still feel I'm just beginning to find my voice on the guitar, working through arrangements, continually growing with the instrument.

"I've yet to come to a plateau in my music. At times I still have the feelings of anxiety of a young player. I haven't 'arrived' yet."

Bertoncini has played the world over, with the crucial exception of a couple of countries. Besides never performing in Japan, a country that gives jazz music its due respect, "I'd love to play in Brazil. For four years running, I've been considered the top acoustic jazz guitarist, according to a critics poll."

Hawai'i Guitar Festival

Featuring: Gene Bertoncini with Byron Yasui, and Antigoni Goni
Place: Orvis Auditorium, University of Hawaii at Manoa
Time: 8 p.m. today (Bertoncini) and tomorrow (Goni)
Admission: $15 general; $13 students, seniors, UHM faculty and staff
Info: 956-7221 or

Unusual, considering that he cut an album, "Someone to Light Up My Life," that was dedicated to the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim. "I'm good friends with Joao Gilberto, who was the real voice of Jobim's music and behind the popularity of the bossa nova. I feel I can do that kind of music pretty well."

Bertoncini's thoughtfulness is reflected in his near-spiritual decision to play his music after leaving architecture behind. "I have a gift for music," he said. "When the gift shows itself to you, you'd better pay attention.

"One time, years ago, I spent a weekend of meditation and reflection at a Trappist monastery, and one night, it just came to me to do the music. Another revelatory moment came after a gig, when I was still in architecture, where I really messed up my part, and I was so irritated with myself that I told myself that I couldn't continue to split my time between the two and I had to decide."

But Bertoncini has pretty much found peace with himself and his music. "I love to go places around the world, so long as I'm playing. Sometimes I like to go to Central Park and practice under the trees."

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