Catching up with Village jazz veteran Gene Bertoncini
By Lee Metcalf
Jazz guitarist Gene Bertoncini has turned chord playing into an art form. A longtime admirer and member of the Village jazz scene, Bertoncinis beautiful chords are windows into the imagination and personal expression that is the essence of jazz. His exquisite ear for color, texture and voice leading have marked a career that includes performances and recordings with such legends as Wayne Shorter, Clark Terry, Lena Horn and Buddy Rich, but even those uninitiated with jazz may know Bertoncini from his recordings with Burt Bacharach in the late seventies and eighties as well his frequent appearances on the Merv Griffin Show and the Tonight Show. These days the native New Yorker concentrates on performing solo guitar, successfully blending the feeling and improvisational concept of jazz with the orchestration and through-composed quality of classical music. We caught up with him after his weekly solo gig at Le Madeleine on West 43rd Street (Sundays and Mondays) to talk about his latest album and the best jazz venues Downtown.
Villager: What keeps you motivated to keep evolving as an artist?
GB: I just love the orchestra that Im holding in my hands and I get a juice from either playing my stuff or working on the process. If I have an arrangement on the drawing board, I always feel like its a special kind of creativity or gift, just to want to do that. I love working on arrangements and conceptions and then thinking about performing them for people.
Your latest release is Quiet Now. What are you working on now?
The latest thing that Im working on is an album with a string quartet: two violins, a viola and cello, plus acoustic bass and guitar. There are a couple of standards on there and some other stuff as well.
How do you choose your repertoire?
Im always thinking about the people. Im lucky in that the things that I really like happen to have a wide appeal. I think there are a lot of young guys who want to do their own compositions and its little more difficult to reach an audience that way. Especially if there is no lyric on top, it can be very hard to get to the people.
Whats the best thing youve heard recently?
I went to hear a solo performance by [jazz pianist] Fred Hersch at the Village Vanguard and I was just in awe. Freds improvisations are like compositions. Its like the stuff is so perfect and beautiful and so appropriate for each tune. He was just totally inspiring. Thats about the most outstanding thing Ive heard recently.
What are some venues around town that you really like?
I love the Jazz Standard and I also really like Birdland. I think its a great jazz room. I also like to catch the early show at the 55 Bar (at 55 Christopher Street). Thats really a nice place to get comfortable. And theres always the Zinc Bar (90 Houston). You want to hear Brazilian, go to the Zinc Bar, but if you want to hear nice young groups of all kinds, go to the 55 Bar. They dont kill you with the price, either.
Are there any venues in the Village that you miss?
I really miss a place called Zinnos, [which used to be] on 13th Street. I spent seven years playing there. Talk about venues? That was my favorite, because it had great food and it was a warm, intimate restaurant.
Do you come Downtown for anything besides the music?
Some of the greatest restaurants are Downtown. I like to ride my bicycle down to the Cornelia Street Café for brunch on Sunday mornings. It feels like a street in Italy. My favorite pastry place is called DeRobertis on 1st Avenue. And one of my favorite restaurants is on Thompson Street, called Portobello. They like good music there, too. You really get the feeling of [being in a] small town in the Village
everything is manageable, there are still some trees
and no gigantic skyscrapers blocking out the sun.