Volume 75, Number 48 | April 19 - 25 2006

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, Bertoncini’s 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 I’m 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 it’s 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 I’m 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?

I’m always thinking about the people. I’m 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 it’s 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.

What’s the best thing you’ve heard recently?

I went to hear a solo performance by [jazz pianist] Fred Hersch at the Village Vanguard and I was just in awe. Fred’s improvisations are like compositions. It’s like the stuff is so perfect and beautiful and so appropriate for each tune. He was just totally inspiring. That’s about the most outstanding thing I’ve 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 it’s a great jazz room. I also like to catch the early show at the 55 Bar (at 55 Christopher Street). That’s really a nice place to get comfortable. And there’s 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 don’t kill you with the price, either.

Are there any venues in the Village that you miss?

I really miss a place called Zinno’s, [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 DeRoberti’s 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.

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