Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Gene Bertoncini: Out of Danger at the Cafe Ciao 5/13/11

Sometime late in the last century I purchased an LP called O Grande Amor by guitarist Gene Bertoncini and bassist Michael Moore. I got the disc primarily to check out Moore, who had then recently been described (I think in The New Yorker) as something like "the world's best jazz bass player". Despite the dubious hyperbole, I was deeply impressed by the bassist's lyrical virtuousity and spot-on intonation. What I didn't expect was how much I would enjoy Bertoncini's playing. His approach to the jazz guitar seemed very fresh at the time, and it still makes me very happy to hear him.

If memory serves, I attended a concert by this duo in 1979 or '80 at DePaul University, where I was a student at the time. That was the only opportunity I ever took to hear either of these wonderful musicians live, until last week, when Gene Bertoncini spent a couple of days in Chicago, giving master classes and playing a gig at a tiny West Loop restaurant called Cafe Ciao.

Surrounded mostly be friends, guitarists and other well-wishers, Gene turned in a heartfelt solo performance on his classical guitar. He seemed to be enjoying himself immensely, basking in the friendly glow of this casual venue, far from the New York City jazz jury - "out of danger" as he expressed it. Bertoncini is a sweet, humble, charming gentleman in his 70's (I'm guessing), with old world manners and a 50's hipster sense of humor. All of this personality comes through in his music, the result of a lifetime of hard work perfecting his art.

Bertoncini's style is akin to the work of Jim Hall, Charlie Byrd and Laurindo Almeida. He likes to blend and bend genres, often finding musical sense in fusing the compositions of, say, A. C. Jobim and F. Chopin, as he did the other night. The evening's playlist consisted of a seemingly spur-of-the-moment mixture of jazz and Brazilian standards, a couple of classical compositions and a brief reading of Bill Evans' harmonically enticing Very Early. A highlight of the evening for me was Gene's aforementioned mashup of Jobim's How Insensitive and Chopin's Prelude in Em (Jack Nicholson's character's signature theme from the classic film Five Easy Pieces).

Gene is such a deep and mature player that the occasional lapse or technical glitch did nothing to mar the overall vibe of his performances. His unique harmonic concept and warm sound carried the evening. In fact, this gig reminded me of the night I had the pleasure of hearing the legendary Andres Segovia give what must have been one of his final performances. Segovia played to a packed but pin drop quiet Orchestra Hall in the mid 1980's. Despite his advanced age and technical limitations, he had each of us present hanging on his every magnificent note - as did Gene Bertoncini last week.

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