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Ali Ryerson and Gene Bertoncini in Connecticut

Getting out of Manhattan into the greenery of Connecticut is always refreshing. On this particular weekend in late October the feeling was reinforced by crisp Autumn air, a brilliant display of multi-colored leaves, and a quality jazz performance. In celebration of her birthday, and as a benefit for the local library's new building fund, Connecticut resident, flutist Ali Ryerson, invited guitar legend Gene Bertoncini to town for a duo performance at the Brookfield Theater for the Arts. The result renewed my faith in the music's subtlety and grace.

The truth is that jazz has a dirty little secret--mostly it's too loud. Once you have re-introduced the drum into Western music other instruments need amplification in order to be heard. The result is an essential imbalance. So it was, for example, that when I saw Miles Davis in 1958 it was great to see Paul Chambers but with Philly Joe Jones on drums I sure didn't hear him! Amplify the bass and we are off and running down the slippery slope to premature hearing loss. The reality is, however, that jazz can be performed in an acoustic setting, at tolerable decibel levels. Unfortunately it is the exception rather than the rule and is often marginalized as "chamber jazz."

If there is anyone who understands this problem it is the jazz flutist. Yes, of course, amplification is available, but even so the instrument has a dimension its soft lower register that can get lost under piano or cymbals. There is nothing more frustrating than being pushed into the upper reaches of the instrument, becoming shrill, just to be heard. And you can forget about nuance.

Ryerson has given a lot of thought to this problem, especially as she specializes in the alto flute which is almost all soft lower register."The flute is a beautiful instrument, as opposed to a strong instrument," she notes on her album Portraits in Silver (Concord Jazz CCD-4638), ". . . you have to pick your material very carefully, because not everything fits the flute." The same is true of settings; she picks hers very carefully also. She works with carefully chosen rhythm sections (especially drummers), with flutists Holly Hofmann and Frank Wess in Flutology, in drum-less trios, and with duos with guitarists; she has made three CDs with Joe Beck. For this date, she explored a relationship with one of jazz' most sensitive guitarists.

Known as the "Segovia of Jazz" Gene Bertoncini has lent his acutely sensitive, often acoustic, guitar to work with a wide range of jazz artists from Benny Goodman and Buddy Rich to Wayne Shorter and Hubert Laws, and such singers as Tonny Bennett, Lena Horne and Nancy Wilson. He has been a hero of mine since I heard him on recordings with Paul Desmond. Currently a faculty member at the Eastman School of Music, Bertoncini moves effortlessly between jazz and classical forms with all that implies in terms of both knowledge and technique.

For this occasion, both Ryerson and Bertoncini employed minimal and entirely unobtrusive amplification for the intimate setting provided by the community theater. Their repertoire reflected their overlapping tastes and love for standards. They dipped into the Great American Songbook for "My Romance," "Speak Low," "My One and Only Love," and "The Shadow of Your Smile," and the jazz cannon with Horace Silver's "Strollin'," Neal Hefti's "L'il Darlin'," and "Bluesette" by Toots Thielemans. Bossa Novas work particularly well for the flute/guitar combination and Ali and Gene selected three by the dean of the Brazilian genre Antonio Carlos Jobim: "Triste," "Wave," and "How Insensitive." The latter of these is based on a Prelude by Chopin which Bertoncini executed before launching into Jobim's composition. This pointed up the fact that both he and Ryerson have a background that includes classical training and this stands them in good stead in a context where every nuance is audible.

Recitals of this nature do not make headlines in the jazz world, but they should as the music, performed by two masters of their instruments and their genre, was entirely engrossing and, in the end, deeply satisfying. Let's hope these two artists do more together and that, as much as we love jazz, we can still keep our hearing intact!

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Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Ali Ryerson and Gene Bertoncini
  • Concert Date: 10/21/2006
  • Subtitle: Out of the way concert produces masterful music
  • Venue: Brookfield Theater for the Arts.
  • City State Country: Brookfield, CT
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