Power of Eight
Imagine if you will, a musical equivalent of the climactic scene from a Clint Eastwood motion picture. However,when the shootout is over and the smoke begins to clear, there is a lone guitar player holding the neck of an awesome looking eight string guitar. This, while other notorious guitar slingers linger in the shadows. So it was the scenario at the performance of super jazz guitarist Robert Conti at Rocco’s, a fine jazz supper club high in the hills of Bel Air on the night of June 12th. . .
Having attended the winter NAMM Show in Los Angeles for nearly twenty five years I am used to much of the same; walls of infinite musical sounds and crowds. However, I strive to find something new, something unique. This year I did both. This year I discovered Robert Conti.
Negotiating the crowded convention hall on Saturday morning my ears led me to the EMG exhibit where I found a guitarist brandishing a custom eight string guitar of his own design. I was literally stopped in my footsteps by what I saw and heard, and I became totally mesmerized by his tenacious virtuosity and musical sensibility. My agenda included every Conti performance that weekend. Those who were also fortunate to observe this guitar phenomenon displayed faces of shock, disbelief, and panic. The air was filled with a constant flow of their audible approval and sheer excitement with echoing comments such as, “Ungodly chops”, ” He’s terrifying”, “Who is this guy?”, and some colorful metaphor unprintable comments as well. I remember thinking, “This guy changes everything!”
Since that experience I have listened to many of his CD’s and surveyed his comprehensive website that chronicles four decades of his life. At this point in time, Conti has achieved every jazz musicians dream, i.e. he works six and sometimes seven nights – every week! As if that were not enough, this writer is privy to the fact that after playing his early evening jazz gigs, Conti ‘hooks up’ with a cookin’ southern California blues band called “The Blues Authority.” In that band, Conti is known only as “The Enforcer!” – a name given to him by fellow guitarist Dan Carlin who says: “Just come and watch the crowd drop everything and come unglued when he plugs that eight string axe into a souped-up Hot Rod Blues Deville amp! To be sure, the man not only does it all – he does it all with class and ruthless precision.
Considering the time span of Conti’s musical career, his unbelievable command of the eight string guitar, and the buzz that has been going on for so many years, one has to address the question; “How does a talent of this magnitude remain unnoticed for this long?” The answer lies partly in a reading of his biography, which details a series of unusual career twists, including accomplishments on a corporate platform. In addition, not long after relocating to LA in 1988, he began a cushy two week hotel gig in 1989 that lasted nearly ten years. While it was a great gig, Conti nearly removed himself from the music business.
John Pisano received high accolades for bringing this major talent to the very forefront of serious jazz guitar on the west coast. In a sense, Robert Conti has finally materialized. During the set Conti took a moment to appropriately describe Pisano as “a national treasure!” Along with Kendall Kay on drums and Conti’s long time pal Dave Carpenter on bass, the legendary guitarist John Pisano provided stellar rhythmic work and harmonic support for Conti’s continuously mind bending solo work.
This outstanding quartet treated the audience to a musical extravaganza they will never forget. Even before the downbeat of the first set, one could hear and feel the vibes circulating in the room in anticipation of what was about to take place. The crowd was immediately drawn to Conti and his guitar, an elegant, yet ominous looking custom made eight string. ( the seventh and eighth strings are Low B and Low F# respectively) Kicking off with “All Blues”, Conti spontaneously ignited as his solo blasted off the launch pad to resounding applause. A soulful rendition of “Misty” followed featuring Conti’s effortless close-voiced chords peppered with blues lines and octaves, all of which could be described as ‘flying soul’. An anxious voice in the crowd called out, “Someone call the fire department!” Pisano’s solos, always fluid and wonderful, provided a perfect contrast.
“Green Dolphin Street” found Conti setting the groove with a pulsating bass motif. His sweet chordal melody gliding along the fretboard over eight strings is a wonder to behold – a connoisseur’s banquet of ear and eye candy. The bass and drums refrained temporarily, allowing Conti to play bass lines and luxurious chords to support Pisano’s solo work. Dave Carpenter is unquestionably one of the most in-demand bassists on the LA scene. His time is as solid as the rock of Gibraltar, and his solos have a smooth lyrical feel that always remain true to the melody. Throughout the evening Conti recognized his fellow players with audible acknowledgments. He ended his Dolphin Street solo with a thunderous figure from the lowest bass notes, then roaring up the entire length of the neck nearly five octaves at warp speed, actually bringing the audience out of their chairs and along for the ride.
For those purists who might be quick to vocally criticize, “all chops – no sensitivity”, I want to be very clear that it is what he does with those fleeting chops that is so unbelievable. He retains absolute authority as he shifts gears effortlessly from extremely complex yet melodic blow-the-roof-off single note lines to delicate, heartfelt chord melody solo work that simply sustains into memory. The harmonic range of Conti’s eight string chord voicings are mammoth.
His sound gives one the feeling of being gently wrapped in warm tonal blanket. Every member of the audience appeared spellbound by his exquisite and unique solo renditions of “What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life”, and beautiful variation on the melody of “The Shadow Of Your Smile.” I heard someone a few seats away comment jokingly that a guy from Palm Springs called Rocco’s to say he heard and felt the bottom end of Conti’s pumping bass lines during his solo rendition of “Mr. Lucky”.
During the performance Pisano commented, “What is it with these guys from Philadelphia? Just great players with great chops!” Amen brother. He went on to mention Jimmy Bruno, Billy Bean, and Conti’s childhood pal Pat Martino. Conti was quick to acknowledge Joe Sgro, his teacher during a brief period of his youth and another of Conti’s favorite Philly guitarists, Tony Purrone.
The set continued with “Samba De Orpheu”. The warm interpretation of the classic Luis Bonfa tune made one feel like being on a Caribbean island and feeling the burn of Conti’s sizzling hot solo instead of a tropical sun. Kay was given the floor and played a tasty solo and created a myriad of ethnic percussive rhythms. As Conti left the stage after the set, the audience swarmed him like bee’s to honey. The man was genuinely enthusiastic about meeting everyone who timidly approached him – definitely no attitude problem here.
At the opening of the second set, the eight string powerhouse was found alone playing renditions of “The More I See You”, “What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life”, and others. Huge chord voicings fueled by a swinging feel is the name of the game. This is where Conti lives. His eight string harmonic interpretations of these classic melodies can raise you to heavenly heights or place you into the darkest abyss. Either location will suffice as he expertly guides his solo caravan of music.
Returning to the stage, the quartet played a fleeting version of “I Remember April” that had the already enthusiastic listeners again at the edge of their seats. As expected, Conti was peeling paint off the walls, Kay was pushing the envelope, Carpenter was burning, and Pisano was melting wax. The two guitarists then began a friendly exchange of fours. This writer can only describe those events as intense musical flames being ignited between the senior guitarists. At that very moment you’d think his flawless abilities had peaked, Conti propelled into hyper speed, while clearly articulating every nuance of every note – an amazing feat to witness. Repeatedly, more heads shook in disbelief. The group returned to earth with Conti’s own soulful version of “What A Wonderful World”. The audience was than transported to the islands via Pisano’s intro groove for “One Note Samba” and once again the solos were beyond belief. Unpredictably, Conti somehow seamlessly segued the song into a wonderful take on “Angel Eyes”. The set ended with “Secret Love”. During the opening chorus, Conti laid down a cooking bass/chord accompaniment with Pisano stating the melody. When the bass and drums fell in, it was absolutely swinging – pure joy. The audience responded with such enthusiasm, it was as if they couldn’t wait to express their thanks for this very special and memorable night of music.
Conti’s performance at Rocco’s was a momentous event, as it marks the turning point for a fresh new voice, and a new dimension in the art of jazz guitar. This monumentally talented guitarist will continue to leave his unmistakable imprint on everyone who will allow themselves to accept and appreciate the man and his music.
Now that the smoke has cleared, it is plain to see that there’s a new sheriff in town, his name is Conti, and as the title of one of CD’s affirms, he’s Comin’ On Strong! ….Very Strong.