Rediscovered Genius – Guitar World Magazine

By PETE WELDING

In the forties it was Charlie Christian; in the fifties Tal Farlow, Jimmy Raney, Johnny Smith and Barney Kessell ; the sixties were the time for Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, Grant Green and Jim Hall; the seventies John Mclaughlin, Larry Coryell and George Benson; most recently AI DiMeola, Earl Klugh and Pat Metheny have flashed into prominence. Every age, it seems, has its jazz guitar heroes-players who have shown us new ways, and occasionally some older ones as well, of using the instrument with exciting, imaginative, resourceful creativity, in turn influencing those who have followed and in some cases altering the course of the guitar’s development.

Florida-based Bob Conti, at thirty-five already a twenty-year music veteran, is a new guitarist on the national scene who may soon join this illustrious company. He plays with the driving intensity and rhythmic vigor of the early Farlow, has a mastery of harmony and melodic construction equal to Raney’s, interprets ballads with something of Smith’s creamy suavity, and can negotiate difficult bebop changes with the creative fire of Joe Pass. In short, he has the chops to draw literally anything from the guitar, but beyond this he is a composer of singular gifts whose music ranges from classic styled bop to lament-like ballads of the sort the late Duke Ellington used to grace popular music with, as well as original compositions that sound like nothing else. Conti was born in 1945 in the same section of South Philadelphia that over the years has produced a number of gifted players of stringed instruments, from Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang up to Pat Martino.

Conti had taken up the instrument at age twelve, and studied privately with Joe Sgro, a highly regarded local guitarist and teacher. Beyond this brief early instruction, however, Conti is completely self taught. He turned professional at fourteen, and for the next two years worked with a number of commercial rock and roll groups in the Philadelphia area. At an age when most of his peers were dealing with acne, dating and other problems of adolescence, he was fully involved with music as a profession, often earning hundreds of dollars. At sixteen, he left home and spent the next half-dozen years touring the country with shows and revues, playing all sorts of jobs. It was a grueling, demanding apprenticeship but he learned a great deal from it.

In 1966, having tired of road life, he settled in Neptune Beach, near Jacksonville, Fla., where he has lived since. “In some respects it was the worst thing I could have done,” he notes wryly. “While it’s a wonderful place to live and raise a family [he and his wife have two children], it’s absolutely dead musically. There’s no-repeat no-musical scene here at all. Jazz acts on tour pass right by the place.” For the next five years, Conti supported himself by teaching, which he enjoyed, but from 1971 to early ’76 he gave up all musical activity and involved himself in the securities and commodities exchanges, at which he was quite successful. “It almost killed me, though,” he observed. “The pressure was unbelievable, and finally I just had to return to music. But for those six years I never once touched the guitar.” Since then he’s returned to teaching, played whatever engagements have come his way. During the last year he was featured in three concerts with the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra.

More important still are the recordings Conti has been making over the last year or so for the Los Angeles jazz label Trend/Discovery Records through which word of this remarkable player has been carried far beyond the precincts of Neptune Beach. Latin Love Affair, a frankly commercial album of Disco flavored Latin music, was succeeded by the much more impressive Solo Guitar, a beautifully realized program of lovely unaccompanied ballad performances, notable for Conti‘s unerring technical command and enriching harmonic savvy. Easy listening music in the very best sense of the term. Scattered through both sets were intimations of his striking abilities as a jazz guitarist-a brilliantly played passage here, a dazzling arpeggio there – but it remained for his third album to show just how truly formidable and original a player Conti is.

This recording, Robert Conti and The Jazz Quintet, on Discovery Records, is a guitaristic tour-de-force. Most immediately striking is the blinding speed of the man’s playing on such pieces as “Rotation,” an arresting original line based on “Cherokee;” “The Street Life Of South Philadelphia,” which boasts, it seems, a tumbling flood of invention; “Hollywood And Sunset” and his interesting “I Got Rhythm” variant, the aptly titled “String Fever,” feverish and then some! On these, Conti plays like a man possessed, spinning out fleet, long-lined improvisations charged with bristling excitement, great resources of imagination and a supple, driving momentum. In their machine-gun rush of invention and easy-sounding dexterity of articulation they recall Farlow’s and Smith’s fluent mastery in this area. But Conti’s facility, impressive as it is, is always directed by unerring musicianship and a deep knowledge of harmony and melodic construction that give his quicksilver lines plenty of solid musical interest. They’re real improvisations that grow naturally and logically from his themes. We simply haven’t heard guitar playing this good in years. Make no mistake-Conti’s a monster, who’s got it all covered.

But he’s got a lot more going for him than mere speed. Pyrotechnics aside, Conti ‘s abilities as a composer of strong, memorable melodies are indicated in the more reflective ballads he’s written for the set, particularly in a pair of selections composed in memory of his deceased father. “The Agony of Ecstasy,” which features the atmospheric soprano saxophone of Herman Riley, originally was titled “October 5, 1979.” “That’s the day I lost my father,” the guitarist noted, “and the mood of the piece is very reflective of the feelings I was experiencing, on returning to Philadelphia under such circumstances.” Even more touching is the beautifully etched ”In Memory Of” which Conti selflessly turned over to pianist Mike Wofford to play as an unaccompanied solo – ”He plays so beautifully,” Conti explained – a gesture that says volumes about his total commitment to music.

The album is an auspicious, virtually perfect jazz debut by a performer who gives every indication of developing into one of the major players of the instrument. Not only does it demonstrate Conti’s already formidable guitarist technique but its anchoring achievements in composition and arranging reveal a performer of singular musical promise. In fact, Conti ‘s greatest satisfaction in undertaking the recording, he says, stemmed not so much from his playing but from the opportunity of writing a full LP’s worth of original music, for composing increasingly has engaged his attention in recent years.

There’s a footnote to this story: were it not for the big ears of Albert Marx, the septuagenarian owner-operator of Trend/Discovery Records and a lifelong jazz fan, we might not have had the opportunity of hearing this marvelous guitarist. Reading in one of the music trade journals of Marx’s reactivation of Discovery Records (which he had operated in the late forties and early fifties, following his earlier activities with the Musicraft label), Conti sent Marx a tape of his guitar playing over the backing of an otherwise undistinguished album of Latin music. Like any other record executive Marx receives countless unsolicited tapes through the mail, but unlike most, he eventually listens to all of them. When he got to Conti’s tape, he was, as he says, absolutely staggered by the facility, inventiveness and power of his playing and quickly arranged for Conti to come to Los Angeles to discuss the possibility of his recording for Discovery. The immediate results were Latin Love Affair, the even more impressive Solo Guitar – recorded Direct-To-Disc, quite an achievement for one so new to recording-and finally, capping it all off, the brilliant, exciting, thoroughly original Robert Conti and the Jazz Quintet. With it, a new jazz guitar star has arrived.