Interview JJG

Interview: Giuseppe Continenza

by Roy Patterson

Just Jazz Guitar


Pescara, Italy February 26, 2001

Roy Patterson: You travelled to the United States in 1990 to study at the Guitar Institute of Technology. What was your motivation for doing that?

Giuseppe Continenza: The main thing was my interest in playing jazz guitar. My father was a jazz guitar player and played in bands when he was younger, and there were jazz guitar records in the house; Django, Wes Montgomery.....so I always wanted to play music. I wanted to find someone who could teach me different things. Then I started to buy records by Joe Diorio and Ron Eschete, but when I saw an ad for the G.I.T., I told myself that I had to go there. For me, at the time, it was the only way to engage in a really good learning process.

RP: Who were your main teachers there?

GC: There was Joe Diorio, Don Mock, Ron Eschete, Scott Henderson, and Gary Willis, who was an amazing improvising teacher with some incredible ideas. But the main guy who really inspired me and opened me up was Joe Diorio.

RP: So he was your main mentor.

GC: Yes. The great thing about Joe was that he could play in any style and play very difficult things with a melodic contour. The other teachers were also amazing, but for me, Joe was the hippist thing there.

RP: When you came back from the United States, did you open the European Musician's Institute right away?

GC: Before I left Italy, I already had a small school in my house, but about a year after I came back I opened the EMI because there were a lot of requests for lessons. My dream was to teach people, in a modest way, how to become professional jazz guitar players. I was really in love with jazz. My commitment was to teach people to love jazz and play it with love, and not have it become some kind of mechanical thing.

RP: Do you see yourself carrying something back from the U.S.A., from Joe Diorio, and passing it along to your students at the EMI?

GC: Definitely. I got so much information from those guys at the GIT that when I came back I had to find some way of assimilating it into my own playing and some way of teaching it. Joe Diorio and Ron Eschete were very close to me, almost like fathers, and always had answers for my questions. They gave me a lot of good advice and really helped me a lot.
RP: I was impressed with the attitude of the students at the EMI. They were very serious, and I understand that they come from different parts of the country to study here.

GC: The nice thing about the students is that they are almost all devoted to jazz. Some come here without a jazz background, but after hearing some recordings, they really start loving the music. The culture at the school is inspiring too. When students hear someone else starting to sound good, they think, “Well, if they can do it maybe I can too.” Then they work that much harder. I have students from all over Italy, from Switzerland, and have even had inquiries from Japan.

RP: You have also performed here in Italy with a number of the people you studied with. I know that you played with Joe Diorio, to name one. Who are some of the others?

GC: Well, being on stage with Joe was a kind of a dream for me. It was a great experience. After that, I played with Paul Bollenback, John Stowell, Jeff Richmond and Gary Willis. I also played with Roy Patterson (laughs) who is also great, and I'm not saying that just because you are here in front of me. I invited you here because I really appreciate your music and your playing.
RP: Thanks Giuseppe. Did you also play with Gene Bertoncini?

GC: We did a concert at the school, which was very nice, but I hope we have a chance to play again because it's wonderful to play with him. One of the highlights of my life was a tour that I did with Bireli Lagrene. He is such a great player with such a strong Gypsy feel, it's just wonderful.
RP: When these people come to Pescara and do concerts with you, do they also play with the students at the school?

GC: Yes. That's the nice thing about the school. All of the students get to play with these great musicians, and it's like a kind of inoculation. Most of the students tell me that after having had the experience of playing with those famous guitarists they can play on stage much easier, with less nervousness.

RP: That's a great thing, and personally, I find it rewarding to play with the students as well. The great thing about playing with someone is that there is an exchange of energy, and something happens on an intuitive level that doesn't always happen when you are teaching a lesson.

GC: Yes, that's very important to me.

RP: Speaking of Bireli Lagrene and Gypsy jazz, you said something the other day that I thought was very interesting. You felt Europeans were starting to discover a kind of jazz guitar root here in Europe in the music of Django Reinhardt. Could you elaborate on that?

GC: I'm noticing that a lot of students are buying records by Django, and they get really excited by the music, even though the recording quality is often not very good. And there are other players now who have come out of that lineage, like Bireli, Jimmy Rosenberg and others. Of course there are great players in the U.S., Europe, Canada, all over the world, but to be European and not know about Django is kind of a loss, if you think about it. He was one of the greatest.

RP: This might sound a bit academic, but I'll ask it anyway. If we think of Wes Montgomery, for example, as coming forward stylistically from Charlie Christian, do you think that in Europe this Django root can progress as well? Some will say that it already has, but I would like to hear your comment on it.

GC: A number of the well–known European jazz guitar players are coming from the Django school of playing. The reason that they are not better–known is that their recordings are not always easy to find. Most people know the older swing records and Django records, but they don't know the newer ones by players like Jimmy Rosenberg, Stochelo Rosenberg and Angelo Debarre. There are really some fantastic players, with great time and phrasing, and they can play some modern stuff as well, like Bireli. I like all kinds of music, all kinds of jazz, but I think that it is good to recognize the root of something and then learn from it. And this is something that is part of European culture. But I also love Wes Montgomery, George Benson, Pat Martino, Hank Garland, Lenny Breau and many others; all great, like Jack Wilkins, Gene Bertoncini, Jimmy Bruno, Paul Bollenback, Ted Greene, and others.

RP: When you play with Bireli, is it always duo?

GC: So far it has been a duo project. We put everything inside it, like bebop, modern, Django style... and try to put it all together. It has been fun, and the audiences have really appreciated the interaction in the duo setting. It is really alive and not just something static.

RP: What is the direction for the school from this point in time?

GC: I like to keep the school as it is and not get too caught up in business. I like the culture at the school and I want to keep it as primarily a jazz school. There are about sixty students at the school, and three teachers, including myself. The program consists of ear training, music reading, harmony and theory. By the end of the program, the students have to be able to demonstrate that they can apply everything they have learned to their playing. Most of the students are guitar players, and there are about twenty–or–so bass players. So, there is not the time to really expand, and I want to maintain the quality and direction of the school as much as possible.

RP: And what about your performance projects for the future?

GC: I'm touring with my quartet in Italy, and there are some things with Bireli in May that will take us to a few different countries. I just finished my first recording with the quartet, which I'm hoping to get released on a label with some good distribution. I also write columns for three different Italian magazines: Guitar Club, Tuttochitarra and Jazzit.

RP: And, you have a new guitar.

GC: Yes. I endorse Buscarini, who is here in Italy and making some great jazz guitars. I also have a Gibson ES 175 and hope to get an L5 soon. I also have a very nice acoustic flat top guitar that I bought from Don Mock, made in the U.S. by Ronald Ho. I also endorse LaBella strings.

RP: It sounds like you have a full career.

GC: I have been lucky to have people around me who have been very helpful, who have given me good advice, and I've really grown from these experiences. I just want to help other people the way they have helped me. I've found all of you guys that come over to Pescara really sweet. You are great players but still very nice people, and the students really appreciate that.

RP: Music is not just about music, it's about life.

GC: Yeah, that's really true. If you play with someone that you feel good with as a person, that is the best.

RP: Thanks again for everything Giuseppe. I had a great time here in Pescara. Let's stay in touch.

GC: Definitely. Thanks.